The Desert Castles of Jordan; a Travel Guide to Umayyad and Medieval Architecture

INTRODUCTION

Deep in the heart of the Jordanian desert there is to be found a curious assortment of really ancient buildings, seemingly sprinkled in isolation without rhyme or reason. These are the so-called 'desert castles' of Jordan. The buildings do not share very much in common. For a start, they are not all castles. Some are defensive sites, but others are ceremonial meeting rooms, trading centres, or even bath houses. And some are of unknown function. As a group however, they do provide a glimpse into the culture of people who lived many hundreds of years ago. Some of the 'castles' are remote and inaccessible without four-wheel drive and good preparation, but several are easily reachable along the main highways from the capital Amman, or from the great tourist sites such as Petra, the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, and a visit to three or four of these makes for an interesting day trip into the history of this region.

On this page three of the very finest 'castles' will be featured, all of which are easy to visit. Brief mention will be made of some of the numerous other ruins in this desert region of Jordan, and where possible, links to photos of these sites have been included. Please also note that correct spelling of these sites in English seems vague and each 'castle' may be found under numerous alternative spellings (EG: Qasr al-Kharana may be found as Qasr Kharaneh or Qasr al-Harraneh)

All photos of the Desert Castles on this page were taken by the author.

 

Highway 40, which passes by several of the desert castles. In Jordan you are never far from the political hotspots of the world. It has been this way for more than 2000 years.
Highway 40, which passes by several of the desert castles. In Jordan you are never far from the political hotspots of the world. It has been this way for more than 2000 years.

HISTORICAL PERPECTIVE

The desert of Jordan extends far to the east of Amman into a wilderness surrounded by the nations of Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It is of course a sparsely populated area, but it hasn't always been quite so desolate as it seems today.

The Romans passed through this region 2000 years ago, constructing forts to protect their provincial border, and some relics of their time still remain. But it was a later wave of colonisers - the Umayyads - who left us most of the legacy of the desert castles we see today. The Umayyad Empire was the first great Muslim empire in the region founded on the city of Damascus in the 7th century AD. For purposes of trade, this region of Eastern Jordan had to be crossed, and trading posts, rest houses, and indeed defensive buildings, were constructed to facilitate travel here.

 

Qasr al-Kharana
Qasr al-Kharana
The courtyard of Qasr al-Kharana
The courtyard of Qasr al-Kharana
The rooms at Qasr al-Kharana
The rooms at Qasr al-Kharana
Inside one of the rooms at Qasr al-Kharana
Inside one of the rooms at Qasr al-Kharana

CASTLES ON HIGHWAY 40

Most of the best preserved desert castles can be found along Highway 40, the route southeast from Amman, which (if you follow it as far as you can) eventually leads either to Saudi Arabia via Highway 30, or Iraq, via Highway 10. The first of the 'castles' to be passed is Qasr al-Muwaqqar, a rest house just 18 miles from the capital; sadly very little remains today, except some of the broken walls of the building. Further east, and a short distance away from the highway, is Qasr al-Mushash. This is believed to have been a palace complex in its heyday, with multiple rooms around a central courtyard. Again, sadly this is a largely ruined 'castle'.


QASR AL-KHARANA

Qasr al-Kharana is the first intact site to be reached along Highway 40. Standing alone in a vast expanse of sand, Qasr al-Kharana makes for an extremely impressive sight when one considers its great age. This is one 'castle' which looks for all the world like a real fortress, though its true function remains unknown. It most probably would have been a resting house for travellers or meeting place for Bedouin nomads, but some archaeologists doubt this as the building seems to lack an adequate water supply and is somewhat away from the historic trade route through the desert.

Qasr al-Kharana was built in 711 AD, under the Umayyad caliph Walid I, and today is in remarkable condition for a building of this age, and a very good example of early Islamic architecture and design. Externally the building is composed of limestone blocks set in a mud-based mortar. There are turrets on each corner, but these are too small to have been defensive. There are also what appear to be arrow slits, but again these are too narrow for effective defence and were probably just for ventilation and light. Internally there is a small courtyard, surrounded by dozens of rooms set on two levels, which the visitor may walk around.

Now under the control of the Jordanian Ministry of Antiquities, there is a car park near to Qasr al-Kharana for tourists, and also a large, apparently authentically styled Bedouin tent in which visitors can buy souveniers or enjoy tea or soft drinks.

