Desert Castles

Heading back towards Amman on Highway 40, Qusayr ‘Amra is about 28 kilometers from Azraq. This is the best preserved of the desert castles, and probably the most charming. It was built during the reign of the Caliph Walid I (705-715 CE) as a luxurious bath house.

The building may have been part of a larger complex that served to host traveling caravans, which was in existence before the Umayyads arrived on the scene. The building consists of three long halls with vaulted ceilings. Its plain exterior belies the beauty within, where the ceilings and walls are covered with colorful frescoes. Directly opposite the main doorway is a fresco of the caliph sitting on his throne. On the south wall other frescoes depict six other rulers of the day. Of these, four have been identified—Roderick the Visigoth, the Sassanian ruler Krisa, the Negus of Abyssinia, and the Byzantine emperor. The two others are thought to be the leaders of China and the Turks. These frescoes either imply that the present Umayyad caliph was their equal, or it could simply be a pictorial list of the enemies of Islam. Many other frescoes in the main audience chamber offer fantastic portrayals of humans and animals. This is interesting in itself because after the advent of Islam, any illustration of living beings was prohibited.

Qasr al-Harraneh remains an enigma to archaeologists and historians. Some experts believe that it was a defensive fort, while others maintain it was a caravanserais for passing camel trains. Yet another theory is that it served as a retreat for Umayyad leaders to discuss affairs of state. With its high walls, arrow slits, four corner towers and square shape of a Roman fortress, Qasr al-Harraneh would appear to be a defensive castle. However, the towers are not large enough to have been an effective defense, and may have instead been built to buttress the walls.

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