Scattered throughout the black basalt desert, east of Amman, the Desert Castles stand as a testament to the flourishing beginnings of Islamic-Arab civilization. These seemingly isolated pavilions, caravan stations, secluded baths, and hunting lodges, were at one time integrated agricultural or trading complexes, built mostly under the Umayyads (661-750 AD), when Muslim Arabs had succeeded in transforming the fringes of the desert into well-watered settlements.
Aside from being widely considered as the most spectacular and original monuments of early Islamic art, these complexes also served practical purposes: namely, as residences, caravanserais, and baths.
In the year 661, the capital of the newly founded Arab Muslim Empire moved from Medina and Kufa in the Hejaz and Iraq respectively, to Damascus, the seat of the Umayyad Dynasty. The years which immediately followed the death of the founder of the dynasty, Mu'awiya bin Abi Sufyan, were spent in overcoming rival claimants to the Caliphate.
The latter part of the reign of AbdulMalek bin Marwan (685-750) seems to have been an exceptionally favorable interlude for the Umayyads. Being more firmly on the saddle, one can detect a sudden release of talent and creativity, which was manifested by the construction of the first major Islamic monument in Jerusalem, the majestic Dome of the Rock. The architectural program initiated by Caliph AbdulMalek, was continued and expanded by his son, Al-Walid, who built the great mosques of Damascus, Jerusalem, and Medina.
Throughout the following decades, the Umayyads dotted the Jordanian steppe with luxurious buildings decorated with splendid mosaic pavements, fresco paintings, and carved stucco. All these indicate that the Umayyads had found a modus vivendi with the Syrian civilization. The fact that several of these buildings were located in the Jordanian steppe points to the overriding importance of the area.
Indeed, the area's incorporation into the military district (Jund) of Damascus, whose governor was directly responsible to Damascus, attests to its vitality.
The Umayyad Desert Castles were initially regarded as desert retreats (Badiyas) for Umayyad princes who, being of nomadic origins, grew weary of city life with all its rigors and congested atmosphere. Those castles allowed them to return to the desert, where their nomadic instincts could be best expressed, and where they could pursue their pastimes away from watchful eyes of the pious minded.
This theory, however, was challenged by the French scholar, Jean Sauvaget. These buildings were located on extensive and elaborately irrigated farmlands, which were often accompanied by various hydraulic structures, and therefore, he argued, they were centers for agricultural exploitation. This was reflected by the Umayyad policy to expand the agricultural zone into marginal areas. Yet another and more recent explanation for the raison d'étre of these buildings is what might be called the "Architecture of Diplomacy". That is, maintaining close contacts with the tribes of the region who were vehement supporters of the Umayyads.
It is also possible that some of these structures, like Qusayr Amra, Kharaneh and Mshash, served as resting places for high government officials on their way to Hejaz. This restricted and temporary use of these buildings may explain the scarcity of pottery shards from those sites. A combination of factors and coordinates therefore might have been involved in the construction of the Umayyad Desert Castles, and no single element is sufficient to explain them all.
Today, these lonely and evocative structures can be visited in a one-day trip from Amman, as modern paved roads have replaced the ancient desert tracks.
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.
These include a palace (qasr), a mosque, a huge reservoir, 8 cisterns dug into the western slope, an irregularly shaped agricultural enclosure with an elaborate system of sluices, and a cluster of poorly built houses which extend to the northwest of the reservoir. The bath complex of Hammam Al-Sarah, is situated 2 km to the east of the qasr.
Originally Roman, this castle was rebuilt during the Umayyad period when it was elaborately decorated in mosaics, carved stucco, and fresco paintings, thus transforming the castle into a palatial residence. There are about 150 inscriptions within the castle, mostly in Greek. The vast majority of these inscribed stones, which were reused as building material, belong to an edict issued by the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius (491-518 AD).
The Umayyad rebuilding program was accompanied by a remarkable development of the site: the addition of an extra-mural mosque with its beautiful cusped arches; the agricultural enclosure with an elaborate irrigation system; and the bath complex of Hammam Assarah.
Today, you can still see the channels that were used for hot water and steam.
Azraq is located about 110 kilometers east of Amman at the junction of roads leading northeast into Iraq and southeast into Saudi Arabia. With 12 square kilometers of lush parklands, pools and gardens, Azraq has the only water in all of the eastern desert.
The oasis is also home to a host of water buffalo and other wildlife. There are four main springs which supply Azraq with its water as well as its name, which in Arabic means "blue".
Over the past 15 years or so, the water level in Azraq's swamps has fallen dramatically due to large-scale pumping to supply Amman and Irbid. This has resulted in the destruction of a large part of the marshlands.
