Jordan’s desert castles, beautiful examples of both early Islamic art and architecture, stand testament to a fascinating era in the country’s rich history. Their fine mosaics, frescoes, stone and stucco carvings and illustrations, inspired by the best in Persian and Graeco-Roman traditions, tell countless stories of the life as it was during the 8th century. Called castles because of their imposing stature, the desert complexes actually served various purposes as caravan stations, agriculture and trade centres, resort pavilions and outposts that helped distant rulers forge ties with local Bedouins.
Constructed out of black basalt stone, Qasr Al Azraq was originally three storeys high. Some paving stones in the main entrance have small indentations, carved by former gatekeepers who played a board game using pebbles to pass the time. By the courtyard entrance, look for the carvings of animals and various inscriptions.
Comparatively little is known about the history of Qasr Al Azraq, and there’s been little excavation and renovation. Greek and Latin inscriptions date earlier constructions on the site to around AD 300, coinciding with Roman occupation.
The fort was renovated by the Umayyad caliph Walid II, who used it for hunting and as a military base. Its present form dates to 1237 when it was fortified by the Ayyubids as a defence against the Crusaders. The Turks subsequently stationed a garrison here in the 16th century. In a turn of the tide in 1918, it was from this building that the Arab Revolt launched an attack on Damascus that proved successful in ousting the Turks from the region.
Built during the reign of the Umayyad caliph Yazid bin Abd al-Malik, who is considered to be the sixth caliph of the Umayyad successors, Qasr Amra is believed to have been a location to aid in hunting. With the preservation of castle carvings and fresco paintings the Qasr Amra is sure to be a castle experience unlike the others.
It is one of the best-preserved desert buildings of the Umayyads, the Unesco World Heritage Site. Part of a much greater complex that served as a caravanserai, bathhouse and hunting lodge, the qusayr (little castle) is renowned for its rather risqué 8th-century frescoes of wine, women and wild times.
Named Al-Harrana Castle as it is positioned in the Al-Harrana Valley; the square fortress was resurrected during the reign of Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik. The castle has been restored several times as a result of the constant invading empires.
Located in the middle of a vast, treeless plain, this imposing thick-walled structure was the most likely inspiration for the ‘desert castle’ moniker and is arguably the most photogenic of all the desert castles. There is controversy about its function and purpose, but this important Umayyad structure remains an interesting sight for visitors, off the main Azraq–Amman road.
Although it clearly isn’t a castle, Kharana was a vital building for the Umayyads as evidenced by its dramatic size and shape. Despite the fact that it has the appearance of a khan (caravanserai), Kharana wasn’t located on any major trade route, and there appears to be a total absence of structures for water storage. That just leaves the supposition that the building served as a meeting space for Damascus elite and local Bedouin.
Named after the harra (surrounding gravel plains), Kharana lords imposingly over a harsh and barren moonscape that appears inhospitable for human habitation. Inside, however, the internal courtyard provides a calm, protected space that even the wind fails to penetrate.
QASER AL HALLABAT
One of the most important, distinguished archaeological sites in the Middle East, and originally a small Roman fortress built to protect the Nova Trajana route. It was occupied in 106 AD and was part of Limas Arabicus, the then Arabian Peninsula. In the fourth century, the castle was enlarged and protected by four towers, possibly during the reign of Diocletian.
With a fair proportion of masonry still standing, some beautifully restored archways and a desolate perch on the edge of the Eastern Desert, this fort is a good introduction to the history of the region. Hallabat once boasted elaborate baths, intricate frescoes and mosaics, a mosque and several reservoirs, and served as a focus for a thriving farming community. Restoration of a substantial part of the site under Spanish direction has restored an inkling of the castle’s former stature.