UNESCO World Heritage in Jordan: The Desert Castles Loop

UNESCO World Heritage in Jordan: The Desert Castles Loop

Most visitors to Jordan will visit at least two of Jordans UNESCO World Heritage site: The Nabataean City of Petra, and the Protected Natural Area of Wadi Rum. But  Desert Castles of Jordan? Have you heard of them?

Qasr Amra, part of the “Desert Castles” Loop in the Eastern Desert of Jordan, is  one of currently five UNESCO World Heritage sites in Jordan. It  is definitely worth the time and effort it takes.  And I will save the Baptism Site and Um-er-Ras for another time.

The Umayyad Caliphate in Jordan and the Desert Castles of Jordan

The Umayyad (sometimes spelled Omayyad) Caliphate is the first major Muslim Dynasty to rule large swathes of today’s Middle East, Northern Africa and Spain following the death of the Prophet Muhammed. The Mecca-based family were initially merchants who converted to Islam during Muhammad’s lifetime.

Rule was eventually divides between two branches of the family. The Sufyanids ruled from Damascus and expanded the empire to Central Asia and Northern India. They were eventually succeeded by the Marwanids. Although their empire lasted only roughly hundred years from 661-750 , their legacy is astounding. They established Arabic as official language. In architecture, the Dome of the rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque of Damascus are  their most famous  achievements. The Turks, Berbers and internal power struggles ended their rule, although one Muslim ruler relocated to  Cordoba and found the  Umayyad dynasty in Spain.

So, where do the Desert Castles of Jordan fit in here? They’re all prime examples of Umayyad buldings and represent  important artifacts of early Islamic architecture. There are various such buildings dotted all over the Eastern Desert, on the border with Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The four I visited are easily accessible by car and without a guide.

Desert Castles of Jordan day trip from Amman

We set off after the worst rush-hour traffic had passed, stopping for crazily strong Arabic coffee somewhere by a petrol station in Zarqa, a major city somewhat dwarfed by multi-million Amman. It is nowhere near as old as the settlement of Amman.   Chechen immigrants founded Zarqa in 1902. It’s essentially a military town with an important station of the now-defunct Hejaz railway from Damascus to Medina and Haifa.

And as soon as we had left the lacklustre but well-maintained two- and three-storey houses of Amman and Zarqa behind us, we rolled on a wide and very straight motorway, with not much between here and but flat desert. Iraq and Saudi Arabia were already signposted, but miles and miles of monotonous desert away.

Qasr Hallabat

Our first destination, Qasr Hallabat, occupies a little hillside about 5km form the motorway. It was well signposted, past a wealthy-looking village with impressive modern mansions. Special type of agriculture, my driver implied, and perhaps merchandising of the special harvest, too. And with that, we turned to less controversial topics like drinking alcohol.

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Qasr Hallabat is about 5km off the main road on the edge of a small settlement

The Qasr stands remains of a Roman Fort. It was originally built under Emperor Caracalla around 200 AD to protect its Roman outposts from the Bedouins. An Englishman, resplendent in bright yellow shorts, joined us and  led us into the ruined squat building on the right.  I had preiously looked around the reconstructed one on the left (a mosque) with a shrug, wondering whether  that’s all.

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It was completely empty in January save for a sleepy guard

The remains of the palace are an interesting patchwork of local black basalt, used by the Romans and the Byzantines, who, for a short time had a monastery here. The delightful mosaics are thought to date back to the Romans, with the Byzantines adding a bit. The Umayyad Caliph Hisham ordered most of the Roman structures to be destroyed and most you can see today dates back to around 800AD, when this was some self-contained military barracks (with some fine mosaics) as well as a local trading route post.

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Remnants of the larger fort-type complex
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Once in the fort, its structure is quite intricate
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Lovely to view a mosaic in situ
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Details of beautiful original Roman-Byzantine Mosaics
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A bit windswept – Jordan in January was much colder than expected

We left the small but impeccably restored Hammam al-Sarah behind. It’s right by the roadside if you wish to visit.

Qasr Amra

And so we continued eastwards, looking at a straight road and endless somewhat featureless desert. Apart from passing countless vehicles with machine guns mounted on their driver cabins, as well as neat SUVs with Iraqi and Saudi number plates, we only saw few settlements, among them a huge tented camp.

