QASR HALLABAT, perfectly situated on a small hill 30km east of Zarqa, is one of the most elaborate of the “Desert Castles”. A Roman fort was built on this site in the second century to guard the desert frontier, and parts of it still survive, but the key period of the building’s history was the sixth century, in the generally overlooked gap between the end of Roman control and the Muslim conquests. At that time, the Ghassanids – a group of Christian tribes who had migrated out of Yemen in preceding centuries – had risen to play a prominent role, introducing a specifically Arab identity and Arab system of governance to the region well before Islam. It seems they rebuilt Hallabat as a country palace, with mosaic floors, chapel and monastery. When the Muslim Umayyads took over, in the late seventh century, Hallabat simply seems to have been refurbished, with mosaics altered slightly, the monastery converted into storerooms and a mosque added to one side in white limestone, contrasting with the black basalt used by the Ghassanids.
A Spanish archeological team has done extensive work here in recent years, clearing rubble, bringing order to the site and renovating key structures. Hallabat is now perhaps the most satisfying of all the “Desert Castles” to explore, full of atmosphere – and still largely unvisited.
From the Visitor Centre – where a small museum may or may not be open – walk 200m up a stony path to the hilltop site. You come first to the beautifully rebuilt Umayyad mosque, many of its doorway arches sporting distinctive scalloping.
Beside the mosque, a modern door beneath a wobbly entrance arch – one shake and it’d be rubble – leads into the main building’s spacious, L-shaped courtyard, stone-flagged and flanked in black and white. To left and right, tall basalt walls lead into rooms filled with blocks inscribed in Greek, laid higgledy-piggledy; they originally formed an edict of Emperor Anastasius I (491–518), but the earthquake of 551 tumbled the lot. The Ghassanids, who no longer felt beholden to imperial decrees, reused the stones at random. In several places you can see remnants of the plaster they slapped over the top, etched in a herringbone pattern.
A scramble to the corner towers – the highest points of the ruins – can help with orientation; from here, as well as panoramic views over the undulating desert hills, you can spot older blocks from the tiny original Roman fort which occupied one corner of the site. Opposite, a water channel runs under the stairs, carrying rainwater from the roof to cisterns under the courtyard and outside the walls. Filling the centre of the building is a large square room complete with a dazzling carpet mosaic in a diamond design; the adjacent portico also features mosaics of birds and fish.
Beside the road roughly 3km east of Qasr Hallabat, in the adjacent village of Hallabat ash-Sharqiyyeh, lies a small Umayyad bath-house, HAMMAM AS-SRAH. Similar to, though smaller than, Qusayr Amra, its caldarium (hot room) is nearest the road, followed by the tepidarium (warm room) with the hypocaust system of underfloor heating and terracotta flues in the walls. The apodyterium (changing room) is furthest away, next to the original entrance, where there’s some decorative cross-hatching on the walls. Recent conservation work here has restored much of the building’s beauty, and an elegant, wooden dome has been erected overhead.