The Bath house of Qasr Amra
The Bath house of Qasr Amra
The well which supplied the bath house with water is 40m deep, and presumably oxen or cattle were used to raise the water
The well which supplied the bath house with water is 40m deep, and presumably oxen or cattle were used to raise the water
The decorated zodiacal dome of the bath house
The decorated zodiacal dome of the bath house
Detail of a labourer on the wall at Qasr Amri
Detail of a labourer on the wall at Qasr Amri

QASR AMRA

Twelve miles east of Qasr al-Kharana is another site which dates from the same era, but which could not be more different. This is Qasr Amra, and it certainly cannot be described as castle-like. The outer appearance of Qasr Amri is not very prepossessing - it's just a small, squarish limestone building with arched roofing and one large dome and a well. The well gives a clue to the building's main function; it was designed as a bath house. But function and external appearance are less than half the story at Qasr Amri, as this building is one of the most celebrated in the whole of Jordan - a designated World heritage Site.

The reason for Qasr Amri's status is apparent as soon as one passes through the entrance; the walls of this bathhouse are decorated with some of the finest examples of early Islamic frescoes to be seen anywhere in the Middle East. Three rooms within the bath house - a reception hall, an ante chamber, and the bath-room - are lined with images depicting all kinds of subjects, including Gods and Kings, labourers, dancers and bathing girls, animals and hunting scenes. On the dome of the bath room is a map of the astrological zodiac. The interesting aspect of this is that images of living beings (both animal and human) would be banned in later Islamic art, but were entirely acceptable during this early period of secular art.

Although some of the frescoes at Qasr Amri have faded or been defaced, a number have been preserved in good condition even after 1300 years, and the paintings make a brief stop at the bath house a rewarding visit.

A particularly fine wall decoration at the bath house of Qasr Amri is this camel, almost perfectly preserved 1,300 years after it was first painted.
A particularly fine wall decoration at the bath house of Qasr Amri is this camel, almost perfectly preserved 1,300 years after it was first painted.
Frescoes at Qasr Amri are unusual in their depiction of human figures. This image is of a female figure, probably a dancing girl. Such revealing images of human beings as these would be strictly forbidden in later Islamic art.
Frescoes at Qasr Amri are unusual in their depiction of human figures. This image is of a female figure, probably a dancing girl. Such revealing images of human beings as these would be strictly forbidden in later Islamic art.
The Bath house of Qasr Amri
The Bath house of Qasr Amri
The main courtyard and the outer wall of the Blue Fort at Qasr al-Azraq in the Jordanian desert
The main courtyard and the outer wall of the Blue Fort at Qasr al-Azraq in the Jordanian desert

MISCELLANEOUS TRADING POSTS & PALACES, BATH HOUSES AND FORTS

Much further south and much more remote than Qasr Amri, is Qasr Tuba, originally an important trading post or perhaps a meeting place for tribal leaders. The site actually covered a wide area and consisted of a number of buildings. However, Qasr Tuba was built by the deeply unpopular Caliph Wallid II, and the site was abandoned before it was completed when he was assassinated in 744 AD. Unfortunately, Qasr Tuba is several miles from the nearest road, and really requires a rough terrain vehicle and a guide. A similar site south of Amman at Qasr al-Mushatta, was also never completed after the death of Wallid II, but is quite impressive nonetheless. Nearby Qasr al-Qastal was a palace complex under the Umayyads. Although today much of this site today is ruined, one rather historic feature is a cemetary believed to be the oldest Muslim graveyard in Jordan.

Qasr Amri is not the only bath house among the desert castles. Another can be found 20 miles north on Highway 30. Qasr Hammam al-Sarah is of a similar construction and appearance, but it lacks the fine frescoes of Qasr Amri. Qasr Hammam al-Sarah would have probably served residents and visiting dignitories at the nearby fort of Qasr al-Hallabat. This fort is the first genuine castle or fortress on this page originally constructed by the Romans in the 3rd century AD, and then later modified and re-fortified by Umayyad arabs. Further north still from here is Highway 10, and close to this road and within 10 miles of the Syrian border is Qasr Dayr al-Kahf. This is another ancient fort, much ruined, but still with some walls and passageways intact.

The Blue Fort of Qasr al-Azraq
The Blue Fort of Qasr al-Azraq
This rock fragment contains a Roman inscription, which I understand to be the work of a soldier bemoaning the rise of Christianity in the region
This rock fragment contains a Roman inscription, which I understand to be the work of a soldier bemoaning the rise of Christianity in the region
The Great Gatehouse at the Blue Fort. Lawrence of Arabia lived in a room above this gatehouse during the First World War Arab / Turk conflict
The Great Gatehouse at the Blue Fort. Lawrence of Arabia lived in a room above this gatehouse during the First World War Arab / Turk conflict

