The Desert Highway PDF Print E-mail
Written by Micah Key
Sign on the Desert Highway In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire had just taken over the Near East from the Mamlukes. Its sultans wanted to create a safe route upon which Muslims from the northern parts of their realm could make the pilgrimage to Mecca (haj).

The route was called the Tariq Al-Bint. "the way of the maiden," because, according to legend, an Ottoman princess preferred it to the older King's Highway. All along its 800-mile length from Damascus to Mecca, the Ottomans built small forts to guard water sources for the pilgrims. The best preserved is Qatrana (see the map below).

These Ottoman forts were by no means the first in the desert, however. The Romans had a series of them, protecting the Via Nova Traiana against marauders. They made up the so-called Limes Arabicus, the Arabian Line. On the southeastern frontier, where the forts were widely spaced, the Romans had help from their Thamudic allies.

One of these - the best preserved Roman fort in the Middle East - is Qasr Bshir, called Mobeni by the Romans, as we know from a Latin inscription over the entrance. It was built under Emperor Diocletian ca. 300 AD, when he reorganized the empire's eastern frontier. Bshir housed cavalry (there are remains of 69 mangers for horses). (For more, see here.) Below is an aerial shot, complete with the reservoir, which is still maintained and used today by the Bedouin. Note the small wadi through which runoff flows into the reservoir. The soldiers fetched the water from here to cisterns inside.

 Qasr Bshir and reservoir on the Desert Highway in Jordan

The desert route was difficult and dangerous even after the Ottoman improvements. Pilgrims often fell prey to thirst, heat exhaustion and bandits. In 1900, therefore, with the approval of the Ottoman sultan, construction began on what would come to be known as the Hejaz Railway. This continued an existing line from Istanbul to Damascus. It stayed close to the old Ottoman route, reaching as far south as Medina by 1908. (It had a side branch to Haifa as well.) The intention had been to reach Mecca, but the work was interrupted by World War I. Funded with donations from Muslims worldwide, it shortened the months-long pilgrimage to a matter of days, helping transform villages like Zarqa, Amman and Ma’an into thriving cities. It also had political and military functions, tying the distant Arab regions more closely to Istanbul. The construction cost the land many trees.

With the advent of World War I and the Great Arab Revolt led by T. E. Lawrence, the Hejaz Railway became a target. It was disrupted and destroyed by those seeking to dismantle Ottoman power. After the war, the railway never recovered, and only small sections are now in use. On one section, to which the Jordanian government added a branch, phosphates mined in the desert are hauled to Jordan's only port in Aqaba. Other sections are occasionally traveled by nostalgic tourists.

Some years ago the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan paved the Desert Highway, making it the fastest, most direct route from Amman to Aqaba. Crossing scenic landscapes, it boasts six lanes in places. Very little of historical value stands next to it, but the road itself serves as a connector to Jordan’s treasures, such as Karak, Petra, and Wadi Rum. It is not generally the first choice of those who wish to see antiquities: the sinuous King’s Highway better serves this purpose.

Note (S. Langfur): One Bible passage states that during their journey to Canaan, the Israelites approached Moab from the east. This would imply that they had journeyed northward on some ancient equivalent of the Desert Highway. Here is the text from Judges 11:18—

Then they went through the wilderness, and went around the land of Edom, and the land of Moab, and came by the east side of the land of Moab.

On the other hand, Numbers 21:11, Numbers 33:42 and Deuteronomy 1 and 2 all imply an approach to Moab from the Arava, that is, from the west. For a study of this question with satellite photos, please see our page on the journey from Egypt to Canaan.