For hundreds of kilometres east of Amman, the stony plains of the eastern desert extend unbroken to the Iraqi border – and beyond, clear to Baghdad. This is the harshest and least populated part of Jordan, with a bare handful of roads linking small, dusty towns and frontier villages. The two exceptions are Zarqa, an industrial city and transport hub, and Mafraq, the amiable but little-visited capital of the northeast. However, the main reason to come this way is to follow a circuit of desert roads that runs past a string of early-Islamic inns and hunting lodges, collectively dubbed the “Desert Castles”.
For its mosaics and its remote atmosphere, Qasr Hallabat makes a fine opener to the “Desert Castles” loop, matched by elegant Qasr Kharana and the uniquely frescoed Qusayr Amra. At the circuit’s farthest point, 100km east of Amman, lie the castle and twin villages of Azraq, Lawrence of Arabia’s desert headquarters, set in a once-majestic oasis in the heart of the northern Badia, which stretches out to the Syrian and Iraqi borders. Close by in southern Syria, and often visible, is the extinct volcano of Jabal Druze (or Jabal Al Arab), rising to 1800m and surrounded for hundreds of kilometres by blisteringly hot plains of basaltic lava known as the Hawran. Near Mafraq, irrigated fields temper the monotony, but further east – and south as far as Azraq – the desert is shadowy and grimly blackish, stark bedrock overlaid by dark boulders and glassy basalt chips too hot to touch. Out here stand the silhouetted ruins of Umm al-Jimal, enormously romantic in the cool evening, while a host of minor attractions include the holy tree of Biqyawiyya and the striking Qasr Burqu, a ruined black castle on the shores of a mirage-like lake, which lies remote in the far desert, not far from the Iraqi border.
Desert travel is sometimes approached as a chore, but you’ll have much more satisfaction if you abandon the urgency of getting from A to B and treat the desert as a destination in its own right. Adventurous explorers out here will be rewarded with extraordinary hospitality, diverse environments and some stunning natural drama.