Special report from Jordan, Part 3 (Desert Castles)

Story and photos by Christine Loomis

Windows of Qasr KharanehThey aren’t really castles. Nineteenth-century archaeologists dubbed them Desert Castles for lack of a better term. There may be a fortress among the handful of buildings, but most were “country estates,” built in the 700s by caliphs of the powerful Umayyad Dynasty. Here the caliphs could rest from travel, do business, or entertain away from prying (religious) eyes. Yet these ancient structures rising out of Jordan’s stark eastern desert evoke the romance of castles, providing a stone-edged view into the past and historical context that make what they’re called unimportant.

Except as “castles” they may more easily draw tourists to this relatively unvisited region less than 200 miles from Jordan’s northeastern border with Iraq. Three, in particular, are on major roads, close enough to Amman and each other to be easily visited in a day.

Qasr Kharaneh (also Harraneh or Kharana, depending on your source) looks most like a fortress but likely served as a way station on eastern roads connecting Amman with points east. Its maze of cool, dark rooms surrounding a compact courtyard even today offers respite from the searing desert heat. Graceful arches to nowhere and narrow passageways beckon visitors to explore and imagine what life was like here long ago.

Racy fresco at Qasr Amra.

A short drive away, Qasr Amra is a visual wonder, its vivid frescoes in stark relief to the relentless monotone of the surrounding landscape. This small bathhouse is what remains of a larger complex where the caliphs apparently sought earthly pleasures. The frescoes, depicting cupids, hunters, animals, and assorted naked women, are so beautifully preserved it’s easy to become lost in the timeless stories they tell.

Garden view of Qasr Azraq.

Qasr Azraq is arguably the least visually appealing. Instead of the reds and golds of sunlit sandstone, Azraq is a ruin of forbidding gray basalt. But its history is colorful. There has been a fort here since Roman times, evolving over centuries until Lawrence of Arabia commandeered it for his headquarters in 1917. Features like somewhat frightening “steps” built into walls and places to climb and wander, along with a lovely garden near the entrance, make Azraq well worth visiting.

The surrounding city, an ancient natural oasis with wetlands currently being restored by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), is one of the few places in this region with tourist accommodations. Azraq Lodge, RSCN’s eco hotel, is a top option (www.rscn.org.jo).

The Castles
Closest to Amman :Kharaneh, Amra, Azraq, Hallabat
Off the "Desert Castle Loop" but still accessible: Mushatta
Accessible only via 4-wheel drive and a guide: Tuba, Burqu

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