Desert Castles is a collective. Slightly erroneous name for truly ancient buildings. Which stand in isolation on the Eastern Desert of Jordan.
‘Desert Castles’ do not share very much in common. Not all of them are strictly castles. Some are forts. Others ceremonial meeting rooms. Hunting lodges. Trading centers and bath houses. As a group they offer a glimpse into the cultural heritage of this inhospitable region.
The desert has always lured me by its magnitude. Its endlessness. Its basic colours of dirty yellow and vivid blue. By its challenging conditions.
The Eastern Desert. A sparsely populated area. Extends far into the wilderness surrounded by the nations of Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But there was a time when it was not so desolated.
The ‘desert castles’ were built as long as two thousand years ago by the Romans to protect their provincial borders.
Some relics of those times still remain. But the most of the legacy one can admire these days was left much later. When they were remodeled and extended during the Umayyad Empire. The first great Muslim empire in this region. Founded in the city of Damascus in the 7th century. It grew, as far as the Caliphate of Cordoba in Spain.
There are various hypotheses concerning their use. From trading posts on the routes to Syria, Arabia and Iraq. Through facilities to rest and bathe for traveling pilgrims to Mecca. To indeed defensive buildings.
Others suggest that ‘desert castles’ were asylums to avoid the epidemics from the big cities.
Historians agree that early Arab rulers used ‘desert castles’ as pleasure places which gave them a slip from strict Islamic edicts.
They spent their time here hunting and horse racing. While there evenings were filled with poetry, songs, women and plenty of wine.
Most of them are richly decorated with mosaics. Frescoes. Marble and painted stuccoes from the past.
Providing oases of pleasure in the harsh desert. Largely ruined these days. Qasr al-Muwaqqar. Qasr al-Mushash and Qasr al-Qastal are sad examples of a decaying process.
Qasr Tuba and Qasr al-Mushatta are two quiet impressive and very remote buildings never finished due to assassination of the Caliph Walid II.
Qasr Al-Kharana. Built in 711 AD. A remarkable example of early Islamic architecture and design. It looks like a fortress composed of huge limestone block with turrets on each corner. These are too small to have been defensive. Same as arrow slits, therefore, their true function remains unknown.
Some claim it was a resting house for travellers. Lack of a sufficient water source and the distance from any historic trading route challenge this theory.
One can wander around corridors of a dozen rooms and the small courtyard. Impressive, seemingly lost in the middle of the desert.
You can admire views from the top and have a chit-chat with the guardian, as these days the castle is under the care of the Jordanian Ministry of Antiquities.
Qasr Amra is definitely my favourite one from ‘desert castles’. A squarish limestone building. Unique, arched roofing, large dome and a well.
It was designed as a bath house. Its function and external appearance are only half of the story. The walls of this bath are decorated with the finest examples of early Islamic frescoes in the whole of the Middle East. Some of them have faded and been destroyed But a majority is still in good condition after 1300 years.
Three rooms within the bath house. A reception hall. Chamber, and the bath room. All lined with images depicting all kinds of subjects. Including kings and gods. Hunting scenes. Animals. Dancers. Bathing girls and wine amphoras.
All of these images of living beings. Both animals and humans. Were banned in later Islamic art. Therefore the huge importance of these murals has been spotted by UNESCO and Amra is a World Heritage Site.
Qasr Al Hallabat is the first genuine castle or fortress. Originally constructed by the Romans during the reign of Caracalla in the3rd century AD to protect its inhabitants from Bedouin tribes.
The castle was a part of a Roman Highway. The Via Nova Traiana. A route that connected Damascus with Aqaba.
Then modified and re-fortified. It was decorated with ornate frescoes and mosaics by the Umayyad Arabs. The main palace is built from limestone and black basalt. Has a square shape and four towers. The site was completely restored. Including a complicated water system, a mosque and a bath house.
Qsar Al-Azraq is the most ancient of the Desert Castles. It was built here by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 300AD as a fortress due to the presence of a nearby oasis.
Azraq was once one of a very few sources of water in the region. Main meeting point of trade routes from Baghdad to Jerusalem. Strategic stop for pilgrims to Mecca.
The Roman fort was still in use when the Byzantines and then the Umayyads took control of Jordan. It was the Mameluke Dynasty which extensively reconstructed the fort into its current form.
Built from local black basalt and some limestone. Popularly and weirdly known as the Blue Fort.
From 16th century it was occupied by the Ottoman Turks. It wasn’t until 1917 that the Blue Fort received its most famous resident. The Castle served as a headquarters for the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence. For several months during the Great Arab Revolt. One can admire here the bedroom of Lawrence of Arabia. Kitchen. Store rooms. Stables and a small mosque.
It is impossible to visit desert castles by public transport. An organised tour. Rented car or a private driver are your only options. I myself had a driver. An amazing Jordanian man who took me around to all my desired locations.
East reminded me that Jordan’s lonely deserts take up un enormous 80% of the country’s land while supporting only 5% of its populations.
Except for a few guardians of the desert castles and a group of Saudi men with their sons, I didn’t meet one living soul here. The weather was truly nice in the desert. And the desert castles were really worth the trip.