THE 10,000 year-old centre of Amman – modernised by the Makkan Sharif, King ‘Abdullah I, after the colonial dissection of the Middle East in 1917 – is Jordan’s bustling capital. Once straddling seven hills, it now encompasses more than 20 as its grey urban sprawl envelops the countryside.
It’s only when you travel out of Amman that you begin to appreciate Jordan. Sa’ud ibn Mahfoudh, a historian, says that Jordan has over 100,000 archaeological sites dating from the Bronze Age to the Islamic era.
On my first visit in 2000 I’d focused primarily on its vast Islamic heritage to research a series of programmes for Voice of the Cape. It had proved to be a fruitful trip, and after having travelled 1,600 kms, I’d left for South Africa drunk with information.
It has always amazed me that so many travellers use Jordan as a transit point. Twenty-thousand Companions of the Prophet (SAW) migrated to the region after his death, and many important historical events occurred there.
On my journey I’d visited the tombs of Prophetic Companions such Ja’fr ibn Talib, Zaid ibn Haritha, Ubaidah ibn Jarrah and Amir ibn Waqqas, and had been overwhelmed that I’d been able stand at their feet.
I’d travelled to Udruh where Abu Musa al-‘Ashari and ‘Amr ibn al-‘As had conducted the arbitration between Sayyidina ‘Ali (ra) and Mu’awiyyah over the Caliphate in 657 CE.
I’d trodden the very soil of the battle of Mut’ah. In this battle (fought in 632 CE) the Muslim army had been defeated by the Byzantines. The Prophet (SAW) had seen the martyrdom of Ja’fr ibn Talib and Zaid ibn Haritha in a vision. He had related that as Ja’fr ibn Talib’s arms were cut off, angelic wings had replaced them.
I’d also crossed the paths of numerous prophets. On a mountaintop overlooking Petra was the tomb of Musa’s (as) companion, Haroun (as), guarded by a crusty old Bedoiun with a dagger. In the village of Baida in one of the valleys below was the spring of Musa (as), from whose sweet waters I had drunk.
In Salt I discovered the tomb of Nabi Yush’a (the biblical Joshua). I visited shrines attributed to Nabi Shu’aib (the Biblical Jethro), the Hebrew prophet ‘Uzair (as) and Ayyub (as) as well as Jadur, the brother of Nabi Yusuf (as). Then there was Lut’s (as) cave on the shores of the Dead Sea.
Closer to ‘Amman I explored the site of the Ashab ul-Kahf (the Companions of the Cave) mentioned in the Qur’anic chapter, Surat ul-Kahf.
All these memories were stirred the other day when I watched a documentary entitled The Blessed Tree. This evocative production (produced in 2010) focuses on a tree near Safawi where the young Muhammad (SAW) met with Bahira the monk while travelling with his uncle, Abu Talib, to Syria.
This was to prove a critical historical event. Bahira would be the first holy man to identify Muhammad (SAW) as a prophet.
In 2000, my guide Nader Al-Abed and I had travelled to eastern Jordan on a tour of the desert castles. We had driven to Azraq, where we would loop back to Amman.
On a lonely drive we passed the turn-off to Safawi, which is near the Wadi Sirhan, a first century trade route from the Hijaz to Syria. It was along this Roman road that the Prophet (SAW) had journeyed. Nader had told me about this tree.
Unfortunately, our hectic schedule prevented us from making what would have had to be a lengthy detour into the desert to see the tree.
But traditions relate that this tree, which had shaded the Prophet (SAW), was where Abu Talib’s caravan had rested. Given the hostile terrain, it was truly astounding that a piece of vegetation could have survived for over 1,400 years.
Later, one of Nader’s friends the photographer Muhammad Salameh, had kindly shown me his pictures of the tree. One image that was particularly striking was a wide angle shot. It showed the desert in relation to the tree, the only one for hundreds of square kilometres.
Another image that we studied showed that the tree, a western Atlantic pistachio or Buttum, had a single trunk with seven side branches. Was this divine symbolism? We didn’t know.
What we did know, however, as we poured over texts was a possibility that this tree was an authentic relic of the Prophetic era. Everything pointed to it, and if it hadn’t been Bahira who recognised Muhammad (SAW), it could have been Waraqah – another Christian monk mentioned in traditions.
I was totally taken aback when I first viewed The Blessed Tree. Nobody (understandably) had taken Nader and me that seriously all those years ago, but here was a full length documentary on it!
In The Blessed Tree Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad relates that on his return from studying at Cambridge his late uncle, King Hussein, had put him to work in the Royal Archives. It was there that researchers had discovered numerous references to the tree, and a forgotten inventory made by King Abdullah I of the holy sites in Jordan.
The Prince had inspected the tree regularly. In 2007 he had visited it together with Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri (a rector of Dar ul-Mustafa in Yemen) and Shaikh Ahmad Hassoun (the chief Mufti of Syria). These men had sat under the tree and made du’ah that they be shown the spiritual truth.
A few days after the event, Shaikh Hassoun had written to Prince Ghazi saying he’d had a dream in which he’d seen someone who appeared to be a hermit about 100 metres away from him. This person had said “peace be to you, O Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullah”.
Shaikh Hassoun had then continued: “…someone whose visage I could not make out was a halo of light under this tree.”
After saying that he had witnessed pious beings – whom he considered to be saints – visiting the figure, he had dipped his hand into a nearby spring to drink when he’d been awoken for the tahajjud prayers.
Prince Ghazi had commented that it was under this very tree that Muhammad (SAW) was recognised as a prophet and that it had borne witness to the Prophet (SAW) who himself was a witness of God.
“That tree is alive, and it’s still there (in the desert)…it’s the only Sahabi, the only remaining terrestrial witness to God’s Messenger (SAW),” he said.