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The Desert Castles

Sandy havens...

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Another day trip we took was out to the east, to see the basalt and limestone Arabic Desert Castles. This time our companions were an Australian woman, whose husband was working in Amman, and an Estonian tour guide, who was researching for her next tour and very unhappy that she was turned away at the Syrian border for merely having caught a connecting flight through Jerusalem, and therefore unable to research the country.

On the way to the castles we drove through the wadi (desert), however it was not as desolate as others we'd seen, and even had tufts of green here and there. En route we saw signs pointing the way to Saudi and Iraq borders - a stark reminder of exactly where we were again.

The first castle we visited was Qasr Kharana, about an hour outside Amman. It was a lone, sandy-coloured squarish structure, which had interesting arches and windows around a central courtyard. There were army officers patroling the interior, carrying bulky guns, some content to lazily greet us, others sternly warning you against entering dangerous parts (which looked pretty safe, maybe it's militant health and safety?).

Built before the 8th century, Qasr Kharana is one of the earliest examples of Islamic architecture. Far from being an actual castle though, it is unclear as to what this Qasr was used for, as it wasn't for military purposes - the castle has wall slits but they are the wrong height and shape for archers. Also it curiously lacked a water source such buildings usually had close by. Our guide book suggested it was a hunting lodge and trade caravan stop. We spent just under an hour climbing stairs and wandering the chilly rooms, imagining hunters and caravan tradespeople smoking and playing early backgammon. After visiting, we joined the locals for sweet tea by the fire.

The next castle was Qasr Amra, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its highly-decorated frescos. Also built in early 8th century, the castle was quite small, being only small part (the baths) of the original castle that existed. The frescos were very well preserved, and enigmatically at odds with the Islamic religion, as they depicted naked women, wine drinking, and even a bear playing a banjo and a dancing monkey (we think some herbs may have been imbibed during creation).

What was unique was the dome above the caldarium or hot bath, which apparently had the zodiac on the ceiling, as well as constellations. Wikipedia later told us that it is apparently the earliest painting of the night sky painted on anything other than a flat surface, and is very accurate, even showing the north pole correctly.

An old Bedouin man pointed out the interesting parts to us in a school-teachery manner (such as chiding Jac when she asked to be shown a particular scene he had not yet reached) and then settled into playing a rababah for us and we were left to admire the frescos listening to his music.

Third on our itinerary was Qasr al-Azraq, a younger 13th century castle which was built by Romans and utilised by the Ottoman Turks (and even T.E. Lawrence during the Arab revolt). Built of black stone (the main door is 3-tons of the stuff!) and also extensively restored, the castle was a sprawling, open square stone fort. Inside we explored what was left of rooms and stories, however there wasn't a lot to see, except for some stone tablets which were found in the nearby oasis, which were carved with decoration and animals.

Fourth and last of the desert castles was Qasr al-Hallabat, which was also originally a Roman stronghold but converted into another hunting lodge by the Arabs. It had been heavily, but unfortunately shabbily restored - we spied blocks of stone with Roman writing that appeared to have been re-laid sideways! There was a guard eying us up as we explored the castle, however he later showed us a hidden part that was still being restored and housed an exposed mosaic floor.

Our final stop was to the nearby Hamman al-Sarah, which was an ancient bathouse, but was in the middle of some heavy reconstruction and there wasn't much to see. Back to Amman and a big thank you to Hani, our patient driver!

Qasr Kharana
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Qasr Amra

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Bathing scene
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The bear playing the banjo to a dancing monkey
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An naked dancing woman
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A local man playing a rababah
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Qasr al-Azraq
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Qasr al-Hallabat
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Greek-inscribed blocks stacked the wrong way
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Mosaic floors
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Posted by JacChalky 06:41 Archived in Jordan Tagged round_the_world

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