One of the best-preserved, most dramatic, but also most enigmatic of the desert castles is Qasr Kharranah, now easily accessible alongside the new highway to Azraq, some 55 kilometers (34 miles) east of Amman. It is certainly the most imposing of the Umayyad desert complexes, and probably the one that caused the entire collection to be called "castles." Its thick stone walls are interrupted by rounded interval and corner towers, projecting the look of a classic Roman frontier fortress. Though only about 35 meters (115 feet) on a side and two stories high, Kharanah is none the less impressive, with its clearly delineated towers and main entrance exaggerating its height.
First examined by Western scholars in 1896, Kharranah was only studied scientifically in 1979, when a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, Stephen Urice, surveyed the site and sank a series of excavation trenches. Upon concluding his field work, he questioned two previous assumptions: that Kharranah was a castle specifically built for defense, or a caravanserai. Though it looks very much like a military structure, with stone towers and "arrow slits" in its external walls, the towers are in fact solid, and rather than providing defensive stations for a resident garrison, may simply have buttressed the massive walls. And the "arrow slits," instead of flaring to their greatest width on the inside of the wall, in order to offer the defender both protection and maneuverability, are of a constant width and too high off the floor for easy access. More likely, they provided light and ventilation, as a visitor today will quickly appreciate within the cool but draft-free interior.
Kharanah's internal arrangement may also shed light on its original purpose. The central courtyard is surrounded by as many as 61 rooms on two stories, most arranged in suites of four or five communicating rooms around a large hall. Two low-angled, long staircases flanking the entrance lead to the second story and on to the roof. Some second-story rooms retain their fine decorative stonework, including engaged colonnettes, rosette friezes and squinches supporting semi-domes. A painted inscription in one of the upstairs rooms has been dated to November 24,710, and a nearby shorter inscription includes the name of 'Abd al-Malik bin Omar, thought to be a member of the entourage of Walid I on his return from a trip to Makkahin 710.
The inscriptions and the almost exclusively Umayyad pottery found in the excavation trenches indicate that Kharranah flourished between the middle of the seventh and the middle of the eighth century; Some Byzantine pottery sherds and three building stories with fragmentary Greek inscriptions suggest to some scholars that a Byzantine building may have existed earlier on the site.
The excavations revealed how Kharranah's inhabitants secured their water supply - a cistern in the courtyard, plastered in white, like all the internal walls of the building. The cistern was probably filled by rainwater collected on the roof, and from thamill, or water-collecting wells sunk into the gravel bed of Wadi Kharranah - a system that present-day nomads and farmers in the area still use.
The rather modest water supply system weakens the argument that Kharranah was a typical caravanserai, which would have required a far bigger system; to cater to the needs of caravans composed of hundreds of humans and beasts.
"Kharranah was clearly not a defensive military fortress, nor was it a caravanserai," Urice said in a recent interview. So what was it?
Urice's novel theory is that it may have been designed for occasional use as some kind of political gathering place - a conference center of sorts, where, during the early Umayyad period, urban and tribal leaders could meet in a lcoation that was both relatively private and mutually accessible. But such a hypothesis is difficult to prove - leaving Kharranah, in the words of Oleg Grabar, as "probably the best preserved of the Umayyad desert castles, and the least understood."
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.