Of all the sites in the eastern desert, QASR KHARANA – also spelled Kharrana, Kharaneh, Harraneh, Harrana, and so on – was probably the one which gave rise to the misnomer “Desert Castles”. Standing foursquare beside the road, and visible for miles around, it looks like a fortress built for defensive purposes, with round corner towers, arrow slits in the wall and a single, defendable entrance. However, on closer examination, you’ll find that Kharana’s towers are solid (and thus unmannable) and that only 3m-tall giants with extra-long arms could fire anything out of the arrow slits. Rather, it seems most likely that Kharana – positioned at the meeting point of many desert tracks – was a kind of rural conference centre, used by the Umayyad caliphs as a comfortable and accessible place to meet with local bedouin leaders, or even as a site where the bedouin themselves could meet on neutral ground to iron out tribal differences. It was probably built in the late seventh century; a few lines of graffiti in an upper room were written on November 24, 710.

Marvellously cool and perfectly still inside, Kharana is one of Jordan’s most atmospheric and beautiful ancient buildings. Soak up the peace and quiet for an hour or two.

The ground floor

Circle left around the building to reach the sunken Visitor Centre at the back of the site. From here, you approach the main entrance facade head-on. Look up to see a distinctive band of diagonal bricks up near the top of the walls, a decorative device still in use on garden walls all over Jordan today.

As you enter, to left and right are long, dark rooms probably used as stables. The courtyard is surprisingly small, and it’s here you realize how deceptive the solid exterior is: the whole building is only 35m square, but its doughty towers and soaring entrance make it seem much bigger. An arched portico originally ran round the courtyard, providing shade below and a corridor above – when it was in place, virtually no direct sunlight could penetrate into the interior. All the rooms round the courtyard, including those upstairs, are divided into self-contained units, each called a bayt, comprising a large central room with smaller rooms opening off it. This is typically Umayyad, and the same system was used in the palace at Amman, as well as at Mushatta and Tuba. Weaving in and out, you can explore your way around the deliciously musty and cool ground floor to get a sense of how the maze-like bayt system works. Each bayt most likely held a single delegation – the central, well-lit room used for meetings or socializing, the flanking, darker rooms for sleeping or storage. Kharana had space for a total of eight delegations and their horses.

The upper floor

Of the two staircases, the left-hand one as you came in delivers you to the more interesting upper western rooms; at the top of the stairs, it’s easy to see the springs of the portico arches below. The room immediately to your left upstairs is lined with stone rosettes. Next door, a more ornate room holds a few lines of eighth-century graffiti, in black painted Kufic script in the far left-hand corner above a doorway. All around are graceful blind arcades and friezes of rosettes, with the semi-domed ceiling supported on squinches.

Work your way through the northern bayts, which are open to the sky, round to the large east room, with a simple houndstooth design. From the southeast corner there’s a nice view along the whole width of the qasr through alternately lit and dark areas. The southern room, with a row of little arched windows over the courtyard, has the only large window, looking out above the entrance: this may have been a watchpost. One of the small, dark rooms on the south wall has a unique cross-vaulted ceiling, with decorated squares and diamonds not found elsewhere. Take the stairs up again to the roof to watch the dustdevils spinning across the flat, stony plain.

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