By Claudine Dauphin
The Desert is green! My arrival in Jordan on 13th April 2016 coincided with hail, strong winds, lashing rain and intense cold, turning the semi-arid desert immediately south of Amman into a green carpet (Fig. 1). Courtesy of global warming, three days later, it was full Summer and a ‘‘baptism by fire’’ at 38°C in the shade for my first day of fieldwork on the camps of the Darb al-Hajj al-Shami, the ‘‘Syrian’’ Pilgrimage route running from Damascus to Mecca and bisecting Jordan lengthwise.
Following the central ridge of Jordan, which was densely populated in Antiquity, the original ‘‘Mediaeval’’ road (7th-15th centuries) incorporated stretches of the Iron Age and Nabatean Kings’ Highway and of the Roman Via Nova Triana. It was replaced in the 16th century by the Ottoman route further east into the desert, with which the Hijaz Railway competed between 1900 and 1918 (Figs 2 and 3).
In 2014, I had followed the Ottoman Darb al-Hajj by taxi and on foot from Ramtha on the Syrian border southwards (425 kms or 264 miles), section by section between historically-attested stop-overs, whilst checking the changes in the landscapes pre-detected on geological and pedological maps, aerial photographs and Google Earth. This Spring, I put my steps into those of Ottoman pilgrims returning from Mecca, starting at the fort of Qala’at Mudawwara (Fig. 4) on the border with Saudi Arabia, thus reversing the order of the 12 stop-overs, and focused on the open-air encampments, which I had reconstructed on paper from the descriptions of 19th century travellers, J.L. Burckhardt and Ch. Doughty, Arab, Persian and Indian illuminated manuscripts and miniatures, and early photographs.
How is it possible to locate the bases of tents and hearths in a wilderness of sand and rocks? Setting information, culled, with an official permit, in the archives of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan (DAoJ) against RAF 1953 aerial photographs provided by the Royal Jordanian Geographic Centre, I applied British methods of Historic Landscape recording and interpretation (walking the entire area, detecting features thanks to slanting afternoon light, recording by GPS, measuring, drawing and photography). DAoJ surveyor Qutaiba al-Dasouqi and I plotted access from the main Hajj road or via secondary paths, determined the extent of each camp and defined its natural limits (wadi or terracing), recorded hearths, traces of tents, enclosures for the camels, donkeys, mules and horses of the Hajj caravan, which in its 16th-18th century heyday, comprised some 60,000 pilgrims and 80,000 camels.
Most exciting was recording al-Hasa: under a blazing sun, walking across the Ottoman bridge, along the Hajj road with its revetment of pebbles and flint (Fig. 5), and its drainage system, past the Ottoman fort and onto the pilgrim camp, measuring the circuit wall of an immense camel enclosure, picking out the faint outlines of octogonal and rectangular tents between artemisia bushes, with a cooking-hearth outside the entrance of each tent, gave me a real sense of Time abolished, a feeling of reaching out to the daily routine of 18th century pilgrims on the Darb al-Hajj. My greatest reward, however, was the discovery of the actual Hajj road (Fig. 6) running past Qala’at Daba, between the pilgrim encampment (also a First) and the modern tarmac road, and uphill towards Zizya.
In comparison, the camps of the Mediaeval Darb al-Hajj were more difficult to reconnoitre and delimit securely, the majority of them having been absorbed by sprawling urbanisation (Ramtha, Qasr Shabib in Zarka, al-Thaniyya now part of al-Karak, and Zizya), which has eradicated nearly all evidence of pilgrims’ resting places. It required a much greater leap of imagination to give physical substance to descriptions of the camps by Mediaeval Hajj pilgrims, such as the famous Ibn Battuta (Tangiers 1304-Morocco 1368-69 or 1377) who travelled on the ‘‘Syrian’’ Hajj road in 1326.
As dusk fell on the faint traces of the pilgrim camps, the ears of my imagination could still hear the clatter of the cooking and eating in front of the tents, the growling of camels and the neighing of horses, donkeys and mules, as they settled down to sleep before yet another gruelling day’s walk to the next stop-over on the road to Mecca.