The Desert Castles of Jordan; a Travel Guide to Umayyad and Medieval Architecture
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
LINK TO MY JORDAN TRAVEL GUIDES
- Jordan's History in Photographs - A Greensleeves Pag...
Jordan is a small country which has been shaped by a diverse range of different societies. This page gives a brief overview of the historic timeline of Jordan from prehistory to the 20th century.
- Petra, Jordan; a Travel Guide - A Greensleeves Page
Petra in Jordan is unique. It is a vast accumulation of tombs and other buildings mostly carved out of sandstone; sandstone which earned that most famous and romantic of epithets for Petra as the rose-red city, half as old as time'.
TO ACCESS ALL MY TRAVEL PAGES ...
- My Travel Pages and Travel Guide Links - A Greensleeves Site
It's a common saying - travel broadens the mind - but it's so true. Travel also provides some of the greatest experiences one can have in life. This page is the home page of my travel articles.