Castles in the desert

By Julie Skurdenis
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East of Amman, Jordan’s capital, stretches the desert, a seemingly endless empty expanse of land wedged in between Syria to the north, Iraq to the east and Saudi Arabia to the south. It’s mostly flat, dotted with low-growing shrubs, bushes and cacti. There are few roads here, but there are dozens of desert tracks crisscrossing the expanse. They’ve been used for hundreds of years by pilgrims en route to Mecca and by caravans carrying goods from one trading post to another.

It was here in the desert, in the earliest days of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, that the Umayyad caliphs from Damascus built palace-fortresses. Often built on top of and incorporating earlier Roman and Nabatean structures, these palace-fortresses served many purposes.

They could be used for defense, if necessary, but primarily they were places where the caliphs could, to quote our guide Mohamed, “get away from it all,” leaving the cares of ruling behind and retreating here to hunt and hawk, meet with tribal groups over whom they ruled, and — sometimes — offer hospitality to caravans passing through.

On a trip in April ’06, with just one day for a desert excursion, I selected three of the desert castles, operating — for once — on the principle that “less is more.”

A meeting place

Qasr (palace or castle in Arabic) Kharana, located 40 miles southeast of Amman, is one of the closest and easiest of the desert castles to reach. It’s also one of the oldest, probably built around A.D. 711, this derived from an inscription found on one of the interior doorways.

From the outside, Kharana looks like a perfect mini-fortress with almost circular tower buttresses at each corner and semicircular towers in each of the walls, except for the entrance wall where a pair of quarter-circular towers flank the massive entry.

But appearances can sometimes be deceiving, because although, inside, utilitarian stables and storage rooms surround a central courtyard on the ground level, the upper floor of this desert castle is anything but fortress-like.

Here there are stone rooms decorated with elegant columnettes, carved medallions and semidomes — hardly decorative elements you’d find in a place designed just for defense. Even the arrow slits — too deep to be practical — were meant for ventilation and light.

Qasr Kharana was probably used as a place where the Umayyad rulers could meet regularly with their Bedouin subjects.

A fortress

Thirty miles farther east lies Qasr Azraq, once in the middle of a large natural oasis that was a rest stop for pilgrims and caravans. When oasis water was pumped to Amman in the 1980s, the oasis began to dry up, a process the Jordanian are now trying to reverse.

Qasr Azraq has had a long life — Roman fort in the third century, Umayyad fortress and hunting lodge in the eighth, Ayyubid fort in the 13th and Ottoman Turkish garrison in the 16th century. But its best claim to fame was its use in the winter of 1917-1918 during the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule by Lawrence of Arabia and Sharif Hussein bin Ali, related to Abdullah, present king of Jordan.

Azraq’s courtyard is large, enclosed by numerous storerooms, stables, a prison, a kitchen and a dining room. In the stables, you can still see tethering rings for horses and camels plus mangers to hold straw.

Over the main entrance is the room Lawrence of Arabia lived in, and in the vaulted entry right below this room are paving stones with indentations where countless generations of gatekeepers played a board game using pebbles. Near this entry is a small Roman altar used 1,800 years ago, and in the center of the courtyard, a mosque built atop a Byzantine church.

A pleasure palace

Midway between Azraq and Kharana (and about 50 miles from Amman) lies Amra, the most unusual of the three desert castles I visited. One of Jordan’s four UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the other three are Petra, Umm ar-Rasas and the Dana Nature Reserve), Amra redefines what “getting away from it all” means.

Built around A.D. 711 by Umayyad caliph Walid I, Amra was clearly a pleasure palace, a place for the caliphs to go to relax, hunt and, perhaps, shed a few Islamic restrictions.

Images are forbidden in Islam, but as one enters Amra’s Audience Hall one is bombarded with painted images. On the right-hand wall is a melange of wrestlers, hunting scenes, an Umayyad caliph with a Byzantine emperor and a Visigoth king, among others, even an almost naked woman bathing. On the left wall is a hunting scene with dogs driving onagers (wild asses) into nets. Semiclad women are painted on the arches supporting the vaulted ceiling.

