Desert Castles

Stretching east from Amman is a desert region bewildering in its size and ruthless climate; a place of sand and barren basalt landscapes which bear witness to anciant glories. The Ummayed Caliphs of the early Islamic era, out of sofio economic and political concernswho cherished the hard desert life, built a string of palaces, hunting lodges, baths, meeting places, caravanserias and fortresses, in what were then the farthest corners of the desert. Known collectively as the Desert Castles or Desert Palaces, (Qasr in Arabic), the constructions demonstrate the best of early Islamic Architectural ingenuity.


One of the easiest of all the Desert Castles to reach from Amman is situated north-east of the capital, just off the main road that links Zarqa with Azraq. The fortress is the most ostentatious and complete of all the Ummayed compounds in Jordan. Its traditional square shape with square corner towers, was constructed on the site of an earlier bastion of second century AD origin. Some scholars have suggested that this fort was erected by the Nabateans. An inscription reveals that the main fortifications were put up during the rule of Caracella (AD 198-217). However, the Ummayed overhaul of the site tore down most of the Roman and Byzantine craftsmanship, replacing it with ornate frescoes.


Crafted from the region’s black basalt rocks, the town’s ancient fortress, with its ominous ambiance, has taken advantage of Azraq’s important strategic position. It is thought to have been initiated by the Roman’s during the last years of the 3rd Century AD. Numerous remodellings and rebuildings continued as the castle changed hands. Its location protected the town’s key water source. It was redesigned by the Mamlukes in AD 1237, and was also used by the Byzantines, Ummayeds and Mamlukes. It is almost square-shaped with walls 80 meters long encircling a central courtyard. At each corner is an oblong tower. The primary entrance is through a small doorway, protected by a basalt hinged door. Inside is a cool chamber that leads into the central courtyard. Various rocks in this vestibule are inscribed with Greek and Latin. Within the main courtyard is a mosque and beside it is the main well.


Amra is 85 km (19 miles) south west of Azraq. Of all Ummayed buildings in eastern Jordan, Amra is the most loved, and charming. Amra gains its fame from the outstanding frescoes adorning its interior walls and ceilings. They are thought to be the earliest example of pictorial art made in the Islamic era, having been painted during the middle years of the 8th Century AD if not earlier. The designs have stood the passage of time remarkably well.


Qasr Mushatta is extraordinary because of its grandeur and construction, its colossal size and its amazing location. Mushatta is square in shape with its immense yellow brick walls stretching 144 meters (158 yards) in each direction. At least 23 round towers nestled along the walls. The palace is usually attributed to the Ummayed Caliph Walid II, who would have constructed it between AD 743 and AD 744. It was never completed.


It is no more than about 14 km (9 mile) north-east of Qasr Mushatta. The palace once stood on a peak above the cross roads of several ancient desert tracks. We know, from the Kufic-inscribed water gauge, once in a huge cistern rear by, that Muwaqqar was constructed by the Ummayed Caliph Yazid II Ibn Abd el Malik. Alas, almost nothing remains today of the palace.


Qasr Kharana is located 55 km (34 miles) east of Amman with its imposing walls, and panoramic views, it looks like a castle, but experts think that it was built as a palace. It is maintained that Kharana was probably not a caravanserai as there was no substantial water source or major trading route passing by. Instead, it is suggested that Kharana was conceived as a lavish meeting place for Ummayed leaders.


Like several of the Qasers of Jordan’s eastern desert, Qasr Ain es Sil was never used as a palace. It was a farming estate with a bathing complex attached.


Qastal which gives its name to the modern village adjacent to it, is one of the oldest of Ummayed palaces. The remains include a complete range of buildings and facilities, such as a mosque, central palace, cemetery, small houses, baths, a reservoir and even a dam. Ummayed ingenuity becomes apparent when you realize that the dam area was formed from the quarry which itself supplied the stone for Qastal’s palace. 

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