As often happens when you’re me, I found myself in the Jordanian capital, Amman, one Sunday in September with nothing to do. I have a tendency to do this; I book group tours which start on, let’s say, a Monday, and rather than waste a weekend at home when I could be seeing the world, I head to my destination a day early. Anyway, I had a day to kill, and plans to explore Amman with a group the following day, so I looked for alternatives. The Jordan desert castles were not something I knew anything about, but they are close to the capital and different from what was planned for the rest of the trip, so I signed myself up for a private day tour.
I love to take private tours when I can afford it. Obviously I’m conscious of safety when I go off on my own, especially as a female (TripAdvisor reviews are my best friend!), but I have had some wonderful solo trips, and they are a great way to find out a little about daily life in the country through chatting to your guide. And today is no different; with only each other to talk to as we headed out of the city, my driver Ibrahim and I get to discussing family life in Jordan, his plans to move abroad, and the pitfalls and challenges for everyday Jordanians living in this country sandwiched between some of the most volatile nations in the Middle East.
Ibrahim misses the old days, when a popular getaway was to head up to Damascus for a weekend of partying in the Syrian capital. Of course, those days are long gone: travel to Syria is banned, far too dangerous anyway, and many of his old haunts are probably no longer standing. He discusses with me at length the problems facing the Jordanian tourist industry these days. Given its neighbours, it is no wonder that tourists are wary of visiting, but Jordan is the Switzerland of the Middle East. Staying out of the conflict all around it (it has borders with Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel/Palestine), its only real involvement in the politics is to receive the refugees desperately fleeing the war zone that lies above its northern border. In the meantime, tourist revenue has plummeted and it is getting increasingly hard to make a living in the local tourist industry which is so important to the Jordanian economy. It’s no wonder that Ibrahim wants to leave.
Heading east out of Amman, we make a pit stop at a convenience store. I haven’t had any breakfast, and Ibrahim is heeding my desperate plea for coffee, but also urging me to try a local snack, vegetables in a sausage-like wrap of rice and vine leaves. I wish I could remember the name of it, but not only does he fetch it for me, he also insists on paying – one of my first encounters with Jordanian hospitality! And it was delicious.
Fed and caffeinated, we continue out of the city on the motorway heading east. Our first stop is the desert castle of Qasr Al-Kharanah. Much of Jordan’s architectural heritage is ancient Roman or Palestinian, and much of its culture in the southern areas of the country is Bedouin, but the desert castles are proudly Arab. Mostly caravanserais, stopping-places for the camel caravans wending their way across the desert, they are imposing structures rising starkly out of the desert. Qasr Al-Kharanah was built in the 8th century AD, and is a large, square structure, a more stereotypical castle than I expected to find in a country like Jordan. I am shown around by a local guide, who leads me through the labyrinth of rooms right onto the flat roof with a commanding view across the desert. His English is almost as limited as my Arabic, but he is an enthusiastic companion as I explore. We are the only people there, myself the only visitor, and it makes for an atmospheric and relaxing visit, where it is very easy to fill the rooms in my mind with bustling merchants, lounging on cushions and discussing business with the colleagues they encounter as they cross the sands. The absence of other tourists is not normal; it is a product of the instability of the region, and the problem is becoming a bit of a theme already. It will continue all my way around the country.
From Qasr Al-Kharanah, we next make our way to Qasr Amra. A totally different style of castle, this one boasts a Roman-style underfloor heating system and incredibly well-preserved murals covering most of the walls and ceilings. They are exceptional for an Arab building because the frescos are of people, many of them scantily clad women. My new guide explains that this was because the castle was a private home; the murals pre-date the days when human images were banned, but while most others were destroyed in a fit of religious zealousness, these were saved because the buildings were not public spaces. The frescos are colourful, plentiful, and must have made quite an impression to visitors of the time.
From Qasr Amra we headed to our third and final destination, Qasr Asraq. Midway there, a road sign has me whipping out my camera. To the right, “Sa’udia”, to the left “Iraq”. Ibrahim obligingly slows on the empty road so I can get a good shot. “Where shall we go, Iraq or Saudi Arabia?” Our destination is to the left, so we plump for a trip to Iraq today, joking between ourselves about skipping the final castle and plumping for an Iraqi day trip instead. The adventurer in me is kind of disappointed that we’re only joking. We are just over 200km or so from the Iraqi border here, possibly the closest I will ever get. We’re also 60km from Saudi.
Putting adventure aside, we arrive instead at Qasr Asraq. Were you wondering why the title of this post refers to Lawrence of Arabia? Well, Qasr Azraq was one of his temporary homes in the region. I visit the room he occupied, in one tower of what is now a ruined citadel; across the wide courtyard I enter another room containing slabs of Roman carvings which have been found in the local area. But the same theme crops up again: there is pretty much nobody else here. It has been a magical day exploring these desert outposts on my own, but it’s not a good sign for Jordan.
Heading back towards Amman, now following signs for the Syrian border, it has been a sobering day in many respects. But the desert castles of Jordan are magnificent. Jordan has many treasures, from the Roman to the Nabatean, but I was very glad I made the trip eastwards on that Sunday morning.