Jordan’s Desert Castles

The black asphalt road that runs towards Iraq and Saudi Arabia through Jordan’s Eastern Desert, sags under the heavy bellies of the trucks that rumble over it. Every passing kilometre is replaced by another one stretching in ever widening arcs towards the shifting horizon. The monotony of the harra or gravel plains, is only broken at times by the soft curves of far-off hills or intruding power lines, otherwise the landscape remains stark, desolate, and barren.

Not far from the road, the imposing bulk of Qasr Kharana (Harrana) rises majestically from the treeless landscape and as I enter through its solitary entrance in the southern wall, I imagine it teeming with the sounds and smells of life, now replaced by the soft whistle of the wind, and a faint smell of dust clinging to the stones. With a square floor plan it stretches 35m in each direction, giving it a solid, simple form, its history and origins are shrouded in mystery and speculation. Although scholars are in disagreement with one another, one widely accepted explanation postulates that it used to be a khan (caravanserai) or inn, which would make it the earliest known khan of the Islamic Period. Although an Arabic inscription, dating from November 710 AD, during the reign of the Umayyad caliph al-Walid ibn ‘Abd al-Malik that was found above one of the doorways on the second floor, gives it a solid place in time, it only hints at when it was actually built.

The round buttresses on the four corners, and semi-circular ones in the centre of the walls, break the monotony of the otherwise straight lines, while a thin strip of diagonally laid stones, running around the upper, outer edge, gives it the appearance of a piece of lace carefully wrapped around a parcel. More delicate decorations are to be found inside this lovingly restored building, particularly in the shadowy rooms of the upper floor, where stucco discs with patterns of stylised plants allude to contact with the art of Iraq or Mesopotamia, and where the narrow slits in the walls, allow for ventilation and light to seep into the rooms.

The stone steps leading down the south-eastern and south-western corners into the courtyard are worn shiny and smooth from all the feet that passed here before me. I stop to stare at the landscape disappearing in a haze across the horizon, framed by the doorway, and imagine what a marvellous site this building must have been to the weary travellers passing through this flat and featureless land.

The landscape’s palette of colours swirl and change from the softest cream to the palest caramel to a rich, dark coffee brown, but as we near Azraq it turns black with the basalt rock that dots the wide open expanse of nothingness. The prolific presence of these rocks made it an obvious choice for the construction of Qasr al-Azraq, giving it a strong, masculine look suitable for a base from which to launch a military offensive. First used by the Romans in around 300 AD, it was from here that TE Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia fame, and Sharif Hussein bin Ali based themselves during the freezing winter months of 1917-18 during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, and as my footsteps echo all alone through the rubble, I imagine the whispering voices of the soldiers who were stationed here, laying their plans.

Completely surrounded and engulfed by the sad-looking town of North Azraq, this once imposing fort now lay empty and dishevelled under the white glare of the sun. Little is known about its origin, though, and hardly any renovation or excavation has taken place since it was almost completely destroyed in 1927 by a violent earthquake. Used by both the Byzantines and Umayyads, its present-day form dates from the early 13th century when the Ayyubids redesigned and fortified it. The main entrance, consisting of a single hinged slab of granite, looks immovable, but the use of palm tree oil, I am told by the lonely guide at the entrance, made it easy for doors like these to slide open and close.

The strategic importance and value of this settlement has always been the fact that it is located in the middle of Azraq oasis, the only permanent source of fresh water in about 12,000 square kilometres.

At Qusayr Amra I encounter a small group of travellers delighting in the charms of this small site, where noisy trucks trundle past. They listen intently to their guides, smile and chatter excitedly, and take a couple of photographs, before moving on. Despite its size, it is beautifully restored, and with architectural curves reminding me of the curvy shapes of a woman’s body.

In ancient times a lush wadi, famed for its wild pistachio trees, bordered the site that used to be part of a much bigger complex consisting of a caravanserai, audience hall, bathhouse and hunting lodge. Commissioned by Walid ibn Yahzid, and built between 723 and 743 AD, it is the best preserved of all the Umayyad buildings in the area. Inside it is decorated with extraordinary and unique murals that allow for a glimpse into a society’s transition from the Byzantine to the early Islamic era, and it is for these that visitors flock to the site, especially seen in the light of Islam forbidding the depiction of all living beings. From the murals one cannot help, but infer that it was a place that catered for physical pleasures, as it contains such a bounty of hedonistic images: wine, hunting and naked women.

As we shoulder our way through the dense traffic of the industrial area bordering Queen Alia International Airport on our way to Qasr al-Mushatta, I once more marvel at how everyday life here exists and functions right next to ruins and historical sites, as if they were built yesterday. Walid ibn Yahzid, builder of Qusyar Amra, also commissioned this palace, but sadly, building work was never completed, and came to a grinding halt when he was assassinated in 743 AD.

Centuries of dust has discoloured the once gleaming limestone, and although destroyed in the 9th century by an earthquake, what remains still give the visitor a sense of the size and grandeur that were envisioned. While the main façade retains some of the rich detail that used to be part of the structure, most of the decorative pieces have been moved to various museums, including the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Intended as a lavish environment for the caliph to hold audiences and conduct high-level meetings, the living quarters for him and his entourage included toilets incorporated in niches in the northern towers.

Our final stop for the day is on the other side of the Desert Highway, not far from the turn-off to the airport, at the ruins of Qasr al-Qastal. They are ignored by most and are quietly crumbling away. Not much is left of this once stately Umayyad palace, and it only warrants a small chunk of time, but it is interesting to pay attention to the graves in the old Islamic cemetery nearby, said to be the oldest in Jordan, as they face towards Jerusalem, instead of Mecca.

Visited:  August 2015

Notes:

Entrance Fees: JD 1 for a combined ticket valid for Qasr Kharana, al-Azraq and Amra. The other two castles are free to visit.

# Not many people visit this part of Jordan, and if you enjoy the sensation of being alone amidst ruins, it is definitely worth planning a day trip around these castles. Qusayr Amra is the only one which I shared with other travellers.

# Qasr – Castle;  Qusayr – Little castle

Other desert castles worth visiting if you have time: Qasr al-Hallabat; Hammam as-Sarah; Qasr ‘Ain es-Sil; Qasr Aseikhin; Qasr Deir al-Khaf; Qasr Mushash; Qasr al-Muwaqqar; Qasr al-Tuba; Qasr ‘Uweinid; Qasr Burqu

## During my trip in Jordan I made use of a wonderful driver, who was conscientious and careful, and made me feel completely safe and comfortable. You can get hold of Adnan through the Mariam Hotel in Madaba.

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