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The History of the Desert Cadtle of Petra, Jordan

The deserts of Jordan are full of lonely oases, for those that stop long enough to look.

The Kingdom of Jordan offers a dazzling array of sites despite being such a small country. From the ancient ruins of Petra, to Roman ruins, to the desert castles of early Muslim princes, to Crusader-era castles, Jordan has much to offer the traveler.

The Desert Castles of Jordan sometimes get overlooked in lieu of the more famous sites, most notably Petra, the incredible ancient city carved out of stone that was featured in the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

This oversight is unfortunate because the Desert Castles offer visitors a glimpse of early princely Islamic life and incredible views of the desert as most are far from any city or habitation.

“Drink chay (tea) if you are hot,” advised Abdulla, the guard at Qasr al-Hallabat, one of Jordan’s Desert Castles. “It will make you cooler.”

I was reluctant at first to drink the hot beverage offered considering the heat. A cold soda, I thought, would be better. Not wishing to offend my host, I drank the hot liquid and quickly discovered its magic. The heat of the tea caused me to perspire, and when the desert breeze blew it actually cooled me off.

We were sitting under a tarp used by the guards as a refuge from the treacherous sun. Abdulla and his fellow guard were surprised to meet a lone foreigner in such a desolate spot. They were used to tour groups who came and went in a flurry of questions and snapshots, whereas I had arrived alone via one of the local mini-van buses.

Qasr al-Hallabat, now a crumbling mass of orange-brown blocks, was once an old Roman fort later converted into a 7th century retreat by the local ruling Umayyad princes.

“The Umayyads were the first Caliph dynasty of the Muslim world,” explained Abdulla while the other guard gently dozed off. “The Umayyad rulers of Amman built castles throughout the desert for them to escape to when city life became too hectic. They liked to come to places like al-Hallabat and remember the desert.”

Palaces would be more the appropriate term for Jordan’s Desert Castles. Not that they resemble the palaces of Europe in scale and grandeur but the word “castle” generally conjures up in the mind a military structure built for war and occupation whereas these desert “castles” were not used for any military purposes by the Umayyads.

A dozen or so of these palaces dot the Jordanian desert. The Umayyads would come to these desert retreats to meet with their Bedouin allies, to hunt, and to be entertained by musicians, dancing girls, and storytellers. By the late 8th century, the Umayyads had been overthrown and their desert palaces lapsed into disuse.

For long centuries afterwards, those who took notice of these structures lying out in desolate patches of desert speculated as to their purposes and who used them.

I let Abdulla and his partner get back to their work and went up the sandy hill where Al-Hallabat stands. Al-Hallabat is a jumble of broken masonry blocks with a few scattered solitary walls supporting vanished ceilings. The Umayyads had overhauled the old Roman fort that once stood here to build Al-Hallabat so there is a blend of both styles to be seen in the remaining columns and archways.

From Al-Hallabat, I walked two kilometers to Hammam Assarah, a bathhouse that was used by visitors to Al-Hallabat. The desert here is not the picturesque desert you might imagine from the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” or in any French Foreign Legion film. The desert here was empty and desolate and relatively flat. One can see for miles and miles in every direction.

I was the only thing moving at that time, or rather I was the only thing stupid enough to be moving in the middle of the day save for a few suspiciously present vultures. In the distance, I watched ephemeral dust devils twist slowly across the barren landscape.

It was nice and cool inside the bathhouse. There three small, unadorned chambers inside with a still-intact dome roof. It was so quiet and peaceful that I drifted asleep on a pile of stones and dreamt that I was an Arabian prince enjoying a nice hot bath with my private harem.

I was rudely pulled from my pleasant dreams by a van-load of German tourists. They came, they saw, they snapped photos and left. With my illusionary bath and harem now gone, I decided to move on down the road so I took off for the distant main road.

My hitching thumb pulled over a taxi, which my timid wallet did not want. The taxi driver though, wasn’t picking up fares for business. He was headed to Iraq. When he asked where I was from I told him New Zealand — figuring that outside of Australians nobody hates Kiwis. Normally I would have disguised my American background by saying I was Canadian, but the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, got in trouble some years back sneaking into Jordan using Canadian passports.

