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THE DESERT CASTLES
QASR EL-KHARANEH | QASR AMRA | QASR EL-AZRAQ | QASR EL-HALLABAT
The Desert Castles
Scattered across the remote plains of the Eastern Jordanian desert are many intriguing caravanserais, ancient hunting lodges, bath houses, and ruins of fortified forts and palaces, collectively known as the ‘Desert Castles’. Built in the harsh desert by the Umayyads during the 7th and 8th century AD as a testimony to their love of hunting and leisure and as a retreat from city life, these magnificent desert complexes were once richly decorated with mosaics, frescoes and marble and provided refuge to caravans crossing the harsh arid desert.
Built by the Umayyads in (AD 711) on a Roman or Byzantine site, the mighty two-storey building of Qasr el-Kharaneh with its imposing thick-walled structure and narrow slits looks like a military fortress but some experts believe it was a caravanserai for passing caravans while others believe it served as a retreat or a meeting place for the Umayyad leaders. Its history and purpose remain uncertain. The castle is remarkably well preserved with a central courtyard overlooked by chambers on both floors and stables for animals right inside the gate.
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Quseir Amra is one the best preserved and the most charming of all the Umayyad desert buildings in the Eastern Jordanian desert, built as a bath-house (a place of leisure) by the Umayyad Caliph el-Walid I around (AD 711). The real outstanding attraction of Quseir Amra is the frescoes adorning its interior walls and ceilings for what they portray of human life: men hunting, athletes competing, women bathing and musicians and dancers performing, but the most remarkable of all is the one found on the little dome of the Calidarium (hot steam room) known as “the Dome of Heaven”, which is one of the first representations of the heavens on a domed ceiling, showing the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere and the signs of the Zodiac. A furnace is located adjacent to the domed steam room and it is believed that the bath-house was once installed with a sophisticated under-floor heating system.
The imposing fortress of Qasr el-Azraq was originally built by the Romans as a military outpost then used by the Byzantines, and later by the Umayyad caliph Walid II, on his hunting expeditions around the marshes. During the 16th century AD, Qasr el-Azraq was used as a military base for a garrison of Ottoman Turks but is most famous for having been the headquarters of T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia,” in World War I during the Great Arab Revolt against the Turks. The black basalt stone fortress is almost square-shaped, with walls and towers encircling a central courtyard, a well and a small mosque built on the ruins of a Byzantine church.
The Umayyad palace of Qasr el-Hallabat was constructed on a site that was originally occupied by a Nabataean outpost, followed by a Roman fortress built as a defense against raiding desert tribes, and finally converted to a Byzantine monastery. What remains today of the palace is some ruined walls with arches, and corner towers built in blocks of light-colored limestone with dark bands of basalt, along with mosaic floors that once covered most of the rooms. 3 km away is “Hammam es Sarah” bath and hunting lodge complex which was once beautifully decorated with marble and mosaic work. Visitors can still see in some areas the remains of the under floor piping system that was used to heat the bathing rooms.