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Volume 41, Number 5September/October 1990

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Qasr al-Hallabat

Written and photographed by Rami G. Khouri

Though the tumbled remnants of the hilltop, fort-shaped structure known as Qasr al-Hallabat, 35 kilometers (22 miles) north of Amman, were examined as early as 1904-1905 by the Princeton expedition of H.C. Butler, it is only since 1979 that excavations and a survey of the surrounding hills and plains by Ghazi Bisheh have brought to light the extensive Umayyad agricultural and water installations of the desert complex.

The main building is 44 meters (144 feet) on a side, with four large rectangular corner towers, originally three stories high, with narrow slit windows. The northwest corner of the castle incorporates a smaller and older fortress consisting of a central courtyard and cistern, surrounded by rooms.

Bisheh's work, and surface examinations by Dr. David Kennedy of the University of Sheffield and Dr. Tom Parker of North Carolina State University, have verified that the inner fort was built by the Roman conquerors of the area in the early second century. It was one of the string of Roman fortresses and watch-towers along most of the length of the Via Nova Traiana (Trajan's New Road), which the legions of that Roman emperor built between AD 111 and 117 to link the important city of Bostra, in south Syria, with the ancient Red Sea port of Ayla, present-day Aqaba. In the third century, the small fort - according to a Latin inscription found during excavations - was expanded into the largest structure which still stands on the site; another inscription, in Greek, tells of its restoration in the sixth century.

During the Umayyad period, however, the castle underwent a major, almost total, renovation, and became the centerpiece of a wider complex which included a mosque, baths, agricultural enclosures, dams, reservoirs, cisterns and water systems. The Umayyad master of Hallabat virtually razed the earlier structure to its foundations, totally rebuilt the internal walls on the same plan as the previous castle, and then redecorated the interior in a splendid, often luxurious, manner. Bisheh's excavations have turned up remains of very high quality mosaics with animal, human, floral and geometric motifs - 30 square meters (323 square feet) of which were stolen last spring, probably to be cut up and sold - as well as frescos and carved stucco with floral and animal designs, carved stone, delicately carved or painted timber decorative pieces, and tinted and painted window glass.

An adjacent rectangular mosque contains inscriptions dated stylistically to the first century of the Islamic era, between the middle of the seventh and the middle of the eighth century. A small but stylish Umayyad bath house, now known as Hammam al-Sarah, was built about two kilometers (1 1/4 miles) east of the castle, and was similarly decorated in fine marble, mosaics and painted plaster.

West of the castle at Hallabat, the Umayyads built or rebuilt at least five cisterns and a huge water reservoir. Bisheh examined a walled agricultural enclosure measuring 270 by 220 meters (886 by 722 feet), divided by internal walls into successively lower rectangular plots, with sluice gates, stone-built water channels and basins-the whole composing an elaborate system to trap the meager winter rains and use them for irrigation in the spring and summer.

Bisheh suggests that the reason for major transformation of Hallabat into an agricultural and trading center "may have been the need to maintain close communication with the tribes settled in the region, who were vehement supporters of the dynasty." Economically, however, they were not a meaningful enterprise, their maintenance requiring a constant flow of funds. "They were abandoned shortly after the fall of the Umayyad dynasty, around tike middle of the eighth century," Bisheh says.

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 34-35 of the September/October 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

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