x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The caliphs' country castles

In Jordan's Eastern Desert lie the ruins of ancient Umayyad palaces that once were lavish resorts in oases of green. Gail Simmons indulges her fascination for the timeless citadels.

In Jordan's Eastern Desert lie the ruins of ancient Umayyad palaces that once were lavish resorts in oases of green. Gail Simmons indulges her fascination for the timeless citadels

For as long as I can remember I've had a thing for the Umayyads. Perhaps it was my first sight, at an impressionable age, of the exquisite Mezquita in Córdoba that did it - although my later visits, much later, to the Great Mosque in Damascus and Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem only confirmed my view that the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750AD), which stretched from modern Spain to Pakistan, was responsible for some of the world's most superlative architecture.

So when I heard about a series of Umayyad palaces known collectively as the Desert Castles in the empty badia (steppe) south of the Umayyad capital of Damascus, I was intrigued. While some of these buildings are in what is now Syria, others are scattered around Jordan's Eastern Desert, not far from Amman, where I was staying. Keen to get away from the city, I struck out one chilly spring morning on a short voyage of Umayyad discovery, accompanied by my knowledgeable Jordanian friend Mahmoud.

Our first "castle" that day was Qasr al-Hallabat, set on a windswept tract of badia some 50 kilometres from Amman. As we walked from the car park to the qasr, after paying a small entrance fee that let us into all of the manned castles on our route, we trod on fossils from the era when this desert was a seabed. Wild irises blew in the wind and I wrapped my scarf around my face as the sand whipped up. It was not always as desolate: this was once agricultural land growing olives and wheat, as the ruins of surrounding farms attest.

Part of the appeal of the desert castles for me lies in the mystery of their origins. We know that they were built by the Umayyads, but nobody knows for certain why they built them. According to my friend Mahmoud, there are several theories. "The caliphs came from a desert culture around Mecca, and Damascus was green and fertile," he explained. "These palaces were like holiday resorts, a chance to retreat from the cities to hunt and relax in the desert."

But these buildings also had other purposes. "This was the pilgrimage and trade route between Damascus and Mecca, still the Umayyads' religious capital. Even before Islam, the Arabs traded between Syria and Arabia." As Mahmoud spoke, I remembered that the Prophet Mohammed himself was a merchant who had travelled to Syria. "It's probable that these 'castles' were built to support caravans and pilgrims travelling between Damascus and Mecca," he continued. "And they gave the caliph some control over unruly Bedouin tribes."

Looking around Hallabat, it seemed that this qasr acted as a caravanserai to serve passing merchants, as well as a country retreat. Constructed around a courtyard with a pretty carved well and surrounded by rooms in which travellers could stay and store their goods, this was a sophisticated complex with a hammam (baths) and mosaic floors in many rooms. The caliph obviously liked his creature comforts while on vacation here.

On returning to the car we headed east to the oasis town of Azraq. Although it's perfectly possible to see these castles in a day trip from Amman, I wanted to make a weekend of it, savouring the journey into the empty desert. As we drove my eye became trained to the arid steppe where artemisia, broom and acacia thrived. "The region was once much more fertile, and populated with ibex, oryx, wolves and hyenas," Mahmoud told me. Now, most of these species have been hunted to extinction and are found only in nature reserves such as Shaumari, near Azraq.

The badia is home to Bedouin too, although they've been encouraged by the Jordanian government, which provides them with healthcare and education, to settle in purpose-built villages. Despite this I saw occasional groups who still manage to eke out a traditional nomadic existence from their camels, sheep and goats. "The government supports the Bedouin who want to continue with their nomadic lifestyles, providing them with free fodder for their animals," said Mahmoud.

