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Volume 14, Number 3March 1963

In This Issue

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Jordan's Desert Castles

Early caliphs found a way to combine the comforts of city living with the peaceful solitude of the desert.

As rulers, early caliphs knew and appreciated the luxuries of city living. As men of Arabia they also felt the impelling call of their ancestral home in the desert. To fulfill both desires they built elaborate retreats in the "black desert" of what today is Jordan, where the shifting sands and wailing winds reminded them of the stirring days of their fathers before them. There, in somber solitude, game was pursued on spirited horses, falcons blinked unhooded eyes from soaring heights, comradeship was welded in vigorous sport, and men could drink sweet coffee in shaded quiet and talk of the past and future glories of Islam.

These retreats were the desert castles of the caliphs of the Ommaid dynasty, during the period 661 to 750 A.D. Small in size, representing fortresses, pleasure palaces, watch-posts and hunting lodges, the ruins of more than a dozen of these qasrs furnish both archaeologists and tourists with a glimpse of the ancient wonders of the Middle East.

Familiar to all who have ever traveled from north to south along the shining tracks of the historic Hejaz Railroad, the "black desert" is a wasteland of sand and black pebbles stretching as far as the eye can see, broken here and there by small hills and dry stream beds. Lying roughly between Amman and Madeba and once secluded, the desert today is easily penetrated by truck or car. The route, more or less denned in the shifting sands of the open country, is a boulevard into the fabled days of the first caliphates.

Once across the narrow-gauge rails of the Hejaz line, modern civilization slips away and the museum of time begins to present its wares. The route leads eastward and the denizens of the desert begin to appear—the mammoth lizard and his smaller relations dart this way and that; an occasional wawi scuttles, bushy tail between his legs, away from the scent of man and automobile; desert birds flutter in the air at the unfamiliar sound of a motor; the ever-wheeling eagle presents white body and coal-black wing tips against the deep blue sky. The distant horizon, broken by scalloped hills, shimmers in the waves of heat rising from the desert. Now and then camels lumber into view—a last futile stand of Time against the diesel truck now dustily careening along the desert routes. Nearer the scattered villages of this isolated region sheep and goats search out the last vestiges of winter's greenness under the watchful eyes of little boys, shy girls or aged uncles. All this is the lure of the open land which tenaciously held its place in the racial memory of Islam's first rulers.

There are many ruins between Amman and Madeba, some well-preserved, others collapsed into rubble. The first of these is Qasr el-Mushatta, a square structure almost five hundred feet on a side with 23 towers guarding its faces. Walid II was probably the builder of this enterprising structure, in the first half of the eighth century A.D., but for some reason his desert palace was never completed. In time, weather, earthquake and human acquisitiveness took their toll, and today only a trace remains of the promised grandeur of its carved blocks. Now, the vaulted rooms within the original square enclosure loom high above the surrounding debris. Lavishly decorated pillars stand at the entrance to the central trefoil hall, once domed with fire-burned brick. The vaults of the long side rooms are better preserved than the central section, but lack their front and rear walls and resemble Quonset huts in the desert. Given to Kaiser Wilhelm by the Turkish sultan Abd el-Hamyd just before the First World War, Qasr el-Mushatta was almost completely stripped of its carvings, which were carted away to Berlin where most were destroyed in the ravages of World War II.

From Qasr el-Mushatta the track leads northeast to an ancient Roman reservoir half the size of a football field. Yazid II had a palace here, but its traces are almost gone. This is el-Muwaqqar, once a caliph's triumph, now the site of only a small village and a Desert Patrol post. One of the cisterns at this qasr yielded an hydrometer whose Kufic signs show a level mark of over thirty feet, indicating a fantastic supply of the water so precious in the arid desert.

Qasr Kharana, which lies southeast along the track from el-Muwaqqar, is perhaps one of the most interesting of all of the desert castles because of its foreboding fortress-like appearance. This great rectangular structure seems to leap out of the black-pebbled desert floor as a symbol of the power of the caliphs of old. One of the earliest of the Islamic-built castles (a painted inscription dates it to 711 A.D.), this building looks the most rugged of all, with arrow slits and tiny windows adding to the invulnerable look of its round-towered walls. Its strategic position, on a great scarp where ancient caravan routes crossed, also suggests a fortress in the truest sense. Built of large blocks of undressed stone, with rows of smaller stones laid between the courses, the face of the structure was completely plastered over to emphasize its appearance of solidarity. Plaster was liberally used, architecturally and for decoration, inside as well.

