Desert complexes PDF Print E-mail
Written by Micah Key
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

(from "Kubla Khan"
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Qasr Tuba During the 8th century AD, the Umayyad caliphs built a series of structures in Jordan’s eastern desert. Like the fabled Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome in Xanadu, many of these were intended as retreats, estates to which the caliphs could remove themselves from the bustle of their capital at Damascus and make touch with their desert roots. Here, the princes of Islam could hunt gazelle and other animals, assisted by falcons and hounds. They could freely ride their Arabian steeds in the wastelands around their hunting lodges and, at day's end, relax in palatial bathhouses decorated with bright frescoes. A few of the desert complexes still standing east of Amman seem also to have served as meeting places between the caliphs and Bedouin chiefs, who strongly supported the Umayyad dynasty. Some of these complexes seem also to have functioned as caravanserais. All the buildings are superb examples of early Islamic architecture and art, giving the visitor a glimpse into the lifestyles of the Umayyads.

Qasr Tuba

The southernmost of the desert complexes, and perhaps the most difficult to reach, Qasr Tuba gives the visitor a feel for how isolated and quiet these retreats really were. It is located in the deep eastern desert, about 60 miles southeast of Amman, and although today far off the beaten track, it once functioned as a caravansary along the route between Syria, the oasis of Azraq (see below) and northern Arabia. Originally, the complex was planned with two identical square wings built of fired bricks and linked by a central corridor. However, only the northern wing was finished, perhaps because of the abrupt end of the Umayyad dynasty in 750 AD. The walled enclosure, 70 meters square, is interrupted by semicircular towers, and inside the complex one can still see arched doorways leading into rooms and corridors. To the north, near the now-dry riverbed, are three ancient covered wells—the water supply for the palace.

Qasr Tuba from a distance

Desert complexes in satellite photo

Qasr Mushatta

The nearest of the desert complexes to Amman, Qasr Mushatta is also the largest, its square wall measuring 470 feet on each side. It is located just north of the runways of the Queen Alia airport, accessible by the perimeter road. The palace boasts 25 semicircular towers, and some of its intricate carvings can still be seen on the exterior. Unfortunately, many of the carvings were removed before World War I by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II and given to Kaiser Wilhem of Germany; they now reside in Germany's Pergamon Museum. Like Qasr Tuba, this palace is thought to have been built by Caliph Walid II no later than the 740's. It was never finished, perhaps because Umayyad rule ended.

The entire palace, except the foundations, is built of large reddish kiln-fired bricks. Inside the triple-arched entrance hall, on the right, is a mosque, with the mihrab (prayer niche) still visible. The entrance hall itself is flanked by a colonnade of green swirled marble columns. Beyond it lies the huge reception hall, to which are connected a series of meeting rooms.

The rest of the desert complexes can be found along the circuitous road leading east from Amman to Azraq and then west to Zarqa.

Kharana Kharana (Hrana)

The first major desert complex along the Amman-Azraq road, halfway between the two cities, is Kharana. On approaching it is easy to see why most of these complexes were misleadingly labeled “desert castles,” for this building does indeed resemble one. At every corner of its thick walls stands an imposing tower, and many cross-shaped arrow slits appear between them. However, a closer inspection reveals that the towers are solid, and the arrow slits are too narrow on the inside to have been usable. Clearly, the building was designed to give the appearance of a powerful fortress, but its actual function was different. Because of its location at the junction of several desert roads, as well as its interior plan, we may surmise that it was intended as a meeting place between Umayyad governors and local chieftains. There are no cisterns, but there may have been wells in the wadi bed.

Kharana's interior has two floors. Entering, one first steps into a spacious courtyard; the windows of the surrounding rooms open onto it. There are 61 rooms forming eight interconnected suites or bayts. There are also stables leading off the long entranceway.

Qusayr Amra

The next desert complex on the ancient route from Amman to Azraq isn’t as large and imposing as some of the other “castles,” and its name—the “little palace” of Amra—reflects this. However, its interior conceals some delightful surprises. It was built between 711 and 715 by one of the Umayyad princes as a bathhouse attached to a hunting lodge. Only the bathhouse survives. Its layout consists of two main areas. The first is an entrance room divided into three aisles with a throne area at one end for formal reception of visitors. Rooms for the private use of the royal bather opened off to either side of the throne area.  Left of the entrance is another doorway leading to the baths. This area is divided into the classical configuration of frigidarium (cold room), tepidarium (lukewarm room) , and calidarium (hot room). What makes Qusayr Amra unique, though, is the frescoes, which cover every inch of the bathhouse. Throughout the Islamic Empire, less than five years after these frescoes were painted, there was a crackdown on the display of animal and human images, making their continued presence here the more remarkable.

Early Arab physicians put great stock in the energizing properties of colorful wall paintings as an antidote to the vigor-sapping saunas. If so, then the frescoes in Amra were good medicine. Though they have now faded and are marred by graffiti, a good amount of restoration has been done. The reception hall is covered with real or fantasized representations of Umayyad court life. We see nude female bathers, archers and horsemen. Notable frescoes include the one above the throne alcove, which is said to depict Walid I, builder of the mosque in Damascus and al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. He is surrounded by attendants with fans. In the room's far right corner, facing the entrance, appear six rulers of the age, including possibly the Chinese and Byzantine emperors, an Indian ruler, and Roderick, the last Visigoth king of Spain. These figures are strategically positioned near a Greek inscription referring to victory: all were defeated by Walid I, who in a single decade, 705-715, expanded Muslim rule to its greatest extent, from Spain to India.