A bit of asking my driver and mapping told me this was the Zaatari refugee camp, the worlds largest camp for Syrian refugees. It has been in existence since 2012 and now houses approximately 80000 refugees. According to an Oxfam report, Jordan spends approximately 870 Million US-Dollars annually to aid Syrian refugees – if it were treated as a traditional donor, that would be 5000% its fair share! It is something you do not read in the news much – I read how the population of Lebanon has increased due to the Civil War in Syria, but if you mention Syria to any Jordanian, everyone will have something to say about it.

A little less than an hour later, we pulled up in a parking lot in the middle of nowhere. Only a large brown tourist sign indicated we had arrived, and a friendly Bedouin jumped from a large tent in the parking lot, ready to take us to a tiny building a few hundred metres away.

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The diminutive Qasr Amra from outside

It doesn’t look much from outside, does it? Yet Qasr Amra is perhaps th most impressive of the Desert Castles of Jordan. It is actually a bath house!

History of Qasr Amra

Qasr Amra is the surviving part of a once much larger 8th Century caravanserai complex. What is left today was dedicated to recuperation and fun. And once you enter the diminutive building, it really shows! It was built between 723 and 743 by the future Caliph Al-Walid II ( the 11th Umayyad CAliph) .

Once our eyes adapted to the semidarkness of this intimate little space, we noticed that every wall was covered in elaborate frescoes.

What sets Qasr Amra apart is its frescoes

If you have learned that Islamic art is all about avoiding depiction of living beings, this obviously did not apply to early Islamic art! Other fine examples are the interior of the Dome of the Rock, perhaps the most famous Umayyad building, if you ever manage to see its inside. The facade of the sadly trashed Qasr Mshatta (see below) is another fine example.

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Rare depictions of humans and animals in Islamic Art
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Scenes of hunting and building in one of the audience hall chambers
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Niche in the entrance hall with a hunting scene, the famous “Six Kings”  and a very tall bathing woman
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Some incredibly well preserved and detailed ceiling vaults with frescoes of building work
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To the right you see the poorly preserved but famous fresco of the “Six Kings”
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Detail of the hunting scene
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Little details everywhere
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Some believe the ceiling fresco in the vestibule to the baths is Jesus Christ
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Plenty of bare chested women. Only later Islamic art would not depict living beings (aniconism)
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Some of the frescoes are quite damaged by soot and graffiti
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Last not least, one of the earliest known representations of the night sky and the constellations

Dome of Heaven spirals around the ceiling. This map of the northern hemisphere sky, accompanied by the signs of the zodiac, is among the earliest known attempts to represent the universe on anything other than a flat surface.

I would say Qasr Amra was the most satisfying of the Desert Castles of Jordan to view. It was also the one with a bit of tourist traffic –  aminibus was leaving as we pulled up and some more tourists trickled in as we left, leaving enough space to really enjoy the frescoes. Since the Desert Castles are all quite different in style and character, it would be a shame just to see teh one, though!

Qasr Al-Kharanah

Just a few kilometres on a dead straight road from Qasr Amra, we didn’t have to wait long for the next one. Of all the “Desert Castles” visited on this trips, this one looks most like a castle! There is some debate as to what it actually was.

It certainly looks very solid and off-putting. What we know is that it was built around 710 under  Caliph Al-Walid I (the 6th Umayyad Caliph). It is thought to have acted as a meeting place between ruling classes and local bedouin. Other theories propose it was used as a caravanserai, although there is evidence of limited water storage facilities. It looks off-putting, but at a closer look, other than its solid build, there is little suggestive any defensive features. Its corner towers are solid, and there are just a few places to actually defend the building.

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Next to the road but in  desert in the middle of nowhere

Again, there was a souvenir/tea tent run by local Bedouin offering some nice shelter from before the  gentle but very windy climb up to the structure. Upon closer look, I noted the interesting ornamental shape of the slit-like windows. Simple yet so beautiful. They were allegedly useless for defence as the weapon of choice during the period, the Arch and arrow, would not fit them. However, their seize and shape helped maintain ventilation without letting the rooms get too hot.

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Beautiful ornamental small windows
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Again – the place was empty, all to ourselves!

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Remnants of plaster on the interior and exterior suggest that this building was once covered in smooth render or plaster.

It is said to have 60 rooms. I certainly didn’t count them. After a fairly thorough (and repetitive) viewing of the empty rooms on the ground floor, I didn’t bother with the first floor.

Qasr Al-Mshatta

Once the largest of the Desert Castles, this is currently a sorry sight.

