Castles in the desert

Syria is not the only Middle Eastern country with cool castles - Jordan has its fair share as well. Many of them are not Crusader ruins at all, but earlier Roman or Umayyad structures. What helps to set these four castles - known as the Desert Castles - apart from the rest is their setting in the vast eastern desert of Jordan. We visited four castles (plus an ancient hammam not pictured here) on a day trip from Amman in a rented service (10 JD per person). Surprisingly, none of the places charged admission fees, but the friendly tourist policeman/guide at Qasr al-Kharana deserves a tip.


Qasr al-Hallabat is undergoing restoration, as you can see. There were some fragments of mosaics in parts of the ruins, and lots of different rooms to explore.


Here is a panorama view of Qala'at Al-Azraq, built from that marvelous black basalt rock that makes
Qala'at Marqab so moodily fascinating. Azraq's more recent fame comes from the fact that Lawrence of Arabia used it as his headquarters in 1917. There were lots of ledges to watch out for and a massive stone-block door that still swings on its hinges.


Qusayr Amra is mostly famous for the frescoes inside, which depict some strange goings-on that were not entirely explained to us. There's a large Bedouin tent outside the ruins where you can relax and eat some lunch in the shade, although accompanied by a legion of flies used to tourist fare, and talk to a Bedu guy whose name I forget but who claims to have an Austrian girlfriend. Go figure.


I think my favorite castle of the day was Qasr al-Kharana, which was actually probably not a castle but a caravanserai. A super-friendly tourist policeman took us on a tour and even spoke in Arabic for the benefit of our education, which I thought was extremely generous of him. I enjoyed this castle the most because it was so easy to imagine how the place looked in its prime with bustling crowds, trade, and worship all going on in the same complex. From the roof, there were amazing, expansive views toward Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Palestine/Israel.

I can't help but compare these Jordanian castles to the Syrian ones I visited so many times. And although it might be tempting to make a qualitative assessment of their relative charms, I can honestly say that they are different, but (almost) equally attractive. The Syrian castles have their gorgeous settings, are devoid of tourists, and are a little more dangerous and expansive than their Jordanian counterparts. Upon making a visit, however, you have to admit that a stony desert stretching as far as the eye can see, broken only by a lonesome highway, is a beautiful setting in its own right.
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