The adjacent baths just to the left of the Audience Hall are also filled with paintings, including one in the caldarium, or hot bath, depicting the heavens with the signs of the zodiac and the constellations.

I had time for only three of the desert castles, but these three are arguably the most important, best preserved and most easily accessible of the many (mostly in ruins) dotting Jordan’s eastern desert. If you have time for a few more, I would suggest Mushatta, lying close to the international airport, and Hallibat, 33 miles northwest of Azraq.

To reach Kharana, Azraq and Amra, it’s best to rent a car or hire a car and driver, as we did. Our day excursion was arranged in advance by FreeGate Tourism (585 Stewart Ave., Ste. 310, Garden City, NY 11530; phone 800/223-0304 or 516/222-0855 or visit www.freegatetours.com) before we left home, and the was cost included in the total paid for our land arrangements (see below). Arrangements can also be made by your hotel in Amman.
If you go. . .

My husband, Paul, and I flew Royal Jordanian Airlines nonstop from New York to Amman, a flight of approximately 11 hours. Airfare cost us $845 each. We bought our tickets through the Royal Jordanian-recommended Northstar Travel (phone 216/901-8182) at a far better price than that quoted by Royal Jordanian itself.

We stayed at the Radisson SAS Hotel on Al-Hussein bin Ali Street in Amman in a spacious Royal Club room with windows overlooking the blue-domed King Abdullah Mosque with twin minarets. The mezze buffet featuring dozens of delectable Middle Eastern specialties is served nightly in the Al Liwan Restaurant and should not be missed. The cost was approximately $20 per person.

Land arrangements for our trip — including nine nights’ accommodation in Amman and two at the luxurious Mövenpick in Petra, excursions with a small group for six days and privately for three days, transfers and admissions — were made through the very competent FreeGate Tourism in New York. The total land cost was $2,840 for the two of us.

—Focus on Archaeology is written by Julie Skurdenis

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

East of Amman, Jordan’s capital, stretches the desert, a seemingly endless empty expanse of land wedged in between Syria to the north, Iraq to the east and Saudi Arabia to the south. It’s mostly flat, dotted with low-growing shrubs, bushes and cacti. There are few roads here, but there are dozens of desert tracks crisscrossing the expanse. They’ve been used for hundreds of years by pilgrims en route to Mecca and by caravans carrying goods from one trading post to another.

It was here in the desert, in the earliest days of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, that the Umayyad caliphs from Damascus built palace-fortresses. Often built on top of and incorporating earlier Roman and Nabatean structures, these palace-fortresses served many purposes.

They could be used for defense, if necessary, but primarily they were places where the caliphs could, to quote our guide Mohamed, “get away from it all,” leaving the cares of ruling behind and retreating here to hunt and hawk, meet with tribal groups over whom they ruled, and — sometimes — offer hospitality to caravans passing through.

On a trip in April ’06, with just one day for a desert excursion, I selected three of the desert castles, operating — for once — on the principle that “less is more.”

A meeting place

Qasr (palace or castle in Arabic) Kharana, located 40 miles southeast of Amman, is one of the closest and easiest of the desert castles to reach. It’s also one of the oldest, probably built around A.D. 711, this derived from an inscription found on one of the interior doorways.

From the outside, Kharana looks like a perfect mini-fortress with almost circular tower buttresses at each corner and semicircular towers in each of the walls, except for the entrance wall where a pair of quarter-circular towers flank the massive entry.

But appearances can sometimes be deceiving, because although, inside, utilitarian stables and storage rooms surround a central courtyard on the ground level, the upper floor of this desert castle is anything but fortress-like.

Here there are stone rooms decorated with elegant columnettes, carved medallions and semidomes — hardly decorative elements you’d find in a place designed just for defense. Even the arrow slits — too deep to be practical — were meant for ventilation and light.

Qasr Kharana was probably used as a place where the Umayyad rulers could meet regularly with their Bedouin subjects.

