Umayyad Castles

Overview

Introduction

In the late seventh and early eighth centuries, Umayyad caliphs and princes built quite a number of palaces, retreats, hunting lodges, country estates and caravan stations in the region. Today, they are collectively called the Desert Castles, even though they weren't necessarily castles and much of the land surrounding them was irrigated at that time and therefore not desert.

Most of the ones remaining today (in various stages of ruin, preservation and restoration) are in Jordan. Many of the sites are fairly remote, so it's necessary to travel to them by car, preferably with a driver who knows where they are. Most hotels and travel agencies can advise you on renting a car, hiring a car and driver, or joining a group tour that makes a loop to the various sites. The major sites can be visited in a lengthy day's journey from Amman.

The nearest one to Amman—in fact, it's very close to the airport—is Qasr al-Mushatta. Although it was one of the largest complexes, only a small part of it remains intact, or has been restored, today. (The most impressive feature, a beautifully carved section of the outer wall and two towers, is on display in Berlin's Pergamon Museum.)

Farther east is Qasr al-Kharrana, a well-preserved square building with round corner towers. It has 61 rooms on two levels, built around a central courtyard. Continuing eastward is one of the most impressive sites, Qusayr Amra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The bath complex features some nice fresco paintings on its walls and ceilings depicting hunting scenes, musicians and dancers, and historical personalities. The more technically inclined will enjoy a look at the hydraulic system.

Farther south, Qasr al-Tuba lies deep in the desert and can only be visited with a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. An experienced driver or guide with a compass and plenty of food and water is also an essential requirement. Although never completed, it's still possible to see the layout of its two square enclosures joined by a central corridor. Northeast of Amman is Qasr al-Hallabat, which has a lot of separate structures over a wide area. Some of the buildings, such as the fortress, date back to the Roman period and were rebuilt and decorated by the Umayyads.

Many tours of these sites also include a stop in Azraq. This is perhaps the most popular of the castles. Lawrence of Arabia used it as his headquarters during part of the Great Arab Revolt, and the caretaker will be delighted to show you the room Lawrence used above the gatehouse. The castles lie to the south, east and northeast of Amman.

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