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All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to romapip@quipo.it. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page added in December 2013.

- "Castles" in the Desert - page two
(left: J. L. Burckhardt in Arab attire in a XIXth century engraving; right: the Treasury of Petra)

If you came to this page directly you might wish to read page one first.

Qasr al-Kharanah

Views of the castle

This small building is made more imposing by its symmetric design and by its location on slightly elevated ground. It is surrounded for miles and miles by a barren landscape with no other buildings in sight. It has the appearance of a fortress, but its towers and buttresses are solid and they serve a structural and decorative purpose, rather than a defensive one.

(left) Courtyard; (right) stucco decoration inside a room (above) and at the entrance (below)

The lack of a system to capture rainfall indicates that Qasr al-Kharanah was used on a temporary basis only. It was built before 710 by the first Umayyad Caliphs to be used by their representatives for meetings with leaders of Bedouin tribes.
The interior of the building had some stables on the ground floor and several rooms on the upper one.

Rooms on the upper floor

The size and architectural design of the upper floor rooms indicate that they were meant for important guests. The design of the exterior of Qasr al-Kharanah, with its small round towers and buttresses, was most likely an example followed in the construction of larger Umayyad "desert castles" such as
Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi in Syria.

Qasr al-Hamra

Remaining part of the palace consisting of a hall and a small bath

Graecia capta, ferum victorem cepit (Captive Greece conquered her savage conqueror) Horace - Epistles 2.1.156. Horace had in mind the impact of Greek culture on the Romans, but the sentence could apply to the Muslim Arabs who conquered Byzantine territories too. The Umayyad caliphs who set their residence at
Damascus were fascinated by the heritage of the Roman/Byzantine Empire.
Qasr al-Hamra was built as a faraway residence where they could live in a classic ambiance, without being seen and being accused of impiety by their Muslim subjects.

Fresco on the ceiling of the hall depicting men at work

The size of the hall and of the adjoining baths indicate that very few members of the court accompanied the Caliph to this palace. They must have been very trusted persons, because the decoration of the building was entirely at odds with the Muslim prohibition of portraying human beings.
The frescoes which cover all the walls responded to a complex iconographic symbolism. The men at work shown above were probably an allegory of the positive effects of the Umayyad good government.

Frescoes in the hall portraying kings and dancers

Chronicles report that when the Arabs conquered Persia they found that some royal palaces were decorated with series of portraits of Sassanid rulers. This might have influenced the decoration of the apse of Qasr al-Hamra with the portraits of six foreign kings paying tribute to the Caliph (whose portrait has been defaced).
The figures of female dancers which complete the decoration of the hall were perhaps prompted by mosaics such as the Aphrodite and the Artemis of Philippopolis, where the bosom of the goddesses was given special emphasis.

Fresco in the bath (another one can be seen in the image used as background for this page)

The bath adjoining the main hall, although very small, was divided into the three sections (calidarium, tepidarium and frigidarium) of Roman baths. Its decoration could be interpreted as having a sexual connotation, but the nakedness of the women depicted on some walls could be motivated by the desire to imitate the classic tradition of placing statues of naked gods and goddesses in public baths.

Ceiling of one of the bath rooms

One of the ceilings of the bath is decorated with a variety of subjects, mainly animals, perhaps suggested by the many mosaics which depicted Orpheus taming the animals playing the lyre.
The bear playing a sort of guitar could be a representation of Callisto, the nymph of Artemis who was turned into a bear by Zeus. Later on, when she was about to be killed by her unaware son, Zeus turned her into Ursa Major (the Great Bear Constellation). The story of Callisto is narrated among others by Ovid and it was very popular throughout the whole Roman Empire. According to Ovid, Callisto, although having the appearance of a bear, retained her gentle heart.

Constellations in the northern celestial hemisphere in the dome of the calidarium

The Great Bear and the personifications of other constellations are still visible in a very interesting depiction of the sky. Muslims rapidly assimilated the astronomical knowledge of the conquered civilizations including the Indian one. They then developed their own system of astronomy, which however retained the geocentric approach developed by Claudius Ptolemy in the IInd century AD.

Qasr al-Azraq

(left) Entrance to the castle; (right) its basalt door

Qasr al-Azraq is the only "desert castle" which deserves this name. It was built as a fortress by the Romans and it was strengthened in 1236 by a local emir. It is situated along the main road between Jordan and Iraq.
Because of the basalt stone with which it was built it ought to be called the Black Castle, rather than the Blue Castle (Azraq means blue), but the name derives from the abundance of water in the environs of the castle.

A small section of a previously large swamp at the Azraq Wetland Reserve (you might wish to see
their website - it opens in a separate window)

It was to be Ali's first view of Azrak, and we hurried up the stony ridge in high excitement, talking of the wars and songs and passions of the early shepherd kings, with names like music, who had loved this place; and of the Roman legionaries who languished here as garrison in yet earlier times. Then the blue fort on its rock above the rustling palms, with the fresh meadows and shining springs of water, broke on our sight.
T. E. Lawrence - Seven Pillars of Wisdom - Chapter LXXV
Unfortunately at the beginning of the 1960s water from the oasis started to be pumped to Amman and the swamps dried up by the mid-90s. Wetland has been restored on a small portion of the original swamp, mainly to provide migrant birds with a much needed stop in their journey across the desert.

(left) Latin inscription celebrating
Emperors Diocletian and Maximilian; (right) stones carved in order to use them for betting games: the upper one is very common, the lower one can be seen at Jerusalem and Sepphoris

The Romans built the fortress to restore their rule in the region, most likely immediately after Emperor Aurelian had defeated and captured Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra. The revolt she led had greatly damaged the image of Rome and Aurelian and his immediate successors decided to locate several garrisons in the region, including Palmyra itself where Diocletian built a fortress.

Two-storey buildings in the courtyard

The restoration and enlargement of Qasr al-Azraq occurred during the last years of the Ayubbid rule. An inscription at the entrance indicates the year 1236 and the founder, the Emir of Salkhad, a town and fortress in the Hauran region (the fortress was destroyed by the French in the 1920s).

Reliefs found in the area and on display in a room of the castle

Return to page one.

Move to:
Introductory Page
Ajlun Castle and Pella (May 3rd, 1812)
Amman and its environs (July 7th, 1812)
Jerash (May 2nd, 1812)
Madaba (July 13th, 1812)
Mt. Nebo and the Dead Sea (July 14th, 1812)
On the Road to Petra (incl. Kerak and Showbak) (July 14th - August 19th, 1812)
Petra (August 22nd, 1812)
Umm al-Jimal
Umm Qays (May 5th, 1812)

SEE THESE OTHER EXHIBITIONS (for a full list see my detailed index).