Desert Castles

Stretching east of Amman, the parched desert plain rolls on to Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This is a place where endless sand and barren basalt landscapes give proof to man ability to thrive under harsh conditions. The discovery of flint hand-axes in this desert indicates that Paleolithic settlers inhabited the region around half a million years ago.

Today it is possible to see many relics of the early and medieval Islamic periods in Jordan. Dotted throughout the steppe-like terrain of eastern Jordan and the central hills are numerous historic ruins, including castles, forts, towers, baths, caravan inns and fortified palaces. Known collectively as the desert castles or desert palaces, they were originally part of a chain stretching from north of Damascus down to Khirbet al-Mafjar, near Ariha (or Jericho).

There are various theories about the purpose of the desert palaces, yet the lack of a defensive architectural design suggests that most were built as recreational retreats. The early Arab rulers’ love of the desert led them to build or take over these castles, which appear to have been surrounded by artificial oases with fruit, vegetables and animals for hunting. Other theories suggest that they came to the desert to avoid epidemics which plagued the big cities, or to maintain links with their fellow Bedouin, the bedrock of their power.

Most of the desert castles can be visited over the course of a day in a loop from Amman via Azraq. The following description details a road trip taking the northern route from Amman to Azraq and the southern highway on the return trip.