The lonely desert castles of Jordan

The Kingdom of Jordan may not have the oil wealth of its Middle East neighbors to its east. It does, however, have wonderful art and historical riches available now for ordinary travelers to view in this troubled area. Petra is certainly Jordan’s crown jewel and a must for every tourist, but, having gone that far, travelers shouldn’t bypass Jerash, Madaba (July ’99, pg. 146) and Jordan’s capital, Amman. To these treasures, we’d add another site.

Several years ago, due to airline schedules, my wife, Moreen, and I arrived in Amman two days before our tour began. Instead of staying in our hotel, we hired a local guide recommended by our hotel to show us Amman and to drive us into Jordan’s eastern desert to visit several of the country’s desert castles. Few travel companies include areas east of Amman in their tours.

The widely scattered desert castles, actually a mix of forts, caravanserais, hunting lodges, etc., were either built or rebuilt by caliphs (Islamic rulers) during Islam’s Umayyad era (A.D. 661-750). The rebuilt ones were outpost ruins of the Nabataeans (Arabs who dominated this area during pre-Roman times) or Roman forts built during the reign of Caracalla (A.D. 198-217) for defense against desert tribes.

Most of the original Umayyad constructions were built by Caliph al-Walid I (A.D. 705-715). Some historians believe these caliphs, centered in Damascus, Syria, enjoyed returning with their entourage to their Bedouin desert roots, possibly to escape the rigid limits of their religion. Others challenge this, believing the castles were located in areas of irrigated farmlands or that these castles were used as centers to maintain contact with Bedouin tribes that strongly supported the Umayyads.

Qasr al-Kharana

When seen from a mile or so away on the bare Jordanian plains, Qasr al-Kharana definitely appears to be a castle, certainly more so than the other two we visited during our day trip. This qasr (fort) is in an excellent state of preservation, further enhancing this initial sighting.

Based upon its approximately 40-foot-high walls and semicircular towers with slits for archers, the Umayyads likely reinforced the castle’s defense capabilities when rebuilding this former Roman fort in A.D. 711. Some scholars dispute this. They instead believe, due to the castle’s grand interior stucco decorations, Qasr al-Kharana was remodeled only as an extravagant residence for Caliph al-Walid I.

Qasr al-Azraq

The castle of Qasr al-Azraq was built, probably, by Romans, modified by Umayyads and later completely rebuilt in the years A.D. 1236-1237 during the Islamic Ayyubid dynasty. Its recent historical fame is tied to the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, who wintered there in 1917 while pressing Arabs to revolt against the, then, controlling Ottoman empire.

During the winter’s freezing temperatures and occasional snow, it must have been rough living there due to the castle’s exposed openings. Architecturally, Qasr al-Azraq is interesting due to the oblique orientation of its mosque, positioned so the castle’s qibla (interior back wall) faces Mecca for prayers.

Qasr, or Qusayr, Amra

Moreen and I believe Qusayr (small castle) Amra is the most impressive of the three castles we visited, due to its beautifully plastered frescoes. This undoubtedly was the reason Qusayr Amra was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

Some of these pictures are certainly out of character with Islam and its caliph builder. One fresco depicts a nude woman bathing. Another shows rulers of the world paying homage to the caliph. Also, there is the beautiful “Dome of Heaven” fresco in a cupola depicting a map of the Northern Hemisphere with signs of the Zodiac. This fresco is one of the earliest pictures showing the universe as being round and not flat. These frescoes also show the talent of Syrian and Arabian artists when Umayyad Caliph al-Walid I (A.D. 705-715) built the castle.

Though the Desert Castles of Jordan don’t receive their deserved historical attention, they do offer travelers a window through which to view life and architecture in desolate areas of the Middle East during the Umayyad period. This era (A.D. 661-750) was short, but these Islamic rulers left important architectural dividends: these desert castles, Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (Aug. ’02, pg. 125) and the Lebanese city of Anjar (Aug. ’00, pg. 157). Moreen and I have been fortunate to have visited each of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


• To view excellent color photographs of Jordan and its Desert Castles using the Internet, search for Jordan Tourism Board. For general data regarding Jordan, go to or www. For other tourism information, write to the Jordan Tourism Board, 6867 Elm St., Ste. 102, McLean, VA 22101, or phone 703/243-7404.

• It’ll cost approximately $100 for a reputable driver and a 4- to 5-passenger vehicle for a 6- or 8-hour tour of Amman and the Desert Castles. Meals and tip would be extra.

• Though there is no current travel advisory for Jordan, readers should always use caution, especially in these times, when visiting countries discussed in this column.

Coming up: let’s visit the Great Mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia.