Desert Castles in Jordan
Repost from October 2007. Updated with more photos.
Scattered across the eastern desert of Jordan there are buildings and ruins that make out what is commonly known as desert castles. They are mostly a mixture of forts, caravanserais and hunting lodges, some bigger and better preserved than others. Most of these castles were built during the Umayyad period, but some originate from Roman times, as Azraq and Hallabat.
On October 15 2007, the last day of Eid al-Fitr, I visited four of the main castles with two of my friends. We went to Zarqa in a rented car and visited them clockwise from there. I had wanted to visit these castles before I moved to Jordan in 2007 and this urge intesified after I read Setting the Desert in Fire by James Barr, partially about the exploits on Lawrence of Arabia. There are several castles, but we only had time for four of them. Others are futher in to the desert and you need more than a day to see them all.
The first castle was Qasr al-Hallabat. (Qasr [قصر] means castle in Arabic) Originally a Roman fort from the 2nd century, it had been strengthened by the Umayyads in the 8th century. In 2007 the castle was being restored and reconstructed by Spanish archeologists. There were two buildings standing erect on the site, an old mosque and the castle itself. The other buildings were still only piles of rubble.
We had to walk up to the site from new visitors centre and a parking lot where a group of bored young boys were hanging around, sometimes throwing rocks at people. On our way up we saw them kicking our car before they left. Outside the mosque we met a nice old man, probably the caretaker, who showed us around. The mosque was small, but nice, even though it was still under restoration. The castle was, however, far more interesting. The old man opened the castle for us and showed us around inside.
The castle was very interesting with its mix of black basalt and white limestone. Some of the floors still had beautiful mosaics, some better preserved than others. I am not sure if some of them had been restored or not, but some of the mosaics certainly did not look like it. Many of the mosaic pieces were loose and could easily be picked up. The most impressive mosaic covered an entire floor. The castle had many rooms, hallways and arches. Outside the castle there was at least two arches ready to be put together again.
As most historical sites in Jordan it was possible to explore almost every corner of the castle, except one room that was blocked off. You feel more free when there are no restrictions and it is much more enjoyable to explore. We and an Indian couple were the only visitors there, adding to the calm and relaxed feeling of the site. A feeling you do not find in the most popular tourist attractions.
Many of the black basalt stones used had Greek writings. They were, however, on different places in the castle and some were even upside down. Either the Spanish archeologists had not paid enough attention to them or it was result from when the Umayyades strengthened the castle. According to our guide Arabs could not read Greek and did not know which way is was written. Whether he was refering to the Umayyads or the present-day Jordanians, or both, I do not know.
The view was also impressive. You could see for miles over the desert and the surrounding area. Scattered around the castle and the mosque were also the remains of buildings probably belonging to the castle. Qasr al-Hallabat is definitely worth a stop if you are touring the desert castles. Since it was under restoration in 2007, it is probably in a better condition today.
Close to the castle is also Hammam as-Sarah, a small bathhouse and hunting lodge built by the Umayyads. A few kilometers drive from Qasr al-Hallabat you will find a very small building right by the road. Inside the building, which were under restoration, there were the remains of a small caldarium (a room with a hot plunge bath) and its underfloor heating hypocaust. A 20 meter deep well was close to the building and the remains of a small mosque were supposedly there also, but we did not find it. It is not the biggest attraction, but it was worth a 15 minute stop.
The next castle on the route after the hammam was Qasr al-Azraq. On our way there we saw a traffic accident that blocked the road. A truck had tipped over, so we had to do some offroad driving before we turned left towards Iraq and Azraq.
During the Arab Revolt in 1917–18 the castle in Azraq were used by T. E. Lawrence and the Arabs as a base in their fight against the Turks. Originally a Roman fort, but it has been renovated several times since. An earthquake in 1927 destroyed much of the castle. The castle is situated in an oasis, the Azraq wetlands, but they are no longer as wet as they used to be, as James Barr describes it in Setting the Desert on Fire:
The following day Ali and Lawrence arrived back at Azraq. Jackals, hyenas, even leopards prowled through the undergrowth. The lakes, which gave the place its name – Azraq means blue in Arabic – resounded with the liquid croaking of thousands of frogs. Overhead, black kites swirled.
