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Volume 19, Number 5September/October 1968

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Retreat To The Wilderness

As did the eighth-century caliphs of Damascus, take leave of the luxury of the city and...

Written by Jan Van Os
Photographed by T. F. Walters
Additional photographs by William Tracy

In the early morning, drive south from Amman, capital of Jordan. Follow the new Desert Highway which skirts the fertile but rugged mountains all the way to Aqaba in the extreme south. After half an hour—no more—turn left, enter the great desert that begins here and head east until you come to Jordan's deserted desert castles.

The dozen or so, so-called "castles" in present-day Jordan and Syria, are not at all like the massive stone fortresses built centuries later by the Crusaders and Saracens. Although fortified, they were principally pleasure palaces and hunting lodges for the eighth century Umayyad caliphs of Damascus. Recent descendants of Bedouin warriors from the Hijaz, the caliphs seemed to have felt a need to retreat occasionally from the comforts of their oasis capital to the solitude of their native desert. There they could engage in the manly sports of hunting, hawking and horse racing without entirely giving up their newly acquired, more sophisticated tastes for music, dancing and the Turkish bath.

With a sturdy car at your disposal and an able man behind the wheel you can, on a circular trip into the flat black-flint desert east of Amman, visit five castles in one day. The going is rough but pleasant, especially in the early morning.

After turning off the asphalt highway near Zizia, south of Amman, the sandy trail crosses the Hijaz Railway and strikes off for the Qasr al-Mushatta, a ruined pile started by Caliph Walid II in the first half of the eighth century but never completed.

The façade of the palace was originally decorated with ornate carvings, but only one large section, just off the main entrance, stands intact. The rest were hauled off to Berlin before the First World War, a gift to Kaiser Wilhelm from the Turkish sultan Abdul Hamid.

Within the remnants of a square wall dominated by 23 watch towers, many sections of the central structure are still standing, though the dome over the great hall has collapsed. An unusual feature of al-Mushatta is that burnt bricks were used in a country where most ancient buildings were of stone or, as in the similar palace of al-Tuba not too far away, of sun-dried bricks.

The next castle, Qasr al-Kharana, lies at least an hour and a half east of al-Mushatta and riding, rattling and bumping along the rolling desert, you wonder how man, beast or plant keeps alive in such barren areas. Today, in time of great drought, the Jordan Government sends tank cars with water out into the desert to supply the Bedouins and their flocks, but how did they survive in the old days?

Al-Kharana is built on a scarp dominating a wadi to the south and at midday seems to float in the air. In fact it squats foursquare on the rocky plain, defending a busy "crossroad" where several desert tracks converge. It was built, according to a Kufic inscription, about A.D. 710, but is well preserved. It stands two stories high, almost square, with sides measuring 115 and 118 feet, round towers on each corner and half-round towers between them. Courses of large undressed stones alternate with rows of smaller stones, the whole covered with an unusually hard plaster surface. High up on the wall is a thin line of slanted bricks set in a herringbone pattern below which are two levels of arrow slits. In spite of its grim first appearance al-Kharana, as fortresses go, is oddly attractive. Its layout, simple but clear, suggests that whoever designed it was an experienced architect. Some of the large rooms are decorated with hard plaster, finely carved. Al-Kharana is a palace built not only with safety but also with "togetherness" in mind and reminds the traveler in more than one way of some of Western Europe's fortified farmhouses.

About 30 minutes north and east is Qasr al-Amra. Thirty minutes in the dry season, that is, for al-Amra lies in shallow Wadi Butm named for the butm or turpentine tree which grows thickly there. After a winter rain a car must be coaxed across the muddy valley. The wadi, of course, is the reason the castle was built there. In the spring the tree-shaded stream was the haunt of gazelle and its underground water, tapped by a deep well, now dry, supplied the lodge's elegant baths. Qasr al-Amra is quite different from al-Mushatta and al-Kharana. It is the smallest as well as the friendliest of the three, and it is almost intact—thanks partly to a low dike constructed by the Jordanian Government to protect it from flash floods.

Al-Amra has only one large, triple-vaulted hall, with a few smaller rooms and the baths. This palace was built by Caliph Walid I and fine frescoes once covered almost every inch of the interior walls. The lower wall paintings have been obscured by the countless scribbling and carving of visitors' names, a harmful heritage of the insignificant. Fortunately, height—and a thick coating of campfire soot—has protected others sufficiently so that they can be restored and properly guarded. In the History of Byzantine Art Dalton says, "No such extensive decoration in fresco is known to have survived in any other secular building earlier than the Romanesque period."

The baths have a frigidarium or cold room and a domed hot room or caldarium. Herein mid-desert, painted on the ceiling of the baths and still easily identifiable, is a real treasure: frescoes which historians say mark the earliest known attempt, more than a thousand years ago, to map the heavens on a dome, a primitive planetarium showing the night sky filled with the various constellations and the zodiac.

A little further east, a long 50 miles east of Amman, is al-Azraq, an oasis village set amid groves of palms on the edge of rugged lava country at the head of Wadi Sirhan. Here a great swamp, now a national park, still attracts the flocks of migrating ducks and waterfowl that made it another ideal spot for a castle. Qasr al-Azraq was built there, in fact, long before the Umayyads, probably in Roman times, on a site inhabited still earlier by Nabateans.

During crusader times Qasr al-Azraq was rebuilt by Azz al-Dyn Aybak (AD 1213-1238) and it was used by Colonel T. E. Lawrence during the First World War as headquarters.

The castle is constructed of black basalt, a material that is strong but fairly easy to cut and dress and was used in remarkable ways. One door, for example, is a huge slab of stone which still swings on stone hinges set in stone cups filled with oil. The ceilings were also made of stone slabs. G. Lankester Harding, former Director of the Department of Antiquities in Jordan, describes similar ceilings in a ghost village in the north of Jordan also built in Roman times. "The walls were corbeled out, usually in two stages ... and the remaining area covered with large slabs of stone. If the gap was too wide to be bridged direct by slabs, then long, thin joists of basalt were cut, laid across the corbels and the slabs laid on these."

One recent visitor to Qasr al-Azraq, impressed by this unusual ceiling, pointed it out to his companions, and added with assurance that no doubt its precarious design limited its use to the top-most story—only to discover that the floor on which they had been standing was exactly the same.

On the way back to Amman, on the edge of a great mudflat, before reaching the asphalt highway again, you come to the fifth castle, Qasr al-Hallabat, a Roman fort, probably built in the reign of Caracalla as a defense against desert raiders. A low wall about a mile to the east, which stretches three miles in a straight line, may have been designed to break up a charge by nomadic raiders on horseback. A Greek inscription tells of its rebuilding during the reign of Justinian. During the seventh century it served as a monastery and a small mosque was added by the Arabs in the 12th century.

Jan van Os, formerly with Aramco World Magazine, is note an assistant editor of the Reader's Digest in the Netherlands.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the September/October 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1968 images.