Scattered throughout the black basalt desert, east of Amman, the Desert Castles stand as a testament to the flourishing beginnings of Islamic-Arab civilization. These seemingly isolated pavilions, caravan stations, secluded baths, and hunting lodges, were at one time integrated agricultural or trading complexes, built mostly under the Umayyads (661-750 AD), when Muslim Arabs had succeeded in transforming the fringes of the desert into well-watered settlements.
The wealthy Umayyad Caliphs, who used to come to Jordan for leisure and in hunting trips, built some beautiful Castle-like Qasers ,”Palaces”, at the heart of the eastern Jordaniandesert. In their remote and lavishly decorated desert retreats, princes, caliphs, governors and noblemen indulged in hunting, falconry, racing horses and camels, bathing and eating, and poetry recitals. Most of those palaces were built in the seventh or eighth century.
Those places are known now as “Desert Castles“. Most famous is Qaser Amra, one of the best-preserved castles, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its interior walls and ceilings are covered with lively frescoes, and two of the rooms are paved with colorful mosaic. Others include: Qaser Mushatta, Qaser al – Kharrana, Qaser at -Tuba and Qaser al-Hallabat ..
Aside from being widely considered as the most spectacular and original monuments of early Islamic art, these complexes“Desert Castles“ also served practical purposes: namely, as residences, caravanserais, and baths. Desert Castles
In the year 661, the capital of the newly founded Arab Muslim Empire moved from Medina and Kufa in the Hejaz and Iraq respectively, to Damascus, the seat of the Umayyad Dynasty. The years which immediately followed the death of the founder of the dynasty, Mu’awiya bin Abi Sufyan, were spent in overcoming rival claimants to the Caliphate. Desert Castles
The latter part of the reign of AbdulMalek bin Marwan (685-750) seems to have been an exceptionally favorable interlude for the Umayyads. Being more firmly on the saddle, one can detect a sudden release of talent and creativity, which was manifested by the construction of the first major Islamic monument in Jerusalem, the majestic Dome of the Rock. The architectural program initiated by Caliph AbdulMalek, was continued and expanded by his son, Al-Walid, who built the great mosques of Damascus, Jerusalem, and Medina. Desert Castles
These are some of Jordan’s most atmospheric ancient buildings – most notably Qasr Kharana and Qusayr Amra, which lie near each other on a fast road between Amman and the oasis town of Azraq (itself worth a stop for its nature reserve, eco-friendly lodge and links to Lawrence of Arabia). A different road to Azraq, from the city of Zarqa, passes by the well-restored fortress of Qasr Hallabat, making it easy to follow a loop in either direction from Amman.
Harder-to-reach sites include the ruined Qasr Mushatta, near Amman’s airport, and Qasr Tuba, marooned in the roadless desert south of Kharana.
The Desert Castles
These unique paintings prompted UNESCO to include Qusayr Amra in its World Heritage list. The plan of the building consists of 3 main elements:
A rectangular audience-hall with a throne alcove in the middle of the south side.
A bath complex which comprises 3 rooms corresponding to the frigidarium, tepidarium and calidarium, i.e. the cold, warm and hot rooms respectively.
The hydraulic structures which include an elevated water-tank, a masonry-lined deep well, and the apparatus for drawing water from the well into the water-tank.
Two feeder-pipes drained water from the elevated tank to the shallow pool or fountain in the audience-hall into a plastered tank, which stood above the furnace.
It should be noted that Qusayr Amra was not residential in character, nor was it intended to be occupied over an extended period of time.
Externally, the palace is nearly 144 m2, articulated by regular semi-round buttresses with a single monumental gateway in the middle of the south facade. Internally, the space is divided into what has been called “The Successive Symmetrical Subdivision into Three”.
This sophisticated plan shows an axial, focused on the basilica reception-hall in the northern central tract. This hall, which ends in a triconch, was entered through a triple-arched entrance, the central arch being higher than the lateral ones, thus resembling a triumphal arch.
