Jordan // The eastern desert //

The “Desert Castles” loop

For most visitors, the main reason to head east is to explore Jordan’s “Desert Castles”, a group of early-Islamic buildings dotted around the desert – the best of which are now easily accessible by ordinary vehicles driving on proper roads. Most date from the seventh century, when the Umayyad dynasty was ruling from Damascus: bedouin at heart, the Umayyad caliphs seem to have needed an escape from the pressures of city life, and so built a network of hunting lodges, caravanserais and farmhouses to serve as rural retreats. Nineteenth-century archeologists came up with the term “Desert Castles”, although few of the buildings are true castles, and many were built on what was then semi-fertile agricultural land. Archeologists have suggested replacement titles – desert complexes, country estates, farmsteads – but none exactly fits the bill.

These are some of Jordan’s most atmospheric ancient buildings – most notably Qasr Kharana and Qusayr Amra, which lie near each other on a fast road between Amman and the oasis town of Azraq (itself worth a stop for its nature reserve, eco-friendly lodge and links to Lawrence of Arabia). A different road to Azraq, from the city of Zarqa, passes by the well-restored fortress of Qasr Hallabat, making it easy to follow a loop in either direction from Amman.

Harder-to-reach sites include the ruined Qasr Mushatta, near Amman’s airport, and Qasr Tuba, marooned in the roadless desert south of Kharana.