Amra: Fresco of woman bathing

Walid I was known as a pious man. Some think that he would hardly have commissioned such sensuous frescoes. Perhaps his uncle, Walid II, built the bathhouse during his nephew's reign. This Walid II, who became caliph almost 30 years later, was widely reviled for his immoral lifestyle.

The murals to the far left of the main hall are dedicated to the hunt, while those on the ceiling are mainly of builders, perhaps the workmen themselves.

Fresco of animals at Amra

The three bathing chambers are small and intimate, though possessing their full share of frescoes. The first room was either an apodyterium or a frigidarium. Its frescoes consist in part of a fanciful bear playing the lute while a monkey claps its hands in appreciation. A fresco on the ceiling depicts the three ages of man. The adjoining room contained a pool which could be heated by a nearby furnace and flue system. The walls have a mural showing women about to bathe a child. The final room, the calidarium, has a mural on the underside of its dome showing the zodiac in great detail. Strangely enough, the stars are in reverse order. "Presumably the artist was using a sketch based on a celestial globe where the sky is seen from outside looking down rather than from inside looking upwards." (Rollin and Streetly, p. 102. ) This fresco is one of the earliest known attempts to depict the heavens on the interior surface of a dome—resulting in a primitive planetarium.

Amra: Zodiac in dome of bathhouse

The road from Qusayr Amra continues another 16 miles to Azraq, the site of an ancient oasis, and as is often the case, also the site of a fortified settlement: Qasr Azraq.

Qasr Azraq

Azraq ("blue" in Arabic) occupies what was once a large oasis, second only to the one at Palmyra. It is located on the north edge of Wadi Sirhan, a great desert trade route enabling connection with Arabia and the Persian Gulf.

Water buffalo at Azraq oasis

The following map shows the centrality of Wadi Sirhan for commerce in the Roman period, which is strongly represented at Azraq.

Centrality of Wadi Sirhan for commerce in the Roman period

The need to control and protect Azraq has been paramount since the time of the Romans, if not earlier. (A stepped dam may go back to the Nabataeans.) In the 3rd and 4th centuries, judging from Latin and Greek inscriptions referencing Diocletian, the Romans built a fortress here. Parts of the extant Azraq fortress date from this earlier one. Notable are the huge basalt doors in the west tower and at the main entrance. Constructed from a solid slab of basalt, they still swing from stone hinges set in hollows filled with oil—as they have for nearly two millennia.

The fortress eventually passed from the Umayyads to the Ayyubids, the Islamic dynasty founded by Salah Ad-Din (Saladin). According to an Arabic inscription carved at the main entrance, the Ayyubid governor Izz Ad-Din Aybek undertook a major renovation in 1237. Most of the design dates from this time, including the mosque in the middle of the courtyard.  During the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, Colonel T.E. Lawrence made his headquarters in this fortress, coordinating attacks with the Bedouins against the Turks from his office in the room above the entrance.

Qasr Azraq


Qasr Hallabat

The road leaving Azraq and heading northwest toward Zarqa passes a hill overlooking the highway. On top of that hill lie the jumbled ruins of a small Roman fort built in black basalt and a larger Umayyad restoration constructed in white limestone. The finds include 146 fragments of an edict issued by the late 5th century Byzantine emperor Anastasius. Ghazi Bisheh of Jordan's Department of Antiquities thinks the fragments may have been taken from a nearby settlement: it is unlikely that the edict was set up at this isolated fort, for the practice was to put them in large population centers.

In any case, Bisheh is sure that the Umayyad  pleasure palace as seen today was built upon the foundations of an earlier fortress, probably Roman or Byzantine. The Umayyad  structure is mostly in ruins, but the observer can pick out its square walled enclosure, 144 feet to a side, with towers at each corner. The fortress had but one small entrance, on the east, opening into a large central courtyard surrounded by rooms, with a smaller courtyard at the western corner. One of Hallabat’s treasures is its Umayyad-era mosaics: renderings of wolves, camels, hares, and oryx decorate the rooms around the courtyard. Just to the left of the entrance passageway, one room contains an interesting mosaic. A tree of life forms the center axis. On the left side, barren trees and “bad” animals predominate, such as the hare, lion, snake and goat. On the right are fruit trees, a bull, a ram—the “good.” One interpretation refers to Islamic theology: the right represents the Dar al-Islam (House of Submission), the abode of blessedness and peace, while the left is the Dar Al-Harb (House of War), which must be brought into acquiescence to Islam.

Just outside the walls of Qasr Al-Hallabat lie the ruins—now partly restored—of the palace’s mosque. There is an exquisitely carved arched window near its door. The Umayyad owner of Hallabat installed several cisterns under the palace and nearby, creating a small agricultural estate. Like other desert complexes, Hallabat may have functioned as a point of contact between the Umayyad  aristocrats and the Bedouin who fiercely supported them. With the Ayyubid takeover, Hallabat was probably abandoned.

Hammam As-Sarah

Two miles from Qasr Al-Hallabat is a small bathhouse that was probably built for the use of the palace’s residents—perhaps its officers. It pales in comparison with the earlier Qusayr al-Amra. Once decorated with mosaics and bright colors, all that can be seen today is the austere layout. Its calidarium lies nearest the road, with the tepidarium (warm room) and apodyterium (changing room) beyond. In the apodyterium, one can see the original entrance with cross-hatching on the walls. Perhaps because some of the plaster has fallen, the place has a rougher, less finished feel than Al-Amra.

Leaving the desert complexes and reentering the hill country of modern Jordan, it is easy to see why the Umayyad caliphs built these lonely estates in the wilderness. In solitude, far from the city, one could rest after a day of hunting and just be. It was a way for these rulers of a vast empire to maintain ties with their origins.