“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she.
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
- Excerpt from 'The New Colossus' (1883), by Emma Lazarus (American poet, 1849-1887)
As a tourist I was often reminded by my guidebooks about the Christian holy sites in Jordan: there is the river where Jesus was baptised; or the hill where God showed Moses the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’. Jordan itself formed part of the Biblical Promised Land. But in modern times, Jordan seemed more like the place where they banished those forsaken by God. In our own time, we have heard about the plights of the Syrians and Iraqis, who make up for at least 30% of Jordan’s population today.
By the turn of the 20th century it was the Promised Land of yet another people: the Armenians who faced a genocide went on their ‘death march’ to here, and perhaps the least remembered were the North Caucasians who were facing a genocide a thousand miles away. Back then the poor arable land in today’s southern Syria and northern Jordan was the least populated areas within the country, making it an ideal place for the Ottomans to implant the unwanted people who would help to develop this stretch of empire backwater.
I had taken the bus to Zarqa, 15 miles northeast of the capital Amman. The uninspiring industrial town is today slowly becoming part of the sprawling capital. There is not much that catches the eye here. The only local inhabitant who had ever made it to international spotlight was reportedly a quiet but uncompromising young man here. Later in his life, this high school dropout, and later petty criminal would form a militant group called Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. This would gradually evolve into the ISIS as we know it.
But I didn’t come here to follow the story of a world renowned terrorist. I have come to find a people who are now part of Jordan’s fascinating multi-ethnic population, a people whose homeland in the snowy mountains I have visited – but yet I would never thought about meeting again in the semi-desert towns of Jordan.
Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, is the mandatory religious duty a Muslim must perform at least once in their lifetime. For centuries, the Attabukiyah, the 1,300 km long Syrian Hajj Road linking Damascus to Mecca was the main thoroughfare.
In the old days Hajj didn’t only have a religious implication; it also expanded the possibilities of science, commerce and politics in the Islamic world. Hajj pilgrims would have carried with them the exotic goods from home to pay their way, others bore the latest concepts and ideas - the essentials of the intellectual life of the Islamic World. This would in turn inspire Muslim advances in mathematics, optics, astronomy, navigation, transportation, geography, education, medicine, finance, culture and even politics.
The Attabukiyah was by and large Arabia’s own ‘Silk Road’.
'Pilgrims going to Mecca' (1861) by French painter Léon Belly (1827-1877). It depicts the column of pilgrims' caravan on Hajj towards Mecca. Notice the different clothings, including a pilgrim in his white Chokha, the long cloak with front-breasted pockets for bullets, native to the Caucasian mountains.
In the 16th century, Arabia became part of the Ottoman Empire’s possession, and so did the organisation of Hajj. Under the leadership of the Emir al-Hajj, the ‘Commander of the Pilgrims’, caravan of Muslim pilgrims once stretched across miles of hostile desert, following the very road that Mohammed would have used in his early years as a merchant.
Back then, to have earned the honorific title ‘Haji’, meaning someone who has successfully completed their Hajj, was not an easy task. This stretch of desert was notorious for Bedouin raiding and was extremely dangerous. In response the Ottomans constructed a series of Hajj forts along the way, protecting the pilgrims and traders on their long journey to the Holy Cities.
'Would you like to travel to Arabia?' asked Professor Kastner.
'Why not,' replied Niebuhr, 'if someone defrayed the expense?'
- Between Carsten Niebuhr (18th century German explorer) - the sole survivor of the first scientific expedition to Arabia, and his professor at the Gottingen Academy.
I only knew I wanted to get to Jordan.
After a brief search online, the only affordable way was to fly to Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai and travel overland to Jordan. There is a reason why the flight to the Sinai was so cheap: an attack at a Sufi mosque rocked the town of Arish in Sinai a week before I booked my flight. Although the North Sinai had long been known for its lawlessness, attack of such scale was rare. With more than 200 dead and 100 injured, it was the deadliest attack in Egyptian history.
Despite the rock bottom ticket prices there were few tourists on-board my flight. Until a few years ago Russian tourists were still flocking to the Sinai for an affordable package holiday away from the cold winter at home. All that changed in 2015. In October a bomb exploded on the Metrojet Flight 9268, killing all 217 mostly-Russian passengers on-board. Around me today were mostly Egyptian migrants looking for a cheap way to get home.
Situated between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, the Sinai was where ancient Egyptians came to mine for copper and turquoise - much in contrast to its rather colourful modern history. In 1956, Britain and France invaded the Suez Canal at the Sinai in order to topple the Egyptian president and to halt his attempt at nationalising the canal. The subsequent failure had shown the world that Britain could no longer dictate their own interests in far-off places. It was here that Britain's role as a world superpower came to an end - but it wouldn't be the last time that Britain goes to war under a false pretence in Arabia.
A decade later, Israel would occupy the Sinai - a region three times the size of Israel itself. Wars would continue to haunt the peninsula for years to come, making it one of the deadliest frontiers in the world: in 1973, 1,200 tanks gathered here in what was to be one of the biggest tank battles in history. It was only in 1982 that fifteen years of Israeli occupation finally came to an end.
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I like to travel, and I like to find out about things so I have created this blog to share what I saw on my journeys.
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