I can live with the fact that its right by the perimeter fence of Queen Alia Airport (great plane spotting) but it is also drowning in trash. It probably didn’t help that we chose the “shortest route” and spent a good twenty minutes driving on some rather questionable barely  tarmacced lanes. The best approach is the Airport Highway where you turn off about 4km before the Airport turn (coming from Amman).

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Greeted by rubbish and a rather unkempt site

A project of the short-lived Caliph Al-Walid II (the 11th Umayyad Caliph), it was constructed as a magnificent winter palace around 743-744. Then Al-Walid was assassinated and construction stopped.  You’ll essentially see remains of an unfinished palace,  damaged further by earthquakes and neglect.

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Stripped of its decorations, Qasr Al-Mshatta was the least attractive of the Desert Castles of Jordan

Once we picked our way through the rubbish, we took a brief look a the  denuded facade of Qasr Mshatta. To see its fine carved decorations, you’ll need to travel to Berlin and visit the Pergamon Museum.  I personally wouldn’t bother until 2024 when renovations will be finished and it is scheduled to fully re-open. Here are some photos of the decorations. We Western European nations had a tendency just to dismantle stuff that took our fancy during colonial times. Apparently the ruling sultan gifted the facade to the German Emperor in exchange for help constructing the Hejaz Railway in the early 1900’s.

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Trying to smile through rubbish weather – and back into the warm car!

Practicalities

Visa to Jordan

Most nationalities, including EU nationals and US citizens are eligible for a visa on arrival at a cost of currently 40 JOD (approximately 60 Euro). If you arrive in Aqaba Airport or have a Jordan pass, the visa fee is waived. If in doubt, contact your nearest Jordanian Embassy.

How to get to the Desert Castles

There are about seven sites, five of which are easily accessible by car. The other two Qasr Tuba and Qasr Burqu, require an offroad vehicle and ideally a guide, and I did not visit them.

The eastern desert of Jordan is sparsely populated, and there is no public transport to speak of to visit the desert castles easily. You will find buses to Azraq from Amman, but from there, you will need to take a taxi. So, really, the easiest way is to either hire a taxi or hire a car and drive yourself. Both Amman and Madaba make good bases if you have private transport.

Your best base for a day trip will be Amman or Madaba. You can find some organised trips if you wish to book , but at roughly 190 US-Dollars for just one solo traveller it was way too much! I was in the lucky position to have made the acquaintance of a family in Amman, and one evening, when my taxi driver picked me up, I said “hey mate, fancy going to the Desert Castles? A bit of checking out online information on his side later, he came back with a price of 50 JOD for all five sites, including a drop-off at my next destination, which seemed very reasonable. Some budget hotels and guesthouses will also work with local drivers and quote rates of 60-70JOD per car.

It’s a long day trip of about 250km – I was happy to pay these rates!

If you drive yourself, you will find excellent roads as these are main highways to Iraq and Saudi Arabia. There is some transit traffic, and a lot of military, but generally excellent road conditions.

The entry fee to ALL desert castles is 1 JOD.

Where to stay in Amman and Madaba

Both Amman and Madaba make good bases if you have private transport.

Amman

I stayed at the Gallery Guesthouse in Downtown Amman. It is in a great location, in easy walking distance to the Citadel, Downtown and the Roman Theatre as well as Rainbow Street, however, be prepared for some short steep climbs, including the street up to the hotel. The famous “Hashem” Restaurant with excellent Middle Eastern Staples for little money is 250m from the hotel. The Guesthouse is a tidy little residential buildings with just a few lovingly decorated rooms – large extremely comfortable beds, okay internet, a small desk – and functioning heating in winter! The breakfast was a bit of a let down, but you can always go to Hashem to fuel up.

I had planned to spend my first night in Amman at the Mulberry Hostel. It is located 2minutes from 7th Circle, an important transport stop for the JETT buses. Due to an unscheduled stop in Antalya, followed by a rather uncomfortable night bus journey from Aqaba to Amman, followed by an unscheduled but much needed stop at Hashem,  I turned up at the hostel at 8am. Apart from it being deserted and cold, I liked the shirt time I spent there! I slept four hours, freshened up and checked out… they kindly let me check out at lunchtime at no extra charge, so thumbs up to the Mulberry! It’s a really convenient place if you are planning to arrive or leave by JETT bus from 7th Circle.

Alternatives in Amman

While I did not stay at these hotels, I checked out their location, common areas and general friendliness!

