On our two-week visit to Jordan, we took a tour of the Desert Castles that lie to the east of the capital, Amman. And poor Graham coped remarkably well bearing in mind he had a stomach bug.
The weather was bleak too as we hit the highway out of the city. We’d spent the night in the swanky Marriott hotel, where I’d settled into the bar and eaten dinner while Graham was curled up in bed nursing his belly and sipping water.
The clouds hung heavy while the city and its endless suburbs of development disappeared behind us. Amman, to me, seemed like a city without a centre, although that may have been because we completely managed to bypass it during our brief stay. Sticking to our week-long tour itinerary, we had no real time to explore on our own. We’d toured the historic citadel with its antiquities and seen the Roman amphitheatre from afar but that was about it.
Beyond the city was an arid landscape of sand and basalt.
The desert fanned out in all directions, subtly changing colour the further we travelled, throwing up yellows and oranges, browns and blacks. Dusty and busy with trucks rolling on to Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Highway 40 was never going to rank as one of the world’s great drives. Pylons marched across the landscape, carrying power to the settlements beyond, while the occasional cafe offered lorry drivers a break from the tedium.
It made me wonder why anyone would choose to live out there, but they did – and still do. Remains of prehistoric peoples have been found in places, but it’s the Desert Castles that stand out as lasting symbols of the human conquest of these apparently dead lands. In truth, they’re not so much castles as palaces, hunting lodges, trading centres, caravan stations, baths, places of rest and recreation – the roadside cafes of their day perhaps.
They were built more than 1,200 years ago by the powerful Umayyad caliphs from Damascus, before they were overthrown by the Abbasids of Baghdad. The castles reveal early Muslim art and architecture and are the survivors of what was probably a chain of such buildings across the region, built beside oases that provided water.
We visited three:
- A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Qasr Amra is among the best preserved and most intimate of the desert castles, famous for its colourful frescoes and mosaics. Built in the early years of the 8th century with its own water supply, a luxury bath house remains from the complex along with a well. It has three long halls with vaulted ceilings decorated with frescoes that are decidedly risque by Muslim standards, including one of the caliph on his throne and others featuring other notable rulers of the world. Animals are also represented. This is odd because Islam forbids the illustration of living beings. Some suggest that out in the desert, the caliphs felt free to ignore some of the basic tenets of their religion.
- The building has an audience chamber, which was probably used for meals and meetings, and the baths complex. The steam room has a fine fresco featuring a map of the heavens while other rooms have some notable mosaics.
Qasr al-Harraneh (Qasr Kharana)
- A few miles down the road near an unfortunate jumble of unsightly pylons is the restored Qasr al-Harraneh, which at first glance looks like a real castle. It’s certainly the most visually impressive of the tour’s historic sites.
- As we walked up to it, we were presented with a squat, square building with corner towers and occasional arrow slits. At first glance it looks impregnable, defying any challengers. But many argue that it could never have been a proper fort – neither the corner towers nor the arrow slits could be used by soldiers to defend the building. Some historians argue that it was more likely a caravanserais or a place of retreat for rulers, others that it was a meeting place for VIPs. Greek inscriptions suggest it was built on the site of a Roman or Byzantine building in around 711. Inside, we could easily imagine that the rooms and courtyards would’ve been an attractive retreat from the harsh desert beyond.
- While many of the desert castles reflect the oranges, yellows and browns of the desert landscape, the formidable Qasr al-Azraq is an intimidatingly black basalt fortress and the entrance is through a huge, hinged slab of granite. Archaeologists reckon there’s been a castle on the site since about 300AD and the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian, but much of what we saw dates from the 13th century CE.
- In the 16th century the Ottoman Turks used it as an important military base and then, as the guides were keen to tell us, it was one of Lawrence of Arabia’s HQs during the Great Arab Revolt in 1917.
- The castle has several rooms to explore, a large courtyard, a small mosque, towers and a chamber apparently used by Lawrence as his room. We also spotted the remains of a Roman board game carved into a stone.
- The castle was built on a key trading route but has always benefited from the nearby wetland oasis. Today that wetland is a nature reserve with plentiful bird and other wildlife, popular with bird watchers – not that we had time to visit them. The town of Azraq itself is pretty basic and the area is sadly bedevilled by trucks thundering down the roads to Iraq, Saudi and elsewhere in Jordan.
We stopped for a bite to eat at a roadside cafe before heading back, leaving the intimidating and gloomy Qasr al-Azraq behind – looking as gloomy as the clouds above us.