Almost none of this survives today. The lakes have shrunk, the wild boar hunted, the trees cut for firewood, the thickets grazed into dust. Azraq is a grimy truckstop on the road to western Iraq. But among the grubby flat-roofed houses supporting large and rusty satellite dishes, the castle survives.
We found the castle right by the road and parked besides it were two busloads of French and German tourists. The castle was constructed using black basalt stone, as parts of Qasr al-Hallabat. We entered the castle through a door made out of two basalt stones, each weighing about one ton. A room used by Lawrence is just above the door, overlooking the entrance through an narrow slit.
Inside the castle there was a wide courtyard with only a single building in the middle. The rest of the rooms were somewhat a part of the outer wall. Many of the small rooms that ran along the walls had arches and in most rooms the soot from fires could still be seen in the roof. Much of the castle was in ruins in 2007, but there was much to explore. The castle had no restrictions, except a few warning signs saying: ‘Dangerous!! Restoration’. The castle could certainly use a little restoration. A small museum inside the castle was dedicated to stones and artifacts. One stone had latin and greek inscriptions.
A second tower were similar to the entrance tower, but more decayed. There were also a second entrance, but this was shut by, according to the guards, a three ton stone door. We were unable to move this since its hinges were not oiled as the other two doors. I found a smaller entrance without a door that led me outside the walls, where most of the remains of the walls lay in long heap of black stones. The whole castle had originally been three storeys high so there were alot of stones.
After reviewing almost every room we left for the next castle. We paid on our way out when we found out that we had not paid the ticket on the way in. It was 1 JD each for three castles. When the guards told us that the other castles closed in about an hour, we had to hurry.
The next stop on our journey was the UNESCO World Heritage site of Qusayr Amra, a small building in the middle of the desert. Qusayr is diminutive of qasr and means ‘little castle’ in Arabic. However, even ‘little castle’ seemed to be a bit of an exaggeration considering the size of Qusayr Amra.
The building is famous for its frescoes and it also has a small hot bath. Outside the main building there is a 36 meter deep well with a restored pump turned by a donkey (unfortunately no donkey was present during our visit). The place was used as a caravanserai and a hunting lodge and most likely built during the Umayyads.
All the rooms in the building were filled with paintings. Everything from naked women and a night sky zodiac dome (apparently the oldest in the world) to the six kings of the world and a bear playing the banjo with an applauding monkey at its side. There were depictions of hunting at night, fishing, bathing, the construction of the place itself, and even of a couple having sex. Personally I liked the banjo-playing bear best.
There were a lot of frescos to see, and the gatekeeper explained some of the for us. We stayed there untill the place closed and we were the only ones there. When we were leaving we saw another busload of tourists arrive. Even though it was supposed to be closed I believe they kept it open for a little while longer. We left for our fourth and last castle of the day hoping it still would be open.
(Update) In september 2008 Taylor Luck wrote an article in Jordan Times called ‘Castle represents cultural time capsule of 8th century life’. The last part of Luck's article pretty much sums up the castle's exotic location and feel:
Although he enjoys guiding visitors through the storied halls of the Umayyad hunting lodge, Abu Hamzeh said he appreciates Qasr Amra the most at dusk, a time when the castle truly comes to life.
Because, as the tourists leave and the sun begins to set on the 1,300-year-old site, the murals’ exotic dancers, hunters and emperors remain, with Abu Hamzeh’s rababa echoing music of festivals long ago.
The last castle on our tour was Qasr Kharana, an impressively well preserved building. It was, as Qusayr Amra, in the middle of the desert. We got there exactly as a tourist bus left and as one of the keepers was on his way to lock the castle door. We got out of the car and hurried after him and he agreed to keep it open a bit longer.
The use of the castle is disputed, and so is the age. It is believed to be built early in the 8th century on the site of an earlier Roman or Byzantine building. The castle has two storeys and a small courtyard in the middle. You can walk from room to room till you eventually get back where you started. The roof is flat and offers an impressive view of the desert and the surrounding area. Since it was passed closing time we toured the castle fast, but there not much to see. All the rooms we saw were empty, but due to restoration work it was very enjoyable still.
When got back to the car the two keepers there offered us tea. We accepted and sat in their tent for awhile. The whole place were very silent and calm, and with the setting sun it was very peaceful. Before we left we bought some postcards and I bought a small sheep bell shaped like a fish. From there we drove straight back to Amman. All in all it was a very fun trip and a monday well spent. A trip recommended to anyone who visits Jordan and have the time.