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.

Qasr Hallabat

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.

The ruins

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.

Hammam as-Srah

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.

Qasr Kharana

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.

Qusayr Amra

If you’re not ready for it, you might miss the squat Qusayr Amra, beside the Amman–Azraq road 15km east of Kharana. Qusayr is the diminutive of qasr, meaning “little castle” (the building is also often called “Qasr Amra”). A small bath-house, Amra was built to capitalize on the waters of the Wadi Butm, named after the butm (wild pistachio) trees which still form a ribbon of fertility winding through the desert, now arbitrarily cleft by the highway. A short walk in the wadi-bed beyond Amra can transport you within minutes into total silence among the trees.

Amra was where the Umayyad caliphs came to let their hair down, far from prying eyes in Damascus. Probably built between 711 and 715 by Caliph Walid I, it is unmissable for the frescoes covering its interior walls. Joyously human, vivid and detailed, they stand in stark contrast to the windswept emptiness of the desert, and feature an earthly paradise of luscious fruits and vines, naked women, cupids, musicians, hunters and the kings of conquered lands. The first Islamic edict ordering the destruction of images came from one of Walid’s successors, when Amra’s frescoes were just five years old, but for some reason they were overlooked and have managed to survive 1300 years of fire and graffiti.

The Visitor Centre includes an interpretation room, with good information about the building and its history. As you approach, what you see first is the water supply system – a cistern, well and saqiya, or turning circle (an ox or a donkey went round and round this circle to draw up water).

The central aisle and arches

The main door opens southwards into the main hall, which is divided into three aisles; facing you at the back is a small suite of rooms probably reserved for the caliph. At first sight, the frescoes are disappointingly sparse, scratched with graffiti and – after the brightness of the desert sun – almost invisible. But if you wait a few minutes to let your eyes adjust, the frescoes become much easier to see, and much more rewarding to linger over.

On the sides of the arches facing you, setting the tone of the place, are a topless woman holding up a fish [e on our map] and a nude female dancer welcoming visitors [f]. Above the entrance is a woman on a bed [a], with figures by her side, a pensive woman reclining with a winged angel [b] and a female flautist, a male lute-player and a dancer [c], with another nude woman [d]. The central aisle that you’re standing in mostly has real or fantasized scenes from court life: aside from women, there are horsemen, archers and people sitting and talking [g].

The west aisle

At the far end of the right-hand (west) aisle, a woman [o] reclines on a golden couch beneath an awning, with a male attendant and a woman seated on the ground nearby; at the head of the couch is a bearded man who pops up in many of the murals and who, archeologists have surmised, might have been in charge of the bath-house. Above the figures are two peacocks and a Greek inscription referring to victory. Below is what looks like a walled city, and below that, a decorative geometric pattern runs at eye level around the room. Near the corner – and difficult to make out – are six kings [p], all conquered by Walid: the Byzantine emperor, the last Visigothic king of Spain, the Persian emperor, the king of Abyssinia and two others, now obscured (the king of India, the emperor of China or the Turkish khan). Next to them is a strikingly clear nude female bather [q], surrounded by onlookers, one of whom is the bearded man; he’s also watching male gymnastics [r]. Above, wild asses, their ears pricked, are being driven into nets. Round near the entrance are some grapes and fragments showing curled toes [s].

The throne room

If the suite at the back – sometimes called the throne room – has not been closed off, you can see the leopards [j] and fruit trees [k] decorating the side walls. On either side of where the throne might have stood are male and female figures – one, very pregnant, representing fertility [l]. Dominating the back wall is a seated king [h], possibly Walid; two attendants with fans or fly-whisks keep him happy and there’s a frieze of partridges around his head. On either side are what were presumably royal withdrawing rooms, with mosaic floors [m] and murals of fat grapes, giant pomegranates, acanthus leaves and peaches or heart-shaped fruit [n].

The east aisle

Back in the main hall the east aisle has, near the entrance, a large leaf design [t] beside hunters killing and butchering asses inside huge nets [u]. The whole of the east wall is devoted to a hunting scene of saluki hounds chasing and capturing asses [v]. At the far end are the muses of History and Philosophy [w], alongside Poetry [x]. Dominating this aisle, though, are everyday scenes overhead, depicting metalworkers, carpenters, blacksmiths, hod-carriers and jolly working camels.

The baths

The door in the east wall leads into the baths, which show a more intimate style of decoration, probably the work of a different artist. The first room is thought to have been a changing room (apodyterium) or a cool room (frigidarium), originally floored in marble with benches on two sides. Above the door is a reclining woman, gazed on by a stubbled admirer and a cupid [A]. The south wall has a sequence of little figures in a diamond pattern, including a monkey [B] applauding a bear playing the lute [C]. Opposite the door is a woman with a very 1960s hairdo [D]; next to her are a flautist [E] and a female dancer [F]. On the ceiling overhead, blackened by smoke, is a fine sequence showing the three ages of man, with the penetrating gaze of the same man in his 20s, 40s and 60s. Next door is a tepidarium, with a plunge pool and a hypocaust system to allow warm air to circulate beneath the floor and up flues in the wall. Beside the door is a tableau of three nude women [G], one of them holding a child; if you follow the picture round to the right, a woman is pouring water [H] and is about to bathe the child [J].

The last room, a domed steam room, or caldarium, is next to the furnace; the holes in the wall all around supported marble wall slabs, and there are a couple of plunge pools. Above is the earliest surviving representation of the zodiac on a spherical surface [K]. Dead ahead you can easily identify Sagittarius, the centaur, with the tail of Scorpio to the left. Ophiuchus the serpent-holder is above Scorpio and below an upside-down, club-wielding Hercules. From Scorpio, follow the red band left to Gemini, the twins, and Orion. The whole map is centred on the North Star; just to the left of it is the Great Bear. Above and at right angles is the Little Bear, and twisting between the two is Draco, the snake. Just to the right, Cepheus is shrugging his shoulders, next to Andromeda with outspread arms. Cygnus the swan is just by Andromeda’s left hand.

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updated 26.04.2021

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