In the footsteps of Lawrence: Jordan’s desert castles

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.

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Qasr Al-Kharranah

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.

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Decisions decisions… on the way from Amra to Asraq

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.

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Qasr Azraq

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.

17 Comments

  1. It’s sad to hear that tourism in Jordan has been negatively affected by what’s going on in the surrounding countries. It looks beautiful there! At uni, a friend of mine spent a semester abroad in Jordan and she had only great things to say about it. I’d love to visit!

    1. It was so noticeable everywhere, including in places like Amman and Jerash which should be full of tourists. It’s lovely to have sites to yourself but the economy is really struggling. Jordan is totally safe and so worth visiting!

  2. Jordan is a place I have wanted to visit for YEARS now! I love reading posts about others travelling there. I get to vicariously live through them untill I make it there myself. Great post!

    1. Hi Chiera – well, all I can tell you is that it will be well worth the wait! It’s a fantastic country with great sights, great food and wonderful people. Hope you make it there one day soon, and glad you enjoyed the post! ?

  3. The Middle-East gets me, Jill. Maybe because I was born and lived the early years of my life in Oman. The sight of those sand coloured castles and buildings reach out to me. I see the fascination that Lawrence of Arabia had for the region. Did they perchance show it in the film? Qasr Asraq that is? It seems familiar. I enjoyed the post immensely and the empathy that comes through your words.

    1. Oh wow – that’s a coincidence because I absolutely LOVED Oman. Such a wonderful country… but I love the Middle East generally. It has such a blend of the exotic and challenging but also kind and welcoming… I believe they did show Qasr Azraq in the film, I think they showed the castle itself but used a location in the US for the surrounding area (according to Google)…!

  4. It’s a shame the country is suffering from the number of tourists decreasing. I have not been to Jordan yet, but would really like to! A friend of mine visited in July and she then said it was so empty because the time was too hot, but I am starting to think it has more to do with the issues you have described, looking at the beautiful pictures without any people in them! A photographers dream, I guess, but a sad story for the people living there…

    1. I was there in late September, when it was warm but not overly hot. Maybe July is quieter anyway, but no, it wasn’t just the heat. So many people were worried about me going, and the perception is that it’s not safe but that just isn’t true. I hope for their sake the message starts to get out!!

  5. Tourism really takes a hit due to severe unrest in the middle east. Glad you could at least see the castle in Jordan. Did you manage to go to Petra?

  6. I always spend extra days before and after if I book a group tour. It’s fun to do exploring on your own. Would it have been possible to do the tour on your own or would you recommend booking as solo traveller?

    1. You could definitely do it on your own with a hire car. I just mostly wanted the company for the day and the interaction with a local guide, but the roads are good and fast, and the castles are easy to find.

  7. I love Jordan – but I’m sad to hear that the tourist industry is still so low. I was there in 2013 and was well looked after by my Palestinian grandad taxi driver, who made sure I had water and juice! The people are just wonderful and history so rich, it’s a great destination in the Middle East.

  8. Jordan was a beautiful country when I visited briefly back in 2004; I remember fondly the hospitality shown by the Bedouin when I did a couple of nights in Wadi Rum. Sadly I missed the castles (didn’t even know of them at the time!), so thanks for showing them off so well! Something for next time for sure.

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