The monument reveals a mixture of Romano-Byzantine, Sassanian and Coptic influences evident in its construction technique (combination of stone and baked brick), roofing system, and decoration. The most remarkable feature of Mushatta, however, is its elaborately carved stone facade which now graces the Pergamum Museum in Berlin.
A 3-quarter round buttress supports each of the 4 corners, and 2 quarter-round towers line the entrance in the middle of the south side, whereas half-round buttresses occupy the middle of the 3 remaining sides.
The exterior walls are pierced by narrow openings for lighting and ventilation, not arrow slits as sometimes described. On either side of the passageway that leads to the central court, is a long room, which served as a stable and storeroom. Originally, a small water tank stood in the middle of the courtyard to collect rainwater from the rooftops. Additional water was obtained from seep-holes dug in the adjacent valley-bed.
The construction and architectural technique betray Sassanian influences, such as the use of squinches and shallow vaults resting on transverse arches, in addition to carved stucco decorations
These include a palace (qasr), a mosque, a huge reservoir, 8 cisterns dug into the western slope, an irregularly shaped agricultural enclosure with an elaborate system of sluices, and a cluster of poorly built houses which extend to the northwest of the reservoir. The bath complex of Hammam Assarah, is situated 2 km to the east of the qasr.
Originally Roman, this castle was rebuilt during the Umayyad period when it was elaborately decorated in mosaics, carved stucco, and fresco paintings, thus transforming the castle into a palatial residence. There are about 150 inscriptions within the castle, mostly in Greek. The vast majority of these inscribed stones, which were reused as building material, belong to an edict issued by the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius (491-518 AD).
The Umayyad rebuilding program was accompanied by a remarkable development of the site: the addition of an extra-mural mosque with its beautiful cusped arches; the agricultural enclosure with an elaborate irrigation system; and the bath complex of Hammam Assarah.
A chain of fortresses defended the entrance to the Oasis; Aseikim, 15 km northeast of Azraq and Uwainid, another 15 km to the southwest, close to the Shaumari Nature Reserve. The present fort at Azraq, built entirely from local basalt stones, was occupied from the time of the Tetrarchy (300 AD), as an inscription of Diocletian and Maximian suggests.
Another Latin inscription indicates that Azraq may have been called Dasianis or Basianis (The Basic) in Roman times. An Arabic inscription above the main entrance indicates a major rebuilding program in 1237 AD. During the Umayyad period, it was the place of retreat for Al-Walid II, who indignantly struck away from the court of his uncle and reigning Caliph, Hisham bin AbdulMalek (724-743 AD).
An interesting feature of Azraq South (Azraq Al-Shishan), is a large hexagonal reservoir built of dressed basalt stones and strengthened at regular intervals by rounded and triangular buttresses, placed against the outer and inner faces of the enclosing walls. These features bring to mind the large enclosures at Qasr Al-Hir East and Qasr Al-Hir West in Syria, which date to the Umayyad period. Azraq fort also was the headquarters of Lawrence of Arabia during the Arab Revolt.
Some 2 km to the north of the fort is an Umayyad farmhouse (Qasr Ain Al-Sil), which includes oil-presses and a bath consisting of 3 rooms: cold, warm, and hot.
The enclosure walls are buttressed by semi-round towers, except on the north side where the 2 gateways are flanked by 2 square rooms. The northwestern quadrant is nearly intact and several lengths of curtain-wall exist on the western side. The rest of the building, which was never completed, is unpreserved.
The qasr forms a square measuring 67.80 m to the side with 3-quarter round towers at the corners, and 3 semi-round towers on each side except the east entranceway. This entrance leads into a vestibule some 16 m deep and opens onto a central courtyard approximately 28 m2. Around the courtyard, 6 self-contained units (bayts) are grouped, each consisting of 5 rooms. Both the portico and the rooms were originally 2 floors.
