Thursday 23 March 2023

Sandcastles and Stories


Eight strangers were clustered around the campfire of the distant caravanserai —silhouetted, ragged, and ripened by adventure. As the flames licked the darkness, sparks spitting up into the desert's nocturnal firmament, the traveller dressed in indigo cleared his throat and told his tale.

Opening lines from The Caravanserai Stories by Tahir Shah (Secretum Mundi Publishing Ltd)

 Leaving Amman, we join the old Hajj road that leads from Istanbul to Mecca.  It is now a tarmac road, smooth in places.  In the glory days of camel caravans travelling the Silk Roads, it would have been a foot-beaten path of sand cutting through the stony black and ochre surface of the Jordanian desert. Standing solidly in the desert, visible by its stark square shape rather than its colour is the Qasr al Kharaneh.  Its tall square walls with what seem to be arrow slits and its turrets make it look like a fort or castle (Arabic: Qasr). Al Kharaneh is not a fort designed to control an area; rather it is a place of safety and hospitality for pilgrims and travellers following the old silk roads and pilgrimage routes.  It is a caravanserai.

The Qasr’s only door is huge to allow horses and loaded camels into the open courtyard.  Around the courtyard, there are 61 rooms for weary travellers. There is little light from outside, only the narrow, arrow-slit windows.  Once in here, the traveller is safe from the desert.  The courtyard is open to the stars. Water is given, food and fodder provided and fires are lit. Travellers from all directions exchange goods, ideas and, above all, stories.  The great Berber traveller, Ibn Battuta would have stayed in caravanserais such as this one and his tales still survive.  A few decades later, Geoffrey Chaucer recorded the tales of pilgrims going to Canterbury told in the roadside inns of England.  The English and Arab travellers, had they ever met, would have recognised each other’s experiences.

Today, the Qasr al Kharaneh sits in empty desert. In its glory days, the climate was softer.  Well-irrigated fields and date palms would have surrounded it. Al Kharaneh would have been sociable and lively but the accommodation would have been simple to the point of stark. The next Qasr could not be more different.

Qasr al Amra also sits isolated in the desert.  It is on a smaller scale, more intimate.  It is less harshly square and even has a couple of domes.  I have seen domes like this before in Turkish baths (hammams).  Surely not here?  But that is exactly what it is. If you had been a merchant trekking for a couple of weeks across the desert with only a camel for a friend, you might have liked the idea of a good wash and a massage with scented oils in a hammam.  You would have been out of luck. Caravanserais were also places for Sultans to rest as they travelled their lands.  This one was probably built for the Umayyad caliph al-Walid I (705-715).  We could still see some of the frescoes of hunting and bathing scenes that border on the lascivious.

There are Qasrs like al Kharaneh scattered all over the Jordanian desert marking out old trade and pilgrimage routes. 

On one night among many over the centuries, the Sun has set and fires and braziers light the central courtyard.  Strangers sit round these fires with coffee and dates and water pipes. People start to tell stories of their recent travels, their experience of Mecca, and their trading successes. They share stories of merchants and places to avoid.

They tell new stories of Richard Coeur de Lion and Salah ad-Din.  They tell older, well-loved stories of Scheherazade garnered into Arab literature from ancient Sanskrit and Persian tales.  They tell Bronze Age stories from The Book; stories of Ibrahim and Ishmael and of Moses.

A traveller from the very furthest North of the known world tells a story of Lief Eriksson. The story is too outlandish to be believed. 

A traveller from Egypt relates the tale of Rhodopis.  She is a beautiful slave girl.  While washing her feet in the Nile, an eagle swoops and takes one of her shoes.  The eagle drops it into the lap of the King of Egypt, who is so entranced by the delicate shape of the shoe that he sends out his servants to find the woman whose foot fits it.  They find Rhodopis and she marries the King.

The stories drift up into the desert sky and join the literary heritage of the World.

I was travelling with the excellent Jules Verne Tours 

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