Stepping through the high-linteled southern portal, one enters a typical fortress-lodge of the early period. Long rooms on each side of the entry passage housed the stables. In the rather plain lower story, other long rooms extend along the other three sides, with smaller ones sandwiched in among them. In the center is an open court where the remains may still be seen of the columns of the balcony which went around its sides on the second story. Stairways lead to the upper rooms where the floor plan includes smaller rooms taking the place of the stables below. On this floor an almost baroque ornateness is seen everywhere—carved plaster medallions, richly decorated architectural features, stone-framed designs, as well as the inherent decorativeness of the vaultings, domes and intricately carved columns. This urge to decorate is evident even in the rows of tilted bricks used to form zig-zag patterns across the face of the outer walls. The ornateness of this decoration and some of the unique building methods employed have led experts to see the influence of Mesopotamian art in el-Kharana.

Qasr Kharana has also become the subject of much folklore, both local and foreign. Tales of disappearing stairways, still-warm cooking fires, suddenly appearing domestic animals—and no inhabitants—have shrouded the place with an air of mystery. Neither springs nor cisterns seem to exist in the neighborhood, further enhancing the qasr's spectral atmosphere and further beclouding its shadowy past.

At Qasr el-Azraq, some twenty-five miles farther to the east, a thriving modern village shares its palm trees, lush green vegetation, and marshy plains with ancient ruins. White salt hills dot the landscape, sharply contrasting with the long black basalt fences of the tilled fields. The site is a strategic one, for it guards the northern end of Wadi Sirhan, the ancient trade highway running north and south along this side of the desert. Many routes still converge here today. Here, too, was the headquarters of Lawrence of Arabia at the time he unleashed the final effort of the united Bedouin tribes to drive the Turkish invaders from the area during the First World War.

The ancient castle at el-Azraq is an imposing one, as befits its location. Tremendous slabs of rough-hewn black basalt were piled high to form an enclosure almost 275 feet square. The front gate was made of a single huge block of the same stone. Inscriptions date the present building to around 1236-37 A.D., the time of Aziz el-Din Aibak, but a dedicatory inscription to Diocletian and Maximian indicates an earlier Roman structure, and still another inscription records the activities of the Emperor Jovian (about 363 A.D.). Since the Nabataeans of Petra also used Wadi Sirhan as their main thoroughfare, even earlier fortifications may have existed in the area.

From el-Azraq the track leads back across the desert toward Jordan's cities, and more tumbled ruins.

Due west, around Jebel el-'Uwenid, and then southwesterly, lies Qasr 'Amra—one of the smaller hunting lodges, but one of the most luxurious of all. Complete with bath, this small qasr has three long parallel vaulted halls, each with a windowless resting room at its end. A great cistern and well supplied a generous quantity of water. Built during the reign of Walid I, early in the eighth century, this well-preserved complex contains some of the finest examples of early painted frescoes known.

On the western wall of the middle room, the Caliph still sits, in company with Chosroes of Persia, the Byzantine emperor, the Negus of Abyssinia, and the Visigoth Roderick. On other walls throughout the complex of rooms, philosophy, history and poetry are personified, along with Nike, Eros, musicians, merry-makers, birds and one of the earliest zodiacal representations known. Scenes from daily life—the potter, the carpenter, farmers, servant girls—also grace the walls. The bath is a separate complex at one end of the building, with the classical divisions of frigidarium, calidarium and a furnace room. In the midst of the empty desert, such elaborateness marks this as a hunting lodge worthy of the best sports club today.

More austere is the fortress-castle some distance to the northwest of 'Amra, beyond the haphazard intersection of half a dozen desert routes at the edge of the mudflats of Qa Khanna. This is Qasr Hallabat, converted into a defense and pleasure castle by the Ommaids from the earlier building activities of Nabataeans, Romans and Byzantines before them. Only some scattered carvings remain of the Naba-taean period, but the present structure was raised around the turn of the second century, as attested by an inscription from that time. Probably built as a defense against desert raiders, the original fortress was later enlarged by the Romans. In turn, the dux of Emperor Justinian, one Flavius Anastasius, again rebuilt the citadel in the sixth century, probably for the same purpose. Later on the site housed a monastery, and then finally became an Islamic citadel. Wells and cisterns supplied water, for the desert here is arid wasteland most of the year. Great heaps of fallen stone mask most of the decorative remains, but here and there bits of carved stone may be seen, mainly reflecting the influence of the Nabataeans, whose commercial kingdom flourished in the area and whose art remained long after that kingdom had fallen to Rome. This vital art was revived in Islamic times to delight the eyes of the rulers of Arabia Deserta.

From Qasr Hallabat the desert route returns westward to one of Jordan's modern highways, where sand gives way to macadam and civilization intrudes once more—leaving the ancient castles to the shifting desert sands.

This article appeared on pages 10-13 of the March 1963 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March 1963 images.