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Volume 41, Number 5September/October 1990

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Written and photographed by Rami G. Khouri

The most recent of the Umayyad complexes to be excavated in Jordan is at the modern village of Qastal, 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Amman on the airport highway. Since the beginning of this century, the ruin which gives the village its name has been thought of as a Roman fort, largely because of its fort-like shape and the assumption that its contemporary Arabic name derives from the Latin Word for a small castle,, castellum. But surface examinations by German scholar Heinz Gaube, and two seasons of excavations, in 1983 and 1985, by a French team headed by Dr. Patricia Carlier and Frederic Morin, have shown that it is actually one of the oldest and most complete Umayyad provincial communities in the Middle East.

The 68-square-meter (732-square-foot) palace, its main entrance decorated with exquisite carved stonework, had four circular corner towers and 12 semi-circular interval towers. Its central courtyard, underneath which is a large cistern, was surrounded by six apartment complexes on two stories. The palace was lavishly decorated, and its floors were paved with mosaics showing geometric, floral and animal motifs.

Several factors suggest that the palace was originally built by the long-reigning Umayyad Caliph 'Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (685-705), one of early Islam's greatest builders, who was also responsible for the construction of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Immediately north of the palace is the rectangular mosque, with the remains of its rectangular, rather than semi-circular tnihrab, or prayer niche, and its circular minaret - one of the oldest minarets still standing. Southwest of the palace is an extensive early Islamic cemetery with scores of inscribed tombstones dated to the Umayyad and the subsequent Abbasid period. Some of the very earliest tombs are oriented towards Jerusalem, rather than Makkah, as later became customary. More than a kilometer (1100 yards) to the east is the 400-meter (1300-foot) stone dam that the inhabitants of Umayyad Qastal used to store rainwater for irrigation. Carlier estimates that the dam may have stored as much as two million cubic meters (528,000,000 US gallons) of water. Northwest of the palace, near the modern village, is the 4000 -cubic-meter (million-gallon) reservoir formed from the one-time quarry that provided building stones for construction of the palace and dam.

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 page 36 of the September/October 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

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