While Azraq remains one of the most important oases in the Middle East for birds migrating between Africa and Europe, its declining water levels have led many species to bypass Azraq in favor of other stops.
The area was once home to numerous deer, bear, ibex, oryx, cheetah and gazelle, many of which have been decimated in the last sixty years by overzealous hunters.
Although the Iraqi border is far to the east, the town of Azraq has the feel of a border town, as there are no major settlements further east.
There are a number of cafes and small hotels, along with a Government Rest House, in Azraq.
The copious springs in the oasis of Azraq made it an attractive place for settlement since the Lower Paleolithic Period. In the Roman period, the site was of crucial importance because of its location near the northern tip of Wadi Al-Sirhan, the natural migration route between southern Syria and the interior of the Arabian Peninsula.
A chain of fortresses defended the entrance to the Oasis; Aseikim, 15 km northeast of Azraq and Uwainid, another 15 km to the southwest, close to the Shaumari Nature Reserve. The present fort at Azraq, built entirely from local basalt stones, was occupied from the time of the Tetrarchy (300 AD), as an inscription of Diocletian and Maximian suggests.
Another Latin inscription indicates that Azraq may have been called Dasianis or Basianis (The Basic) in Roman times. An Arabic inscription above the main entrance indicates a major rebuilding program in 1237 AD. During the Umayyad period, it was the place of retreat for Al-Walid II, who indignantly struck away from the court of his uncle and reigning Caliph, Hisham bin AbdulMalek (724-743 AD).
An interesting feature of Azraq South (Azraq Al-Shishan), is a large hexagonal reservoir built of dressed basalt stones and strengthened at regular intervals by rounded and triangular buttresses, placed against the outer and inner faces of the enclosing walls. These features bring to mind the large enclosures at Qasr Al-Hir East and Qasr Al-Hir West in Syria, which date to the Umayyad period. Azraq fort also was the headquarters of Lawrence of Arabia during the Arab Revolt.
Some 2 km to the north of the fort is an Umayyad farmhouse (Qasr Ain Al-Sil), which includes oil-presses and a bath consisting of 3 rooms: cold, warm, and hot.
Heading back towards Amman on Highway 40, Qusayr Amra is about 28 kilometers from Azraq. This is the best preserved of the desert castles, and probably the most charming. It was built during the reign of the Caliph Walid I (705-715 CE) as a luxurious bath house.
The building may have been part of a larger complex that served to host traveling caravans, which was in existence before the Umayyads arrived on the scene.
The building consists of three long halls with vaulted ceilings. Its plain exterior belies the beauty within, where the ceilings and walls are covered with colorful frescoes.
Directly opposite the main doorway is a fresco of the caliph sitting on his throne.
On the south wall other frescoes depict six other rulers of the day. Of these, four have been identified: Roderick the Visigoth, the Sassanian ruler Krisa, the Negus of Abyssinia, and the Byzantine emperor.
The two others are thought to be the leaders of China and the Turks. These frescoes either imply that the present Umayyad caliph was their equal, or it could simply be a pictorial list of the enemies of Islam.
Many other frescoes in the main audience chamber offer fantastic portrayals of humans and animals. This is interesting in itself because after the advent of Islam, any illustration of living beings was prohibited.
The audience chamber, which was used for feasting, meetings and cultural events, leads through an antechamber into the baths. The caldarium, or steam room, is capped with a domed ceiling where a fresco lays out a map of the heavens, with the constellations of the northern hemisphere and the signs of the Zodiac. The two bathrooms have fine mosaic floors.
The paintings include themes such as hunting, dancing, and musicians, bathing scenes, cupids, and personifications of history, philosophy and poetry.
These unique paintings prompted UNESCO to include Qusayr Amra in its World Heritage list.
The plan of the building consists of 3 main elements:
- A rectangular audience-hall with a throne alcove in the middle of the south side.
- A bath complex which comprises 3 rooms corresponding to the frigidarium, tepidarium and calidarium, i.e. the cold, warm and hot rooms respectively.
The hydraulic structures which include an elevated water-tank, a masonry-lined deep well, and the apparatus for drawing water from the well into the water-tank. Two feeder-pipes drained water from the elevated tank to the shallow pool or fountain in the audience-hall into a plastered tank, which stood above the furnace.
It should be noted that Qusayr Amra was not residential in character, nor was it intended to be occupied over an extended period of time.
This imposing structure is situated about 65 km east of Amman and 18 km west of Qusayr Amra.
The spot is marked by an assortment of tall radio pylons on the other side of the highway.