The Art Hotel Downtown is right in the thick of things downtown, in an elegant modernist building. There is  no climbing involved. Rooms are modern and simple, with large-scale murals. Rooms start at around 45 Euro per night.

Something rather more traditional and in a great location right by the amphitheatre is the Amman Pasha Hotel. A little walk uphill and with a roof terrace, this one has terrific views over downtown. It’s an older hotel. The rooms are on the small side and much more traditional and simple. For a two-star, it has a range of facilities, including an on-site pizza parlour, local restaurants, as well as tours, cooking classes and a hammam. If you are looking for onward transport, this is well the place to stay.

Madaba

As I continued my trip, I based myself in Madaba for two days. Madaba is an excellent option especially if you have your own transport. A small friendly town, with plenty of accommodation and enough restaurants open even in low season. It has some excellent Roman and Byzantine mosaics and is a great starting point for trips to Mount Nebo and the Dead Sea, Petra and the North without having to brave Amman traffic. Even on public transport you can reach Amman by bus in about 40 minutes.

I stayed at the Tell Madaba Hotel – a little outside the tourist part of town, but all sights were in an easy 10 minutes walking distance. A lovely couple run this small hotel, and they welcome you like you’re family. They just extended their house and added some new rooms. Rooms are a good three-star standard, with huge beds, plenty of space, decent internet and sparkling clean bathrooms. There is also a large communal kitchen that guests can use. Breakfasts are huge feasts of Middle Eastern food, honestly, I did not see a restaurant from the inside after eating the humongous breakfast every day. There is also free parking should you require it. The hosts are wonderful and will assist you with any questions you might have. They can also help to arrange onward travel, including reasonably priced private taxi.

Recommended Reading

I used the current edition of the Rough Guide to Jordan for my trip. It may be a little out of date on hotels and transport, but the restaurant information and detailed information on sights is what I mostly use the Rough Guide for – and it’s excellent for that!

I always like to take a bit of the local cuisine home with me. On this trip, I bought a years supply of sumac and different types of za’atar. Pomegranate molasses would have made it too, had it not been for the hand luggage liquid restriction. I like the Middle Eastern Cookbooks by Yotam Ottolenghi – my current favourite is “Plenty” a vegetable-heavy book of delicious Middle East-inspired recipes. I now have also “Jerusalem” which concentrates on the interwoven culinary traditions of the people of Jerusalem. It is better on Middle Eastern staples, but much more meat-heavy.

The small print

Disclosure: This trip was entirely self funded. I travelled to Jordan in January 2020. At the time of writing, the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has made leisure travel to many countries impossible. I hope this post will help you plan your trip once it is safe to travel again, and in no way do I condone leisure travel while there are restrictions in place.  Please ensure it is safe to travel and check with your countries foreign office.  I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links to  Booking.com. I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in unless otherwise stated. You can trust me for the whole, unbiased truth.  More details on my affiliate link policy are here

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More Middle East?

The Middle East is a rather exciting and culturally diverse region for us living in Europe. You can now find many frequent well-priced flights, including on low cost carriers. It comes as no surprise that I have travelled the Middle East a few times due to these affordable flights. I feel the Middle East is really underrated as a holiday destination. This may be partially owed to the volatile security situation and perhaps the fact that many Middle Eastern countries are more conservative than Europe.

I personally have never been in any unsafe situation on my trips, most of which were solo and independently arranged. However, please do consult foreign office advice and use your own healthy judgement what you will feel comfortable with before you travel. If you want more information on travelling the Middle East safely, feel free to drop me a line or visit on of my other Middle East posts.

Jordan

I visited Jordan for a week in January 2020 on a trip organised and funded by myself. Winter is perhaps the least popular season to visit Jordan.

Read about arriving in Amman and exploring Jordan’s capital!

And find out if you can enjoy Wadi Rum on a day trip!

Read some of my Middle East posts

Here’s my post on visiting Jerusalem for the first time.

I am fascinated by Holy Land sites, and  have spent plenty of time walking the Via Dolorosa, Temple Mount and up the Mount of Olives. Very briefly, I gingerly stepped into Palestine to view the birthplace of Jesus Christ, next door to a huge separation wall and some rather good street art. I have also been to Rachels Tomb, not a tourist but revered by many believers of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith, and a painful reminder of the separation between the states of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.



13 thoughts on “UNESCO World Heritage in Jordan: The Desert Castles Loop”

  • The desert castles look stunning. Thanks for covering the details on how you can visit these from Amman or Madaba. It’s so impressive that they have managed to preserve the fresco paintings in such good condition.