The driver wasn’t too inquiring. He was simply exercising the rule of hospitality that one finds ingrained among desert peoples. His taxi was a white station wagon with a dark purple velvety interior. A large golden medallion hung from the rear view mirror. The driver wore white robes and a checkered headscarf. It was a strange sight to be seen emerging from the empty desert and I wondered had it somehow been conjured up for my benefit.

He dropped me off near Qasr Azraq then whisked away to Iraq or back to whatever genii-inspired mirage he was summoned from.

Qasr Azraq is built of black basalt stone and like Al-Hallabat, Azraq was once a Roman fort that guarded the routes from the Arabian desert to southern Syria. The future Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid II (ruled 743-744 AD) used Azraq as a place of refuge from the strict religious enforcement of his uncle, the then-reigning Caliph Hisham ibn Abdul al-Malik (ruled 723-743 AD).

Al-Walid II was a very unpopular ruler because he was said to have led an immoral life. No doubt Qasr Azraq witnessed some of the controversial Caliph’s indulgent activities.

Azraq was redesigned in the 13th century and seven centuries later served as a short-term headquarters for Lawrence of Arabia while he was fighting the Turks during World War I. Lawrence complained that the castle’s great swinging door, a left-over from Roman times, would shake the whole place whenever it slammed shut. Though large and heavy, the entrance door is perfectly balanced and can be swung easily by a finger and apparently too easily as Lawrence’s discomfort showed.

The castle is in the midst of Azraq Oasis. Lawrence once called the oasis “…magically haunted, a luminous, silky Eden.”

Today, however, the waters have been evicted from Lawrence’s Eden and the oasis has nearly dried up due to environmental neglect and water siphoning. Steps are now being taken to bring the oasis back to life.

I was fortunate to catch one of the few buses that run along that lonely road back to Amman. The next day I hired a taxi with another traveler and went to three more castles.

Qasr Mushata is located near Amman’s airport and is one of the largest of the Umayyad palaces. It is believed to have been constructed by the loose-living Caliph Al-Walid II but it was never finished, probably due to his premature death in battle. The palace is a mixture of several architectural styles: Romano-Byzantine, Sassasian-Persian, and Coptic (Christian Egyptian).

The quaint bathhouse of Qasr Amra was our next stop. Amra is a World Heritage Site due to its frescoes of early Islamic art and murals of zodiac symbols. Amra has three chambers once used for hot and cold baths. After a long ride through the desert, arriving at Amra must have been a wondrous relief for the Umayyads.

Further down the road, Qasr Kharaneh is the most castle-like of all the desert castles. Kharaneh is shaped like a caravanserai, which led some experts to believe it might have served in that capacity. Kharaneh is square-shaped with two levels and the corners are rounded into towers though too small to be effectively defensive. There are holes in the wall that appear to be slits for archers but are too narrow.

Our last stop was Qasr Azraq. Having seen it the day before, I only walked around outside the castle this time. I was thinking about the Umayyad dynasty and about their ultimate fate. Under their leadership from 661 to 750 AD, the Islamic world spread eastward to India and westward into Spain. In Europe they had advanced as far as France and would have continued had they not been defeated at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD.

The Umayyad Caliphs had been great supporters of the arts and sciences. Their most notable contribution to architecture was the incredible mosque — the Dome of the Rock — in Jerusalem. In the political arena, the Umayyads helped to meld the conquering Arab desert peoples with the urbanized conquered native people.

Despite these accomplishments they were plagued by revolts and civil strife. The Umayyads could not shake off their reputation of being too secular and too concerned with worldly pursuits rather than religious ones. Their desert castle retreats serve as mute testimonies to these charges.

In the end, the Umayyads amassed too many internal enemies and were overthrown. The Persian Abassids defeated the Umayyads in battle in 750 AD then ruthlessly tracked down and killed the remaining Umayyad princes. Only one prince, Abd-ar-Rahman I, escaped the culling and eventually made it to Spain. From there Rahman would set up a new Umayyad dynasty that would rule in Spain for over seven centuries until 1492, when the last Muslim stronghold fell to Spanish Christians.

The Umayyad dynasty has long since vanished into the dusty pages of the past but their remaining structures such as the Dome of the Rock and the desert castles still stand as lingering monuments to their way of life and their brief but influential dynasty.

David Weber

David Weber is a historian who lives in Japan.