Drive southwards to leave Amman and take the motorway which heads towards the Queen Alia International Airport. This is Jordan’s major road, known as the Desert Highway (number 15 is its official name.) It starts at the Syrian border and makes its way down to the town of Aqaba, wedged between the shores of the Red Sea, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Running parallel to the King’s Highway, which winds its way through the peaks of the Arabah Mountains, the Desert Highway follows the Hedjaz railway, passes near to the magnificent Petra - the Nabatean pearl of the Hashemite Kingdom, and then skims past the Rum desert where Lawrence of Arabia contemplated the seven pillars of wisdom. Here, you’ll have to avoid donkeys, camels, u-turning lorries and the notorious Jett buses that only seem to indicate when they feel like it and fall apart without warning.
Azraq is a knot in the road, lost in the middle of this huge, flat desert that extends outwards for miles and miles to the east of Jordan. Hundreds and thousands of dilapidated, rattling trucks take the Damas to Riyadh and Amman to Baghdad roads and Azraq, an oasis surrounded by rocks, is where they cross. The drivers stop at the village (the last before the border) to take a break, tighten a few bolts and buy a few things from the many grocers who lay their merchandise out on the pavements.
The route of the Desert Castles is not just a tourist route. It is, above all, a vital economic arterial road for these four countries. Indeed, trading has taken place in this region for a very long time. The magnificent and imposing castles which appear along the road were built in the 7th and 8th centuries by Umayyad Caliphs who, by hosting sublime parties once or twice a year, gained the loyalty of the nomad tribe-leaders. The rest of the time, a small garrison stayed there keeping watch over the interests of the Caliph who, from time to time, came to spend the weekend to hunt eland, organise horse races or practice falconry.
In Lawrence’s Room
The Qasr al-Kharrana (or al-Kharaneh) to the right of the road is the first castle to appear, thirty five miles from Amman. It’s a large square and austere edifice built in 710 CE for the Caliph Al-Walid 1st.
Bedouins put up their tent in the car park. They sell postcards and a few ornaments, as well as fresh drinks and tea that you drink with them, lounging on carpets. The tea is continuously simmered over live embers and, just like their formidable but flavoursome coffee, it will stop you sleeping for a week! It’s possible to spend the night there for a reasonable fee (you can bargain for everything). The least you can say is that the atmosphere is pleasant, but don’t expect the place to offer comfortable amenities.
This castle is very different from others but it’s not known what it was used for. The fortified ground floor gives the impression of a caravanserai [a roadside inn], despite the absence of any water reserve in the surrounding area. However, the luxury of the upper floors (frescoes, bas-reliefs, columns and cavettos) make this theory unlikely. Was it a hunting pavilion? A meeting hall? It remains a mystery.
Further along, on the left hand side is the Qseir (‘little castle’) Amra which is not to be missed due to its wonderful frescoes, baths and wells. It was built in 711, by the same Al-Walid 1st who built the Umayyads mosque in Damas.
Azraq, now a dried up oasis, is only a few kilometres away and where you can visit the Qal’at (‘fort’)al-Azraq, built in black basalt during the 4th century CE by the Romans, then renovated by the Byzantines and converted by Walid II. In the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence of Arabia recounts how he spent the 1917-18 winter in the room overlooking the Southern entrance.
Silence of the Camels
There are three options for the return to Amman: you could simply turn round and head back the same way or you can take highway 30 which bypasses Amman to the east and north via Az Zarqa or, finally, take highway 30, then 5, then 10 towards Umm al-Jimal (‘the mother of camels’.)
Along Highway 30 you can stop at Sarah’s Hammam (Qasr Hammam as-Sarkh) and at Qasr al-Hallabat, one of the largest Desert Castles, built alongside the Via Nova Traiana that used to link Damas with Aqaba and passes by Amman and Petra. Choose the other return route option and you’ll come across Qasr Ain as-Sil (a small farm), Qasr Aseikhin (for the views alone) and Qasr Deir al-Kahf (very difficult to access).
However, you must ensure you find time to discover, as night falls, the deserted village of Umm al-Jimal (on highway 10, 10 miles to the east of Mafraq). Not much is known about this collection of town buildings destroyed in 747 by an earthquake (several guides, devoid of an explanation, even mistake its history with that of Jerash.) Founded by the Nabateans who were already on the decline, occupied by the Byzantines who gave shape to it, followed by the Persian Sassanids, this agricultural village even housed the French army during the First World War.
Contrary to what the name suggests, Umm al-Jimal has never really been a Caravanserai, but rather a large peasants’ town (which had a population of up to 3,000), and then a garrison town. You can walk freely in the silence of its still intact alleyways, to use the same paving stones as its previous inhabitants, to sit in doorways or walk through doors into houses where shaky staircases are still standing. This deserted Umm al-Jimal is just like Jordan: an endearing, authentic and touching place.
Jordan Tourism Board
Embassy of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
6 Upper Phillimore Gardens
London, W8 7HA
Tel: 020 7937 3685
It is essential to obtain a visa.