    • Indeed! There has been some decay or rather “modern” graffiti. I think it is the dry desert climate that preserves them, and they are indoors and protected from the element. Also, they were only “discovered” relatively recently by Western Archaeologists. If you visit Jordan, I highly recommend a visit. You will see a totally different part of Jordan that you would if you go to Wadi Rum or Petra

  • Middle east culture is so under-rated! there is so much history and culture there! this trip looks amazing to complete Petra adventure!

    • Hi Maria, thank you for commenting! Jordan has become more popular in recent years and is a pleasure to travel in independently. However, Petra and Wadi Rum get more than 90% of visitors to Jordan, while these Desert Castles get very few and are relatively undervisited.

  • I had previously heard of Petra and Wadi Rum, mostly through social media, but had not heard of the Desert Castles. They certainly have some interesting history, and continue to do so with the recent influx of refugees. I’d be curious to see how the pandemic affects tourism to Jordan and what it may eventually look like in a couple of years.

    • Hi Brian, thank you for your comment! I read about the Desert Castles in a more “artsy” guidebook then did some online searching. Even though Qasr Amra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. they really are not well publicised. From what I know, Jordan has very limited medical resources, especially for the broad public, and went into a full-scale lockdown early on, hence their infection and death rates are very low – at just over 1000 infections to date. For a country that generates about 10% of its GDP from tourism (Germany does 4.5%), I would expect they may put some testing and tracing policy into place and allow controlled visits again? At least their mobile coverage is excellent which would support some warning app, but I think the state funded healthcare standards are relatively poor and a lot of healthcare is private. But who really knows?

  • These certainly aren’t like your typical castles, but oh SO MUCH history, and it is continuing to create history with the Syrian refugees. This was a very fascinating read. I will never get to Jordan, so thank you for sharing.

    • Hi Kelly, thank you so much for commenting! Only one or two of them resemble castles in our Western sense. They were even built at different times in history, with the most of them being examples of very early Islamic architecture. Absolutely worth the trip. The Eastern Desert is really little visited. I’m moderately well educated on current affairs, so the large number of Syrian refugees in Jordan really escaped me yet Jordan has admitted more refugees from Syria (and Iraq) than anyone else. Being there and talking to Jordanian people gave some really interesting insights into more recent history that is never picked up on our Western News. If you do get a chance to visit Jordan, I would highly recommend it. It is visa on arrival for us EU citizens and travelling in the country is very safe and easy.

  • Hi Laurel, thank you so much for commenting! I didn’t find too much about the Desert Castles online. Even my driver who’s an Amman native, didn’t know much about them. We just bumped into a handful of tourists there which encouraged me to write this post. The Holy Land region is amazing. I’ve been to Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt (not in that order :- ) and I recommend them all, Especially Israel, Palestine and Jordan are relatively easy to visit, border relations are fairly friendly, and it makes a difference learning about the history while in the country than from other potentially subjective sources. Really recommend a visit to these countries once it is safe again to do so. I actually had another trip to Israel and Palestine in March which didn’t happen because of coronavirus but its gonna happen in the future

  • I love this post! It’s really interesting and informative and inspires me to visit this historical site. I have been to the Middle East many times, but have never been to Jordan, so I will most definitely put the Desert Castles on my bucket list!

    • Hi Michelle, of many Middle East Countries visited, Jordan is one of my favourites. It is beautiful, and very hospitable. Really friendly. There is still the language barrier unless you know Arabic. It may help that (outside Petra) it isn’t too touristic. Hope you can visit soon. At present, Jordan is not open to any foreign tourists, but I open they will welcome tourists again within the year.

  • This looks like an amazing trip! I love all the pictures you included, amazing. So interesting. (refering to your note at the bottom) I have not been to the Holy Lands, but hope to make it there soon!

    • Hi Laurel, thank you so much for commenting! I didn’t find too much about the Desert Castles online. Even my driver who’s an Amman native, didn’t know much about them. We just bumped into a handful of tourists there which encouraged me to write this post. The Holy Land region is amazing. I’ve been to Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt (not in that order :- ) and I recommend them all, Especially Israel, Palestine and Jordan are relatively easy to visit, border relations are fairly friendly, and it makes a difference learning about the history while in the country than from other potentially subjective sources. Really recommend a visit to these countries once it is safe again to do so. I actually had another trip to Israel and Palestine in March which didn’t happen because of coronavirus but its gonna happen in the future

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