More Jordan links
The Desert Castles, not to be confused with the Crusader Castles, lie east of Amman, towards Iraq. No public transport goes to most of them, and to get there you need a car or a taxi. You can see the FAQ page for some advice on how to go about this.
Many of these castles are little but ruins, or heaps of stone, and it is difficult for me to recommend them as a site to visit. Even the more interesting of them can be seen in an hour or less, but with the transport time taken into account, you would need a complete day to visit even three or four of them. There is a map showing where they are if you would like to check this.
Unless you are in Jordan for more than a week and/or have your own transport, I suggest you put this on the list of sites to visit "when you have more time".
Various theories have been put forward about the original purpose of these buildings. The favourite is that these were "weekend cottages" or hunting lodges for the Omayed rulers. It is also possible that they were "show the flag" lodgings for judges or high functionaries on progress, or that they were intended to protect or guard the main north-south route from Damascus to Mecca. Looking at the architecture, one has the impression that some were one thing, and that others were another!
Qasr Amra is a bath-house, and is built in Wadi Butm which was full of water in the spring. You can see the wall that was built to protect the bath-house from the floods. Water was drawn from the wadi from a depth of 25m with the aid of a hydraulic pump (yes indeed!) driven by animal power, surely an ox or a donkey. This was the purpose of the circle that you see just below the main building of the photo. A garden surrounded the bathouse.
Qasr Amra is not the best known of the Desert Castles, but it is the one that most people like the best. It is small and intimate, with the remains of most beautiful frescoes covering the walls. It is on the list of UNESCO's World Heritage sites.
It is believed that it was built between 711 and 715 by one of the Omayyed caliphs, who had also built the great mosque bearing their name in Damascus and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. These great buildings were ornamented with gorgeous mosaics: in contrast, the bath-house, the private retreat of the caliphs, was decorated with frescoes of luxurious flowers and fruit, naked musicians, hunting scenes and some of the scenes of their conquest of neighbouring lands.
The entrance leads directly into the main hall which is divided into three aisles as you can see in the photo on the left, which shows the ceilings and their mosaics. The doorway is in the central aisle on the right. The rooms opposite the doorway are thought to have been reserved for the caliph, while the baths are on the top of the photo, to the right hand side of the doorway.
This reconstruction was made by Claude Vibert-Guigue who has made a special study of the frescoes of Amra.
The ceiling of the main aisle is covered with frescoes showing everyday people at work, a carpenter, a metalworker, a baker, etc. The dome of the baths, probably the steam room is decorated with a map of the northern hemisphere sky, accompanied by signs of the zodiac.
The frescoes are badly faded and tarnished with age, and many are defaced by graffiti. A most interesting reconstruction has been made by Professor Vibert-Guigue, showing some of them in what were probably the colours of their origin - the result is startling!
f you can imagine the entire interior decorated in colours like this, you can see the effect that they must have had on tired riders coming in from the outside.
Azraq is generally known as "the castle which Lawrence of Arabia visited" and indeed he did, spending probably nearly three weeks here altogether, when he was negotiating with the Ruwallah bedouin tribe in whose territory Azraq lies (see the page on Lawrence of Arabia). It was here especially that he planned the assault on Deraa which led to the entry into Damascus. The caretaker is delighted to show you the room that he slept in above the gateway. Incidentally the guardianship of Azraq seems to have become a hereditary post - this is the third generation to act as keepers of the castle!
Close to the main road and surrounded by modern apartment buildings, Azraq has little of the romantic about it, and the blue lake described by Lawrence, has - alas - disappeared.
Azraq was originally built as a Roman fortress and restored by the Caliphs in 1237. It was at this time that the mosque (shown in the right hand photo) was built in the courtyard, placed crossways because of the necessity of facing Mecca. Leading off the courtyard are doors to the dining hall and to the kitchens. There are also stables for horses.
A legacy of the Romans is the great basalt doors, still swinging on their hinges. The main door is one solid slab of stone, and the west tower also has one of these massive portals. In the "Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence described the whole of the west wall trembling as the door there was slammed shut for the night.
The most impressive of the Desert Castles, and the only one that can truly be described as a "castle", Kharaneh stands out as you approach on the main road from Amman to Azraq (and to Iraq) and about half way between the two towns. It has been suggested that Kharaneh was a meeting place, both for Omayyad rulers to meet with local chiefs and for the local tribes to meet together. It has no cisterns or water supply that has been found, so could not have been in regular use.
Hallabat is probably the most ruinous of the Desert Castles. Originally a Roman fort was built on this small hill, you see here the stones of black basalt.
It was restored by the Omayyads (those indefatigable builders) in the eighth century and some beautiful mosaics were laid down, some fragments of which are still to be seen in the rooms off the courtyard. This was another pleasure palace.
The mosque that you see above was added at the same time. The arch above the window is quite beautiful and you can see reproductions of it in many books on Jordan.
Qasr Hammam as Sarah
Qasr Hammam as Sarah is about three kms from Qasr Hallabat. This is another bath-house but without the frescoes which make Amra so special. It was probably built originally for the soldiers (or the officers) stationed at the fort at Hallabat.
Ihis building was probably intended as a caravanserai, but was never finished. Unusually it is made of bricks rather than stone. To get here, you need an adventurous spirit, a 4x4 for the 35kms of dirt track and a knowledgeable guide, either from the local community or from the university at Amman. You have also a chance of finding somebody in Azraq to guide you here.
Qasr Tuba is very large, and was planned as being larger still, but only the northern half was completed.
Bird enthusiasts are likely to be attracted to Tuba, since it is close to the sole Jordanian nesting place of the very rare Houbara bustard, a flightless bird that is reputed to be able to outpace a Saluki hound.
Um al Jimal
Deep in the heart of the "black badia", and 120 kms from Amman lie the remains of the town of Um al Jimal. This is not strictly one of the "Desert Castles", but I have added it to this page for the sake of convenience.
The name "Um al Jimal" means "the Mother of Camels" and one is tempted to believe that it was an important commercial centre. But there is no real evidence for this: Um al Jimal was a village, and for a short time a Roman military outpost, that was abandoned in the ninth or tenth century, following plague, war, and finally a catastrophic earthquake. It is nevertheless in a remarkably good state of preservation, since the stones were never looted to use elsewhere as has been the case in so many other ancient towns.
It has been fairly thoroughly excavated as an example of an early town, but has no great monuments or temples. It is interesting to wander about there, but it can be extremely hot, the black basalt of the buildings and the surroundings doesn't help.
Um al Jimal is only 10kms from
the Syrian border. You can get there by a 30 minute bus ride from Mafraq.
©Ruth Caswell 2002