Kharaneh is one of the best-preserved Umayyad monuments in the Jordanian steppe. It consists of 61 rooms arranged into 2 levels surrounded by a porticoes central courtyard. These rooms are grouped as self-contained units (bayts), each consisting of a central hall flanked on 2 sides by a pair of rooms opening onto the central hall.
A 3-quarter round buttress supports each of the 4 corners, and 2 quarter-round towers line the entrance in the middle of the south side, whereas half-round buttresses occupy the middle of the 3 remaining sides.
The exterior walls are pierced by narrow openings for lighting and ventilation, not arrow slits as sometimes described. On either side of the passageway that leads to the central court, is a long room, which served as a stable and storeroom. Originally, a small water tank stood in the middle of the courtyard to collect rainwater from the rooftops. Additional water was obtained from seep-holes dug in the adjacent valley-bed.
The construction and architectural technique betray Sassanian influences, such as the use of squinches and shallow vaults resting on transverse arches, in addition to carved stucco decorations.
Qasr Kharaneh 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 Kharaneh 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 Kharaneh 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.
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.
Qasr al-Mushatta is not on the Desert Castle Loop. To get there, take the Desert Highway south of Amman to Queen Alia International Airport. The castle is situated right at the end of the north runway. You must drive around the perimeter of the airport to get there. Turn right at the Alia Gateway Hotel as you approach the airport and the road will take you past two checkpoints and on to the castle.
Al-Qastal is one of the oldest of the Umayyad palaces, as well as one of the best preserved.
The remains at Al-Qastal include a wide variety of sites such as the central palace, baths, a reservoir, a mosque, small houses, a cemetery ”the oldest Muslim graveyard in Jordan” and a dam.
The qasr forms a square measuring 67.80 m to the side with 3-quarter round towers at the corners, and 3 semi-round towers on each side except the east entranceway. This entrance leads into a vestibule some 16 m deep and opens onto a central courtyard approximately 28 m2. Around the courtyard, 6 self-contained units (bayts) are grouped, each consisting of 5 rooms. Both the portico and the rooms were originally 2 floors.
The central palace was decorated with stone carvings, and twelve semi-circular turrets buttressed and guarded the walls.
To the north of the qasr is the mosque with a round tower resting on a square base. This tower, with its spiral staircase, is all that remains of a minaret, which may well be, the earliest surviving minaret in the Islamic world.
More than 100 cisterns and substantial barrage, 400 m long and 4.25 m wide have been identified within a one kilometer radius from the qasr. Plans are underway to restore the qasr and the ancient water system.
The courtyard of the palace housed a central water tank. North of the central palace are the remains of the mosque. Interestingly, it is not oriented precisely eastwards facing Mecca.
One kilometer east of the main complex are the remains of a stone dam, constructed to retain rainwater. Formed from the quarry which supplied stone for Qastal's palace, the dam had a capacity of around two million cubic meters.
Al-Qastal was probably built in the early Islamic era by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, who is known primarily for building the magnificent Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem.
The palace of Al-Qastal is very easy to find, 100 meters west of the Desert Highway near the town of Qastal, 25 kilometers south of Amman.
Tuba is located about 95 km southeast of Amman. Like Mushatta, it was built using a combination of limestone blocks and baked bricks. Its plan consists of an oblong enclosure measuring 140 m by 72 m, almost a double square, or 2 symmetrical enclosures joined through a long central corridor. The enclosure walls are buttressed by semi-round towers, except on the north side where the 2 gateways are flanked by 2 square rooms. The northwestern quadrant is nearly intact and several lengths of curtain-wall exist on the western side. The rest of the building, which was never completed, is unpreserved.
Virtually nothing remains of this qasr, which once stood on an elevated mound surveying the desert and the cultivated lands to the west.
The qasr and the huge reservoir to the southeast are associated, on the basis of literary and epigraphic evidence, with the Caliph Yazid II (719-723 AD).
Numerous capitals decorated with acanthus leaves and Arabic inscriptions, as well as a water gauge to measure the depth of water in the reservoir, were recovered from the site.
Situated 2 km to the west of Qasr Al-Hallabat. The plan of Hammam Assarah (Assarah Bath Complex) is strikingly similar to Qusayr Amra, though its masonry has a better finishing and its courses are more tightly joined. Its plan, like Amra, consists of 3 principal elements: The Audience Hall, The Bath Complex, and The Hydraulic Structures.
The audience-hall is roofed by 3 tunnel-vaults resting on the sidewall and two intermediate transverse arches. The northeastern corner of this hall had a fountain, which received its water from an elevated tank to the east. The bath proper consists of 3 rooms corresponding to the cold, warm, and hot rooms. This monument suffered severe damage in the 1950s, when the building was pilfered for its stones.