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Desert Castles is the unifying name for more than two dozen fortifications located east of Amman along the roads leading to the borders of Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
During the reign of the Umayyads, the stone desert (badiya) was well developed.
According to historians, the caravanserais and fortified structures were located within one horse day’s journey from each other, thus representing a grid with a spread of no more than 50-60 km between neighboring structures.
It is known that the Umayyads were distinguished by their severity of government and were not very popular either in Europe or in the Middle East. Three centuries before the Crusades, the Umayyads made a couple of attempts to conquer Constantinople (unsuccessfully). They abolished tax breaks for Muslims (jizyyas) all the way from Morocco to Turkey and made numerous enemies in three parts of the world. As a result, the Umayyad dynasty was harshly cleaned up. Moreover, the most significant monuments of the era of their reign were destroyed. This is largely why the now abandoned fortifications in the middle of the Jordanian desert are of significant historical and scientific interest.
Palaces or castles? Military fortifications or hunting lodges? Researchers still have no consensus on the purpose of the structures. The word “Qasr” itself gives an involuntary reference to the Tunisian, Libyan and Algerian fortified desert settlements – the ksars.
The essence, in general, is the same – a residential complex intended both for farming and for a full-fledged, comfortable living, interrupted by rare arrivals of the nobility in the name of a bath and hunting.
We will start our tour with a visit to the Desert Castles in eastern Jordan, the beautiful examples of Islamic architecture and art.
The mysterious Harana Castle, Amra Castle with its zodiacal dome and early Umayyad frescoes and the black basalt Roman / Medieval Islamic fort in Azraq leave no one indifferent.
The first place we visit today is Qasr Kharana, a classic example of an Arabic travel palace or caravanserai, a kind of inn built to protect caravans from robbery attacks.
The exact date of its construction is unknown, but one of the many inscriptions on its walls dates back to 710, that is, the time of the Umayyad dynasty. Built in the shape of a regular square, it was an ideal place for travelers to spend the night. The two-story building could accommodate up to 400 people, camels and other animals were driven into the courtyard, the heavy door was tightly closed at night, and the desert around was perfectly visible through the loopholes.
This wasn’t the only fortification in these area, such castles were located every each 50-60 kilometers.
Qasr al-Harana consists of 61 rooms, distributed over 2 levels around a central courtyard. These rooms are grouped as separate units, each of which consists of a central hall and a couple of rooms overlooking the central hall, outer walls of which have small windows for lighting and ventilation.
Originally, there was a small water reservoir in the middle of the courtyard to collect rainwater. Additional water was obtained from dug holes through which it percolated from a nearby valley.
Arrival to the masterpiece of Islamic art, Qasr Amra, built in the desert by Caliph Walid I for entertainment and amusement at the very beginning of the VIII century.
In fact, this is not just a palace, but a bathhouse. In the courtyard, a forty-meter well was dug, the water from which was raised using an ingenious mechanism and pack animals. The steam room, along with the main audience hall and two side rooms, constituted the entire small complex, the walls of which are entirely decorated with carefully executed frescoes, which makes it a curious example of medieval art. Here you can find images of the caliph’s royal friends and foes, a portrait of Walid I himself and his entourage, allegorical figures of Victory, Poetry and Philosophy, hunting scenes. Looking at the frescoes, you come to the idea that once in this desert area it was possible to hunt not only gazelles, but also lions, hares, deer and other animals.
Of particular interest are the frescoes showing workers sawing trees, a bricklayer and a potter engaged in their difficult craft, by which one can judge the tools and costumes of ordinary people of that time. Qasr Amra is included in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List.
Arrival to the last point of today’s journey – black basalt Qasr Al-Azraq.
The castle is almost square in shape. Eighty-meter-high walls surround the central courtyard. In the center of a small courtyard, there is a small mosque and a main well. Each corner of the outer wall is reinforced with a rectangular elongated tower.
Qasr Al-Azraq was built during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Diocletian (Gaius Aurelius Valerius, Roman emperor in 284-305 AD), the very ruler who abdicated power of his own free will, and when asked to return to the throne, he replied that if the petitioners saw the cabbage he had grown, they would not bother him with such stupid requests. Diocletian also built a road here, the Diocletian Strata, linking Al-Azraq with Damascus and Palmyra.
Al-Azraq remained a military post during the Byzantine period, and during the 7th and 8th centuries the Meyad Caliph Walid II (reigned from 743 to 744 AD) used the fortress as a military base and hunting lodge.
Under ancient Rome, the fortress acquired strategic importance. It was a kind of border post located on the eastern border of the empire behind which Persia was located.
In modern Jordanian history, Qasr Al-Azraq is directly connected with the Arabian uprising and especially with Lawrence of Arabia (British intelligence officer in the Arab East, translator of Homer, author of the memoir “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”) and his famous adventures.
During the passage of the uprising itself, the Al-Azraq fortress served as the headquarters of Lawrence, where he, together with his associates, spent the winter of 1917-1918.
One can only imagine how many royalties found shelter and lodging in the safe walls of Qasr Al-Azrak during hundreds years of its existence.