A fortress

Thirty miles farther east lies Qasr Azraq, once in the middle of a large natural oasis that was a rest stop for pilgrims and caravans. When oasis water was pumped to Amman in the 1980s, the oasis began to dry up, a process the Jordanian are now trying to reverse.

Qasr Azraq has had a long life — Roman fort in the third century, Umayyad fortress and hunting lodge in the eighth, Ayyubid fort in the 13th and Ottoman Turkish garrison in the 16th century. But its best claim to fame was its use in the winter of 1917-1918 during the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule by Lawrence of Arabia and Sharif Hussein bin Ali, related to Abdullah, present king of Jordan.

Azraq’s courtyard is large, enclosed by numerous storerooms, stables, a prison, a kitchen and a dining room. In the stables, you can still see tethering rings for horses and camels plus mangers to hold straw.

Over the main entrance is the room Lawrence of Arabia lived in, and in the vaulted entry right below this room are paving stones with indentations where countless generations of gatekeepers played a board game using pebbles. Near this entry is a small Roman altar used 1,800 years ago, and in the center of the courtyard, a mosque built atop a Byzantine church.

A pleasure palace

Midway between Azraq and Kharana (and about 50 miles from Amman) lies Amra, the most unusual of the three desert castles I visited. One of Jordan’s four UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the other three are Petra, Umm ar-Rasas and the Dana Nature Reserve), Amra redefines what “getting away from it all” means.

Built around A.D. 711 by Umayyad caliph Walid I, Amra was clearly a pleasure palace, a place for the caliphs to go to relax, hunt and, perhaps, shed a few Islamic restrictions.

Images are forbidden in Islam, but as one enters Amra’s Audience Hall one is bombarded with painted images. On the right-hand wall is a melange of wrestlers, hunting scenes, an Umayyad caliph with a Byzantine emperor and a Visigoth king, among others, even an almost naked woman bathing. On the left wall is a hunting scene with dogs driving onagers (wild asses) into nets. Semiclad women are painted on the arches supporting the vaulted ceiling.

The adjacent baths just to the left of the Audience Hall are also filled with paintings, including one in the caldarium, or hot bath, depicting the heavens with the signs of the zodiac and the constellations.

I had time for only three of the desert castles, but these three are arguably the most important, best preserved and most easily accessible of the many (mostly in ruins) dotting Jordan’s eastern desert. If you have time for a few more, I would suggest Mushatta, lying close to the international airport, and Hallibat, 33 miles northwest of Azraq.

To reach Kharana, Azraq and Amra, it’s best to rent a car or hire a car and driver, as we did. Our day excursion was arranged in advance by FreeGate Tourism (585 Stewart Ave., Ste. 310, Garden City, NY 11530; phone 800/223-0304 or 516/222-0855 or visit www.freegatetours.com) before we left home, and the was cost included in the total paid for our land arrangements (see below). Arrangements can also be made by your hotel in Amman.
If you go. . .

My husband, Paul, and I flew Royal Jordanian Airlines nonstop from New York to Amman, a flight of approximately 11 hours. Airfare cost us $845 each. We bought our tickets through the Royal Jordanian-recommended Northstar Travel (phone 216/901-8182) at a far better price than that quoted by Royal Jordanian itself.

We stayed at the Radisson SAS Hotel on Al-Hussein bin Ali Street in Amman in a spacious Royal Club room with windows overlooking the blue-domed King Abdullah Mosque with twin minarets. The mezze buffet featuring dozens of delectable Middle Eastern specialties is served nightly in the Al Liwan Restaurant and should not be missed. The cost was approximately $20 per person.

Land arrangements for our trip — including nine nights’ accommodation in Amman and two at the luxurious Mövenpick in Petra, excursions with a small group for six days and privately for three days, transfers and admissions — were made through the very competent FreeGate Tourism in New York. The total land cost was $2,840 for the two of us.

—Focus on Archaeology is written by Julie Skurdenis