SANDSTONE CASTLES: THE ANCIENT CITIES OF JORDAN
More than a decade has passed since Petra, the ancient rock city, first appeared on the big screen in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The ancient city of Petra served as a stunning background for the tense scenes. However, the desert castles of Jordan were the second most important archaeological secret that Hollywood failed to uncover.
The majority of the land area in this Middle Eastern country, which is about the size of Portugal, is dry and barren. Located between Syria to the north, Iraq to the east, and Saudi Arabia to the east and south, the black basalt desert is a seemingly unending and desolate expanse to the east of the capital city of Amman. It’s primarily flat, with low-lying vegetation like bushes and cacti.
While the area is lacking in major thoroughfares, it is crisscrossed by dozens of desert tracks. Pilgrims traveling to Mecca, traders transporting products between cities, and caliphs traveling to their palaces have all relied on these routes over the centuries.
Iconic desert castles and pavilions stood out like lonely rocks in a sea of sand. The Umayyad dynasty, the first powerful Islamic monarchy, constructed the majority of them between A.D. 661 and 750.
Despite how isolated these oases may seem now, they were once bustling centers of trade and agriculture on the outskirts of the desert, complete with canals and thriving communities.
These massive palace-fortresses were used for a wide variety of functions, and were often built atop or integrating elements from previous Roman and Nabatean structures. It is possible that the spectacular desert pavilions may be utilised as fortifications. But primarily, as our guide Mohamed put it, they were places where the Umayyad caliphs could “get away from it all,” leaving the worries of ruling behind and retreating here to hunt and hawk, relax in private baths, meet with the tribal groups they ruled over, and occasionally offer hospitality to passing caravans.
Because my time in Amman was limited, I could only visit three of the many castles in the desert.
Qasr Kharana (qasr meaning palace or castle in Arabic) is one of the nearest and easiest of the desert castles to visit from the capital, Amman, and is located about 37 miles (60 km) east of Amman. It’s also one of the oldest; an inscription on a side entrance shows it was constructed before 710 A.D. Qasr Kharana is widely admired as a masterpiece of Islamic architecture and art from the early Islamic period.
Kharana appears to be a perfect miniature castle from the outside, with semicircular towers in each wall and practically circular tower buttresses at each corner (except for the entrance wall, which has two towers on either side of the enormous doorway).
Although it may look like a fortress from the outside, this desert castle’s upper floor is nothing more than a series of stables and storage rooms arranged around a courtyard.
Stone chambers here feature the kind of ornate decoration you wouldn’t expect to see in a fortress: carved medallions, semi-domes, and graceful columns. The too-deep arrow slits were designed for ventilation and lighting, after all. Qasr Kharana was likely utilized as a meeting place for the Umayyad amirs and their Bedouin subjects.
Located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the east is Qasr Azraq, a fortified settlement that was formerly in the centre of a sizable natural oasis used by travelers on the way to and from Mecca. The oasis began to dry up in the 1980s when water was pumped to Amman, a city 20 miles away; Jordanians are currently working to stop this.
In the third century AD, Qasr Azraq served as a Roman fort, in the eighth century as an Umayyad fortification and hunting lodge, in the thirteenth as a stronghold for Mamelukes (enslaved troops who converted to Islam), and in the sixteenth as an Ottoman Turkish garrison. It gained notoriety in the contemporary era, however, when T.E. Lawrence, a famed British soldier and adventurer, and Sharif Hussein bin Ali used it in the winter of 1917–18, during the Great Arab Revolt against Ottoman control.
This enormous square building has walls that are close to 260 feet (80 m) in height. Numerous stables, kitchens, prison cells, and dining halls surround the central courtyard. You can still find horse and camel tethering rings, as well as feeding troughs, in the stables.
Lawrence of Arabia had a room right above the front door. Below his room, in the vaulted entryway, are paving stones with indentations where generations of gatekeepers have used pebbles to play a board game. A modest Roman altar from around the year 1800 stands at the doorway, and in the middle of the courtyard sits a mosque constructed over a Byzantine church.
Amra, the most peculiar of the three desert castles I explored (Azraq, Kharana, and Amra), is located roughly halfway between these two other locations. Amra, along with Petra and the historic site of Um er-Rasas, are Jordan’s three UNESCO World Heritage sites, and they give new meaning to the phrase “getting away from it all.”
This desert castle was constructed in the early eighth century by Umayyad caliph Walid I and operated as a stronghold with a garrison and a house for sport and pleasure.
In Islam, pictures are not allowed. The most impressive aspects of this rather modest pleasure palace are, however, the figurative murals reflecting the secular art of the time that greet me as I approach Amra’s welcome hall.
There’s a whole cast of people on the right wall, from wrestlers to hunters to an Umayyad caliph to a Byzantine emperor to a Visigoth ruler to a nearly-naked woman taking a shower.
Onagers (now extinct Persian wild asses) are being herded by dogs into a net in a hunting scene depicted in frescos on the left wall. The arches that hold up the vaulted ceiling are painted with images of half-naked women.
The nearby Roman-influenced hammam (bath) has a triple-vaulted ceiling and is adorned with beautiful artwork, including a caldarium (hot plunge bath) fresco that represents the zodiac and the constellations.