QASR AL-AZRAQ

One final 'castle' awaits description, and it is the most impressive of those buildings which were actually designed as defensive fortifications. Travelling further east on Highway 40 from Qasr Amri, before turning north on Highway 5, the visitor will eventually arrive at Qasr al-Azraq. The origins of this site are among the most ancient of the desert castles, as a fortress was first built here by the armies of the Roman Emperor Diocletian c300 AD. The site was chosen due to the presence of a nearby oasis. The Roman fort was still in use when the Byzantines and then the Umayyads took control of Jordan, and made further developments, but it was the Mamaluke Islamic dynasty which extensively reconstructed the fort into its current form. This work was started in 1237 AD. The fort is built of local basalt, giving it the distinctive colour of its stonework, and the name by which Qasr al-Azraq is popularly known; this is the Blue Fort. Ottoman Turks occupied the fort in the 16th century, and remained here for many centuries, but then in 1917 the Blue Fort received its most famous resident when the legendary T.E Lawrence of Arabia moved in and made his base here for several months during the Arab revolt against the Turks. Sadly, extensive damage was caused by an earthquake in 1927, but the Blue Fort remains impressive to this day.

Qasr al-Azraq is entered through a massive three ton basalt door installed in the great gatehouse. This door is believed to date from Roman times, and some other relics of the first residents still remain inside. Around the central courtyard are the ruins of various buildings including a kitchen and store-rooms, stables for horses, and a small mosque.

The courtyard of Qasr al-Azraq, including a small mosque on the right. Although most of the fort is medieval in age, this mosque may date from the much older Umayyad period
The courtyard of Qasr al-Azraq, including a small mosque on the right. Although most of the fort is medieval in age, this mosque may date from the much older Umayyad period

CONCLUSION

The desert castles make for a very interesting excursion into the barren wastes of Jordan. They show a side of ancient life in the Middle East which is not widely seen elsewhere, and some show a state of preservation which is quite extraordinary considering their great age. These little gems of ancient history are therefore well worth a visit, from anyone holidaying in Jordan.

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PLEASE ADD COMMENTS IF YOU WILL. THANKS, ALUN 11 comments

Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanks Derdriu as always. It was nice to be able to see such an unusual collection of buildings, some from a period poorly represented elsewhere (the 7th and 8th centuries were the 'dark ages' in Europe from which comparatively little in the way of major or long lasting examples of architectural design survive). In fact, I wish I could have seen a few more of the buildings. Although long neglected, all of the better preserved buildings are now protected, so hopefully they will survive far into the future.

Lighting wasn't ideal in the bath house, though all the frescoes were clear to see. Some were a bit too dimly lit to be photographed without flash, but all those shown here were shot in natural light.

I appreciate very much your comments Derdriu.


Derdriu 5 years ago

Alun/Greensleeves Hubs: What a captivatingly clear and gorgeously photographed description of part of your holiday in Jordan! It is particularly helpful and useful the way in which you detail the accessibility of each desert castle in terms of route, terrain and transportation. It is amazing how photogenic the castles remain and how strongly the solid architecture persists despite centuries of neglect and, in the case of the Blue Fort, violent times. What was the lighting like within the bath house where you so expertly photographed the jubilant, revelatory frescoes?

Thank you for the interesting information and the pretty pictures, voted up, etc.,

Derdriu


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanks sweetie. It's certainly true that over the centuries many of the 'castles' were neglected, and sadly several of them now are just rubble and ruins. But for at least the past 50-60 years Jordan has been fairly stable and has begun to responsibly conserve its heritage. I think the best of the 'castles' should not decline further as conservation measures are now in place at many of the sites. Jordan recognises the value of tourism and also the importance of its history, so I think ancient monuments such as these will be preserved in the future.


sweetie1 profile image

sweetie1 5 years ago from India

Greensleeves, thanks for such a lovely hub. The castles look beautiful but i have a feeling if that their upkeep is not what it should be. Are all in good shape?


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thankyou for your comment Neil. Of course I agree about Jordan. For its small size, the country certainly has a lot of history. Hopefully during this month, I'll be publishing my third (and for the time being final) HubPage about Jordan, but that'll just be a simple historical timeline - a sort of resume of all the cultures which have inhabited the country.

Thanks to you Trish as well, for your comment.


Neil 5 years ago

Very interesting site, without doubt Jordan is a fascinating country


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands

Hi :)

Thank you ~ a great excursion, in words and pictures, to an area that I shall probably never visit!

Those frescoes are amazing!


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Hope when you read it, it lives up to expectations Trish!


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands

Great photos!

I shall bookmark this, for when I have more time, as it looks really interesting :)


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanks. Your comments are really appreciated. I think the greatest appeal of the desert castles is the sheer diversity of buildings of differing functions so close together, and many from a relatively little known period of history between the Roman era and the medieval era.


Duchess OBlunt 5 years ago

Wonderful! Thank you for sharing a side of the middle East I have never seen before. Great history here, and your photos are truly a great addition to the information you shared.

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