'The inhabitants cultivate figs, pomegranates and plums in large quantities but they do not sow their fields. They purchase their wheat from Karak, which their women grind: and at the passage of the Hadj they sell the flour as well as the fruits to the pilgrims.’
- Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (Swiss traveller and orientalist, 1784-1817)
on Ma'an in his book 'Travels in Syria and Arabia Deserta' (1882)
A man came into my hotel room, uninvited, he sat down and turned on the TV. Not that I really mind anyway. I am in Ma'an, a deeply conservative but a closely knitted community situated in remote southern Jordan.
Ma’an has in recent years been known as a town of instability and unrest. With a high proportion of Bedouin tribes who might prefer tribal rules to national laws - Ma’anis were often being stereotyped as an uneducated people from the backwater of Jordan. This feeling of humiliation, coupled with economic distress and isolation from the national mainstream, Ma’an has for the past few decades become the launching pad of several nationwide riots.
To add to the humiliation, in recent years Ma’an has attracted international media’s attention as the ‘hotbed of extremism’. The signs are not entirely visible today, the ISIS flag hoisted at the traffic circle was long gone – but the moment I arrived at the bus station, the now defaced graffiti and slogan by ISIS sympathisers were all rather visible with a little attention.
It’s must be even more humiliating to the locals once you looked deeper into history. For centuries, Ma’an was a thriving oasis town and known as the 'Gateway of Arabia'. It was the major stop on the historical Syrian Hajj Road between Damascus to Mecca and Medina, Arabia's own Silk Road of pilgrimage and trade.
With enough imagination, you might even see why some had suggested Ma’an as the oasis of seventy palm trees where Moses passed by with the children of Israel on their way to God's Promised Land (Exdous 15:27).
If few remember Ma’an’s once glorious past, fewer must have remembered that Ma’an as the birth place of modern Jordan. I followed the dusty road out of town to the old railway station, and it was on the 21st November 1920 that the Hashemite prince Abdullah bin Hussein had arrived here.
In the years following WWI, the Hashemites, who dreamt of uniting Arabia under their wings, saw instead Arabia being carved up into colonies by their wartime allies Britain and France. A series of defeat at the hands of the Saudi in their Hejaz homeland meant they were about to be pushed out. Soon to be landless, they were desperate.
On the following day, Abdullah stood on the balcony above one of the station’s buildings and addressed the crowd here: he asked them to march onto Syria and to fight against the French occupation there in order to restore his family to the throne. Today much of the station lies under repair and renovation. Rooms are bare and empty. There were the occasional local school groups visiting, and almost no foreign visitors.
Abdullah would have known however, that the entourage of tribesmen he had rallied - some sources say 300, others 2,000, would have been no match against the modernised French army. This rally however, had its desired effect and alarmed the British. The Arabs and the British, who had once joint forces here to attack the Ottoman garrison below now found themselves squabbling over the war spoils. The Ottoman trenches around the station must have still looked as if the garrison had only just left yesterday.
The British, under pressure from the French but unwilling to use force to dislodge their former allies, came up with a proposal: Abdullah would promise not to trouble the French, and in return Winston Churchill, then Secretary of the Colonies, would create for him the Emirate of Transjordan – a ‘consolation prize’ for their wartime allies.
Transjordan was chosen by the British because it was the most impoverished region and had little value. Unlike Syria or Iraq, there were almost no roads, no trade nor oil or any kind of natural resources, and certainly contained none of the great historical and cultural cities such as Damascus or Baghdad. Considering its humble founding, no one at the time would have possibly foresee that it was desolate Jordan which would survive the whirling chaos as it has done for the past decades.
But Abdullah was temporarily satisfied with this Arabian backwater. Jordan was, after all, not the tiny Arab kingdom he had intended for his descendants to inherit. It was merely a starting point for him to reclaim Bilad al-Sham, the 'Greater Syria' region encompassing neighbouring Syria and Palestine. He made no secrets about his territorial ambitions, and in 1950 he would annex the West Bank in modern day Palestine.
Meanwhile, British involvement would make its mark via the creation of one of the most remarkable borders in the Middle East. The oddly shaped border of Jordan is nicknamed ‘Winston’s Hiccup’, the story goes that Winston Churchill created the border of Jordan ‘with the stroke of a pen, one Sunday afternoon in Cairo’. Known for his fondness for a tipple, the bizarre zig-zag shaped nature of the border was rumoured to be the result of one too many drinks.
But in truth the result was just pure British Imperial ambition: since all three entities in the region – Iraq, Jordan and Palestine were under a British mandate, the Eastern Desert of Jordan (which sticks out like a panhandle and creates the acute angles) would allow the British to have a ‘land bridge’ stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Moreover, this would also allow the British to dissect and control the Syrian Hajj road – the vital highway of pilgrimage, communication and trade. Once the map was hastily drawn, modern Jordan was swiftly born.
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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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