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Desert castles

Where to go in Jordan Desert castles

Today it is possible to see many relics of the early and medieval Islamic periods in Jordan. Dotted throughout the steppe-like terrain of eastern Jordan and the central hills are numerous historic ruins, including castles, forts, towers, baths, caravan inns and fortified palaces. Known collectively as the desert castles or desert palaces, they were originally part of a chain stretching from north of Damascus down to Khirbet al-Mafjar, near Ariha (or Jericho).

Qasr al-Hallabat

Qasr al-Hallabat is located just off the main road about 30 kilometers east into the desert from Zarqa. It was originally a Roman fort built during the reign of Caracalla (198-217 CE) to defend against raiding desert tribes. 
 

There is evidence that before Caracalla, Trajan had established a post there on the remains of a Nabatean settlement. During the seventh century CE, the site became a monastery, and the Umayyads then fortified it and decorated it with ornate frescoes and decorative carvings. Two kilometers past Qasr al-Hallabat, heading east, are ruins of the main bathing complex known as Hammam al-Sarah. The baths were once adorned with marble and lavish mosaics. Today, you can still see the channels that were used for hot water and steam.


Qasr al-Azraq

About 13 kilometers north of the Azraq Junction, on the highway to Iraq, you will find the large black fortress of Qasr al-Azraq. The present form of the castle dates back to the beginning of the 13th century CE. Crafted from local black basalt rocks, the castle exploited Azraq’s important strategic position and water sources.
 
The first fortress here is thought to have been built by the Romans around 300 CE, during the reign of Diocletian. The structure was also used by the Byzantines and Umayyads. Qasr al-Azraq underwent its final major stage of building in 1237 CE, when the Mamluks redesigned and fortified it. In the 16th century the Ottoman Turks stationed a garrison there, and Lawrence of Arabia made the fortress his desert headquarters during the winter of 1917, during the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire.
The castle is almost square, with 80-meter long walls encircling a central courtyard. In the middle of the courtyard is a small mosque that may be from Umayyad times, along with the main well. At each corner of the outer wall, there is an oblong tower. The primary entrance is a single massive hinged slab of granite, which leads to a vestibule where one can see carved into the pavement the remains of a Roman board game. Above the entrance area is the chamber that was used by Lawrence during his stay in Qasr al-Azraq. The caretaker of the castle has a collection of photographs of Lawrence; in fact, his father was one of the Arab officers who served with the legendary Brit.

Qasr al-Harraneh

This well-preserved castle is located about 16 kilometers west of Qusayr ‘Amra and 55 kilometers east of Amman. The spot is marked by an assortment of tall radio pylons on the other side of the highway.
 
Qasr al-Harraneh remains an enigma to archaeologists and historians. Some experts believe that it was a defensive fort, while others maintain it was a caravanserais for passing camel trains. Yet another theory is that it served as a retreat for Umayyad leaders to discuss affairs of state. With its high walls, arrow slits, four corner towers and square shape of a Roman fortress, Qasr al-Harraneh would appear to be a defensive castle. However, the towers are not large enough to have been an effective defense, and may have instead been built to buttress the walls.

The arrow slits are also cosmetic, being too narrow on the inside to allow archers sufficient visibility and too few in number for effective military usage. We do know that an inscription in a second-story room dates the construction of Qasr al-Harraneh to 711 CE. The presence of Greek inscriptions around the main entrance frame suggests that the castle was built on the site of a Roman or Byzantine building.

Qasr Amra 

One of the best-preserved desert buildings of the Umayyads, the Unesco World Heritage Site of Qusayr Amra is the highlight of any trip out into the Eastern Desert. Part of a much greater complex that served as a caravanserai, bathhouse and hunting lodge, the qusayr (little castle) is famous for its hedonistic (and somewhat risqué) 8th.-century frescoes of wine, women and wild good times. 
 
According to some historians, only out here in the isolated wilds of the desert did the caliphs feel comfortable about flouting Islam’s edicts. Qusayr Amra seems to rise incongruously from the parched, dry desert plains, though in ancient times the site was adjacent to a lush wadi famed for its wild pistachio trees. At the time the water table was much higher, which allowed the builders to tap the ground, enabling the steady supply of water needed to supply the bathhouse. Even today, you can still see the 25m deep masonry-lined well, which stands as a testament to the impressive engineering skills of the Umayyads. Of course, what would otherwise be a fairly modest site is seriously spiced up by its floor-to-ceiling frescoes, which have captivated visitors for over a millennium. The original painters were highly skilled, and took an immense amount of time to capture even the most subtle of details. As the result of an impressive restoration effort, the frescoes have been returned to their former state, and continue to depict elaborate scenes ranging from hunting motifs to depictions of women in their full glory. Between Azrag and Amman along Hwy 30, a turn-off south leads to Hwy 40 and the complex. However, it is only signposted coming from Amman, so keep an eye out as you are likely to speed past it if coming from Azraq.


Qasr al-Mushatta

Just south of Amman, Qasr al-Mushatta offers an excellent example of characteristic Umayyad architecture. The castle is an incomplete square palace with elaborate decoration and vaulted ceilings. The immense brick walls of the complex stretch 144 meters in each direction, and at least 23 round towers were nestled along these walls. The palace mosque is sited in the traditional position, inside and to the right of the main entrance. Throughout, there is a powerful symmetry and axiality in the planning, with a tendency for compartmentalization, often into three sections. The vaulting systems are considered essentially Iraqi, but the stonemasonry and carved decoration is Hellenistic. Both influences are modified by their interaction, and this palace presents the most complete fusion of the two traditions in Umayyad architecture.
 
Historians believe that Qasr al-Mushatta, the largest and most lavish of all the Umayyad castles, was begun by the Caliph Walid II—who was assassinated by forced laborers angry over the lack of water in the area. The palace was constructed between 743-744 CE, but was never fully completed.

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