Azraq, whose name means ‘blue’, lies 80km east of Amman in a vast shallow basin surrounding an oasis. Here three deserts meet – black basalt in north and east Jordan, flint and limestone in the centre, and the sand of Wadi Sirhan, running into Saudi Arabia.
Many millions of years ago most of Jordan was under the sea; one million years ago the waters had receded, leaving a huge lake in the Azraq basin, which reduced further to create fertile plains and extensive marshes teeming with animals and birds. Today it is desert, with shrinking swamps and pools at its heart, and dying palm trees. This is a recent escalation, as water has been pumped in vast quantities to meet the ever increasing needs of a fast- growing population in a land with exiguous water resources.
Until recently Azraq was rich in migrating birds, en route between Europe and Africa -as the swamps diminished, so did the birds. However, Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) has created a wetlands reserve at Azraq Shishan (named after its 19th-century Chechen settlers), in a small area of the original marshes. A fraction of Azraq’s spring water is being diverted into pools beside a large Umayyad reservoir -and some birds are returning.
The RSCN also established the nearby Shaumari Reserve in 1967, the first wildlife reserve in Jordan; its greatest success is the re-introduction of the Arabian Oryx into its natural habitat.
Azraq’s abundant water made it an obvious stopping place on the Wadi Sirhan trade route, and a magnet for desert bedouins. It also attracted the Romans who, under Septimius Severus (AD 193-211), established here an eastern military outpost of the Province of Arabia. If that was the first phase of the castle at the centre of Azraq Druze, there is little to show for it, for it went through several later incarnations.
A stone-carved dedication to the co Emperors Diocletian and Maximian, dated to c. AD 300 may mark the beginning of the black basalt fort, whose huge stone doors still turn on their original hinges. Diocletian also built a road here, the Strata Diocletiana, linking Azraq to Damascus and Palmyra.
Azraq remained a military post throughout the Byzantine period, and in the 7th and 8th centuries the Umayyads came here to hunt. The fort may have been neglected after the Abbasids moved to Baghdad – according to an Arabic inscription over the main gate, the Ayyubid governor ‘Izz ad-Din Aybak rebuilt it in the early 13th century. The Ottomans garrisoned it after their conquest in 1516.
Azraqs most recent military use was in World War I, when I E. Lawrence stayed in the fort in the winter of 19 17-18, before the final assault on Damascus. A few years later some Syrian Druze moved to this northern part of Azraq, and here they remain.