Nadia Saary heads east from the capital of Jordan, Amman, to discover the country’s famed desert castles.
It’s bleak as we head out on the highway from the bustling city of Amman. The city disappears along with its endless ribbons of development, to be replaced by a barren land of sand and basalt.
Wherever you look is desert or road. Dusty and busy with trucks rolling on to Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Highway 40 will never rank as one of the world’s great drives. Pylons line the road, carrying power to the settlements beyond, while the occasional cafe offers a break from the tedium.
It makes you wonder why anyone would choose to live out here, but they did. Remains of prehistoric peoples have been found in places, but it’s the Desert Castles that stand as lasting symbols of the human conquest of these barren lands. In truth, they’re not so much castles as palaces, hunting lodges, trading centres, caravan stations, baths, places of rest and recreation for travellers – the roadside cafes of their day.
Plan your travelHolidays and flights to Jordan are available with Kuoni, easyJet, Travelsphere, Intrepid Travel, British Airways, Royal Jordanian and They were built more than 1,200 years ago by the powerful Umayyad caliphs based in Damascus, before they were overthrown by the Abbasids of Baghdad. The castles stand testament to a time of distinguished early muslim art and architecture and are the survivors of what was probably a chain of such buildings across the region.
No-one is really sure whether they were palaces, forts or recreational retreats although it’s likely that over time they served all those purposes, surrounded by oases that provided water. I took a day for my tour but you can take more time over it if you want, staying at Azraq. There are also a few more castles, other than those below, that you can visit but you’ll need a good map or GPS and a 4WD to negotiate the terrain.
- A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Qasr Amra (pictured here and above) is among the best preserved and most intimate of the desert castles, famous for its colourful frescoes and mosaics. Built in the early years of the 8th century with its own water supply, a luxury bath house remains from the complex along with a deep well. It has three long halls with vaulted ceilings decorated with frescoes that are decidedly risque by muslim standards, including one of the caliph on his throne and others featuring other notable rulers of the known world. Animals are also represented. This is odd because Islam forbids the illustration of living beings. Some historians suggest that out in the desert, the caliphs felt free to ignore some of the basic tenets of their religion.
- The building has an audience chamber, which was probably used for meals and meetings, and the baths complex. The steam room has a fine fresco featuring a map of the heavens while other rooms have some notable mosaics.
Qasr al-Harraneh (Qasr Kharana)
- A few miles down the road near an unfortunate jumble of unsightly pylons is the restored Qasr al-Harraneh, which at first glance looks like a real castle. It’s certainly the most visually impressive of the tour’s historic sites.
- As you walk up to it, you’re presented with a squat, square building with corner towers and occasional arrow slits. At first glance it looks impregnable, defying any challengers. But many argue that it could never have been a proper fort – neither the corner towers nor the arrow slits could be used by soldiers to defend the building. Some historians argue that it was more likely a caravanserais or a place of retreat for rulers, others that it was a meeting place for the region’s VIPs. Greek inscriptions suggest it was built on the site of a Roman or Byzantine building in around 711. Take a walk inside and you can imagine that the rooms and courtyards would’ve been an attractive retreat from the harsh desert beyond.
- This castle (pictured) began life as a Roman fort, built during the reign of the Roman emperor Caracalla – who died in 217AD after a particularly blood-thirsty career. It was designed to defend the territory against raiding desert tribes but, by the seventh century, the building had become a monastery. The Umayyads then fortified and decorated it with frescoes and carvings, turning it into a fine residence.
- Today, there are remains of the palace and some humbler dwellings, a mosque, a reservoir, eight cisterns and a system of sluices to carry water.
- A few kilometres away are the remains of a bathing complex, Hammam as-Sarah, and the water channels that used to serve it.
- Most tour groups never make it to the palace of Qasr Mushatta, although it’s within shouting distance of Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport. Take your passport with you when you drive out there because you’ll need to show it at the military checkpoints in the area.
- Work began on the structure under Caliph Walid II in the middle of the 8th century, his plan being to build the biggest and best desert castle in the region along with a large city. Walid ended up being assassinated a few years later by some of his angry labourers, but some extensive ruins remain despite years of plundering and earthquakes. There are atmospheric remains of a mosque, a vaulted audience hall, toilets, pillars and carvings.
- While many of the desert castles reflect the oranges, yellows and browns of the desert landscape, the formidable Qasr al-Azraq is an intimidatingly black basalt fortress (pictured). Archaeologists reckon there’s been a castle on the site since about 300AD and the reign of the emperor Diocletian, but much of what we see today dates from the 13th century CE.
- In the 16th century the Ottoman Turks used it as an important military base and then, as the guides are keen to tell us, it was one of Lawrence of Arabia’s HQs during the Great Arab Revolt in 1917.
- The castle has several rooms to explore, a large courtyard, a small mosque, towers and a chamber apparently used by Lawrence as his room. Look out for the remains of a Roman board game carved into a stone. The entrance to the castle is through a huge, hinged slab of granite.
- The castle was built on a key trading route but has always benefited from the nearby wetland oasis. Today that wetland is a nature reserve with plentiful bird and other wildlife, popular with bird watchers. The town of Azraq itself is pretty basic and the area is sadly bedevilled by trucks thundering down the roads to Iraq, Saudi and elsewhere in Jordan. But it’s a handy stop if you want to make more of your visit to the eastern part of Jordan.
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