To the north of the qasr is the mosque with a round tower resting on a square base. This tower, with its spiral staircase, is all that remains of a minaret, which may well be, the earliest surviving minaret in the Islamic world.
More than 100 cisterns and substantial barrage, 400 m long and 4.25 m wide have been identified within a one kilometer radius from the qasr. Plans are underway to restore the qasr and the ancient water system.
Numerous capitals decorated with acanthus leaves and Arabic inscriptions, as well as a water gauge to measure the depth of water in the reservoir, were recovered from the site.
A stone column capital, one of 18 capitals that belong to the water reservoir at the Umayyad palace at al-Muwaqqar, with an inscription that reveals that the reservoir was built by order of the Yazid II (r. AH 101–5 / AD 719–23). It was found in May 1943 in a yard belonging to a private house located within a few hundred meters of the ruins of the palace. It was broken into two pieces which fit together neatly.
Three sides of the capital are decorated with a row of acanthus leaves separated by paired volutes. One side contains a ten-line Arabic inscription that stands out in relief from a plain background. This inscription reads: ‘In the name of the most merciful God. Has ordered the building of this pool the servant of God, Yazid Commander of the Faithful, may God favour him and prolong his life and happiness and bestow upon him blessings and bounties in this world and the next. It has been built by the care of ‘Abdallah the son of Sulaym.’ Between the eighth and ninth line of the inscription three words are incised in smaller characters, they read: ‘Khamsat Ashara dhira’ (15 cubits). The drums of the column, upon which this capital once sat, would have been immersed in the pool; each drum with other incised words indicating the number of cubits; thus forming a water gauge. The highest measurement is on the capital itself, being 15 cubits.
The audience-hall is roofed by 3 tunnel-vaults resting on the sidewall and two intermediate transverse arches. The northeastern corner of this hall had a fountain, which received its water from an elevated tank to the east. The bath proper consists of 3 rooms corresponding to the cold, warm, and hot rooms.
Like the audience hall at Qasr Amra, an alcove leads into two small side rooms each one incorporating three narrow windows. The bath area can be entered through a doorway at the northern corner of the hall. This leads first into the apodyterium (changing room) through which to the right one can enter the tepidarium (heated room).
Directly across from this entrance another passageway leads to a small bay. The caldarium is accessed off the northeast side of the tepidarium and includes two semicircular niches, each featuring a central window that flanks the main domed area. The dome itself was lacquered with rose-colored cement on its exterior with shale-covered supports on its interior. In addition, it was punctuated with eight round apertures of which remnants can still be detected. Once decorated in marble, mosaics, and frescoes, these attributes of Hammam As-Sarah are today in the process of being restored.
Hammam As-Sarah is linked to Qasr Al-Hallabat and was built in the 8th century when the Qasr was rebuilt by Umayyads. It was used as a bath complex and hunting lodge.
The Umayyad Desert Castles were initially regarded as desert retreats (Badiyas) for Umayyad princes who, being of nomadic origins, grew weary of city life with all its rigors and congested atmosphere. Those castles allowed them to return to the desert, where their nomadic instincts could be best expressed, and where they could pursue their pastimes away from watchful eyes of the pious minded.
This theory, however, was challenged by the French scholar, Jean Sauvaget. These buildings were located on extensive and elaborately irrigated farmlands, which were often accompanied by various hydraulic structures, and therefore, he argued, they were centers for agricultural exploitation. This was reflected by the Umayyad policy to expand the agricultural zone into marginal areas. Yet another and more recent explanation for the raison d’étre of these buildings is what might be called the “Architecture of Diplomacy”. That is, maintaining close contacts with the tribes of the region who were vehement supporters of the Umayyads.
It is also possible that some of these structures, like Qusayr Amra, Kharaneh and Mshash, served as resting places for high government officials on their way to Hejaz. This restricted and temporary use of these buildings may explain the scarcity of pottery shards from those sites. A combination of factors and coordinates therefore might have been involved in the construction of the Umayyad Desert Castles, and no single element is sufficient to explain them all.