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Volume 41, Number 5September/October 1990

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Enigmas in Stone

Written and photographed by Rami G. Khouri

Shimmering on the far horizon in the desert haze, they rise like distant mirages to taunt and tease, spectral buildings, challenging you to wipe your eyes and take a second look. Is that really a foursquare castle, towered and fortified, emerging from the barren plains of the Jordan desert? What is a domed brick building doing all by itself, a hard day's march from civilization? And why is a lavishly decorated bath complex set alone in the middle of a deserted steppe strewn with black basalt stones ?

The structures are not mirages. The castles, baths and fortified palaces, collectively known as Jordan's "Umayyad desert castles," are real. Most were built in the seventh or eighth century by Umayyad rulers - members of an early Muslim dynasty, based in Damascus, which generated an Arabian art and architecture rooted in the Greco-Roman-Byzantine traditions of the eastern Mediterranean world. The buildings were once thought to be the desert retreats of Umayyad princes and noblemen.

Recent research, however, has radically revised historians' understanding of these monuments, stimulating a new appreciation both of the Umayyads' art, and of their skill at hydraulic engineering, through which they harnessed scarce desert water resources. It is becoming increasingly evident that the "Umayyad desert castles" were not exclusively Umayyad, did not exist in an isolated and barren desert environment, and, with a few exceptions, were never even true castles at all.

There are at least a dozen Umayyad sites in Jordan today, most of them easily accessible from the capital, Amman. From here, a series of new roads and resthouses permits visitors to take in the half-dozen finest "desert castles" in a one-day trip. The sites with the most extensive remains are the fresco-filled baths of Qasr 'Amra, the unfinished brick palace at Mushatta, the Qastal palace, mosque and related monuments, the fortress-like Kharranah castle, and the palace, mosque and extensive agricultural facilities at Qasr al-Hallabat. Qasr Tuba - sited in the middle of the desert, well away from paved roads or villages - is more remote, but also more exciting to visit.

Since Jordan's desert castles were first visited by Europeans and Americans in the late 19th century, they have been presented to the world through the romantic eyes of Western Orientalists, whose imagination typically tolerated - even demanded - a certain poetic license in interpreting the art, culture and architecture of Arabia and Islam. For nearly a century they were viewed as reflecting the Umayyad caliphs' nostalgic desire to leave behind the urban bustle of their capital in Damascus and to retreat to their roots: the desert Bedouin's carefree lifestyle (See Aramco World, September-October 1968). In their remote and lavishly decorated desert retreats, the theory had it, princes, caliphs, governors and noblemen endulged in hunting, falconry, racing horses and camels, bathing and eating, and poetry recitals.

Such popular legend, however, has proved more durable than accurate. During the past decade, scholarly analyses and archeological excavations at several Umayyad desert estates in Jordan have radically revised our knowledge of the role of these still enchanting, still partly enigmatic complexes. Although located in what now seems to be isolated desert terrain, in the Umayyad period (AD 661-750), they represented the ability of a rich and dynamic culture to expand beyond its urban heartland in Syria, and beyond the cities of western Jordan, to exploit the agricultural and trade potential of what, in the pre-Islamic era, had been the marginal frontier regions of the southeast.

Dr. Ghazi Bisheh of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, who has spent two decades analyzing and excavating Jordan's desert castles and contemporary structures in Syria and Palestine, says that scholars' previous focus on the architecture and art of the castles has recently shifted to seeking a broader understanding of the total environmental and economic context in which these sites existed. "The desert castles were always studied independently, and not as part of more extensive desert complexes," Bisheh says.

The French scholar Jean Sauvaget first suggested in the late 1930's that the desert castles were not pleasure lodges but self-contained economic units, based on water conservation and storage, agriculture and trade. More recently, Harvard University's Oleg Grabar has elaborated on Sauvaget's theory, and several Jordanian and foreign scholars have provided evidence from excavations at several sites.

"The archeological evidence supports Sauvaget's theory that these were integrated agricultural complexes," Bisheh says, "but we still have to determine the full political and cultural context in which they were built."

The tribes of the Jordanian desert were fervent supporters of the Damascus-based Umayyads, and Bisheh suggests that the desert complexes may have been designed to maintain close contacts with those tribes. The complexes flourished on the political, financial and military support that flowed from Damascus, and without such direct support, they faded away soon after the end of Umayyad rule.

It is also inaccurate, the new theory holds, to lump all the complexes together as a single genre, for each had a specific purpose related to its location - baths, residence, caravan station, trading post or security outpost. Grabar suggests the use of the term "country estates" rather than "desert castles," while others today refer to them as desert complexes or even desert farmsteads - given the presence of water systems and agricultural fields at almost every one.

Grabar also connects these complexes to the long historical tradition of a personal aristocratic architecture, reflecting "private needs and whims" and paralleled historically in Europe by Roman country villas, medieval farmsteads, Renaissance and Baroque-period Italian castelli, and, in the 18th and 19th centuries, English country estates and French chateaux. In Jordan, most were probably built by local rulers, but some may have been built by or for the Umayyad caliphs themselves. That point is perhaps peripheral, however, for Jordan's Umayyad desert estates are in any case, in Gabar's words, "the most spectacular and original monuments of early Islamic secular art."

Rami Khouri has written two guidebooks to Jordan's antiquities, heads that country's Friends of Archaeology society, and is host of a television interview program.

This article appeared on pages 32-39 of the September/October 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1990 images.