About an hour east from Amman, you’ll see them rising up out of the desert: lavish sandcastles, artfully decorated. These ancient structures served as home away from home for spiritual leaders while hunting in the Jordanian desert. Now, 1,300 years later, tourists can get a peek inside these fascinating ancient “vacation homes.”
In the eighth century, several one-story sand palaces were built in the eastern desert of Jordan under the Damascus-based Umayyad caliphate. Among the castles are Qasr Al-Hallabt, Hamam Al-Sarh, Al-Harrana and the pristinely preserved Qasr Amra. A visit is a window to early Islamic-Arab civilization and the Umayyad caliphs’ lifestyle.
In the 900s, the Umayyad dynasty ruled the united entity of the Levant (countries of the eastern Mediterranean), or Belad Al-Sham, which included Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. To avoid the flooding after heavy rains in Syria, the caliphs built castles in the Jordanian desert to serve as summer retreats. The leaders were accompanied by their odalisques (female slaves), hunting weapons and their children for their trips. One of the best-preserved palaces, known as Desert Castles, is the UNESCO world site of Qasir Amra.
Though it was envisioned as a residence, the palace also served as a fortress, garrison … and pleasure palace.
The Qusair (meaning “little palace”) was built by the caliph Al-Waleed Bin Abulmalik Bin Marwan and restored in 1898 by Czech theologist Alois Musil. Though it was envisioned as a residence, the palace also served as a fortress, garrison … and pleasure palace. Visitors can get a rare view into the surprisingly secular life at the time as depicted in its lush wall paintings. Qasir Amra is known for the “amazing frescoes all over its walls,” explains archaeologist Khalaf Al-Tarawneh, who is a professor at Mutah University in Jordan. The reception hall fresco features everything from topless women and men showering to flocks of animals. There are also wall-based instructions for building castles.
A few steps north from the reception hall are two rooms that once served as bedrooms with stunning mosaic floors that are off-limits to visitors. The palace also has a Roman-style bath, which consists of an apodyterium (changing room), tepidarium (warm water room) and caldarium (hot water room). Painted on the bath’s dome-shaped ceiling are the signs of the zodiac — one of the earliest known and still-surviving portrayals of its kind.
The Umayyad caliphs built these palaces because they wanted to spend their time in the desert without having to live in huts like Bedouins, explains Al-Tarawneh. Caliphs also were keen on teaching their children how to ride horses in the desert, he adds. The remote desert locations also provided respite from strict Islamic guidelines, especially when it came to entertaining women, Tarawneh notes. The Umayyads, who were not devout Muslims, did not attach a mosque to the castles — a departure from typical Islamic architecture. However, mosques were added at some point later. Al-Tarawneh points to Al-Hallabat Palace as an example of where a small mosque has been added.
To access the palaces, tickets can be purchased from the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism, available at boxes near all of the castles. Entrance fees are .5 JOD for Jordanian nationals ($0.70) and 3 JOD ($4) for non-Jordanian nationals.
However, Hakem Saud, an owner of a souvenir shop near the palace, says that only foreigners come to visit. “The palace [Qasr Amra] is great, but no Arabs come here at all.” He thinks it’s “so weird they don’t appreciate such a masterpiece.”
Seeing these well-preserved desert castles is an eye-opening journey back in time. Staring at the frescoes will definitely leave you speechless.
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.