We reached Azraq shortly before dusk, just in time to visit the castle before the caretaker was about to lock the doors for the night. Qalat al-Azraq, although lumped together with the other desert castles, was not originally an Umayyad palace. It was one of a string of fortresses built by the Roman emperor Trajan to protect the trading route between Syria and the Red Sea port of Aqaba. The Umayyads were here too, though it was the Mamluke caliph Izzedin Aybak who refortified the castle during the Crusades, building a mosque in the centre of the courtyard.

Nowadays Azraq is most famous for its associations with TE Lawrence (of Arabia), who was based here during the First World War. Writing about his time at Azraq in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence described evenings in the castle: "On stormy nights, we brought in brushwood and dung and lit a great fire in the middle of the floor. About it would be drawn the carpets and the saddle-sheepskins, and in its light we would tell of our own battles, or hear the visitors' traditions."

Exploring the castle, we found the re-used sleepers from the Hejaz railway (blown up by Lawrence and his Bedouin cohorts) and visited his room, in a prime location over the castle gate. As the setting sun glinted through the narrow window embrasures, I imagined Lawrence hunched here in the gathering dark, planning the next moves in his campaign against the Ottomans that would end with taking Damascus in triumph in 1918.

Built of soot-black basalt and surrounded by drab, dusty palms, Azraq still has a brooding presence, though the great oasis which used to lap almost against its walls has now sadly shrunk to a tenth of its former size. Azraq oasis was on the migration route for millions of birds who stopped to drink, feed and breed at this major avian junction between Africa and Europe. Now the birds have mostly gone and the castle stands forlornly distant from the oasis.

As we were leaving we struck up conversation with a local archaeologist who was showing a small group of visitors around, and who told us about the Azraq Festival, which the town now holds in the castle every year. "We are trying to make a connection between the people and the history here," he said. "We want to create new generations of people who are interested in the heritage of Azraq." I felt cheered by this as we climbed into the car to leave.

Tired and rather dusty after the day's desert journey, we checked into the Azraq Desert Lodge, stylishly converted from a 1940s British army field hospital and run by Jordan's Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Once we'd negotiated our way past the relic of a Land Rover parked in the entrance tent we found old leather armchairs, tables made from ammo boxes, Bakelite telephones - and a delicious supper. Later, I sank into my bed, my duvet's camouflage design in keeping with the military theme of the lodge.

The next morning we took a short detour from the usual Desert Castle route and, following a small signpost, we headed off-road to another Roman fort, Qasr al-Aseikhin, on a hilltop surrounded by a sea of basalt and golden sand. Although there's not much to see at this deserted ruin compared with the more intact castles, I loved its isolation, and exploring the ruins I found shards of Roman pottery, as well as utter peace and silence.

Had we more time, plus a tent, provisions and GPS, we would have headed farther east, another 150 kilometres to Burqu. Deep in the desert near the Iraqi border, Burqu requires a long off-road journey, plus the dedication of the truly fanatical castle-hunter. But it was time for us to turn back towards Amman, though before reaching civilisation and traffic jams, we were to visit the two finest palaces, saving the best until last.

Soon we arrived at Qasr al-Amra, an oasis in the otherwise featureless badia. Its domed and rounded roofs were inviting, feminine, cosy, and although not an actual oasis like Azraq, it felt a haven of luxury in the bleak desert. It wasn't always so: the remarkable frescoes inside the building show that this was a country residence in a forested landscape of tamarisk, broom and pistachio where gazelles, lions and bears frolicked.

As my eyes became accustomed to the dim rooms, and the frescoes that have survived remarkably intact for 1,300 years emerged from the gloom, it became evident that the animals weren't the only ones frolicking. The paintings covering the ceilings and walls depict topless dancing girls, semi-naked athletes and totally naked bathers, all intertwined with pictures of plump cherubs, musicians and bunches of grapes.

Whether this bears witness to a life of wine, women and song within the privacy of the qasr's walls, or whether, as the information board at the excellent visitors' centre maintains: "None of the paintings of Qasr Amra portray scenes of unbridled loose-living or carryings-on", what was clear was the remarkable quality of the frescoes, which led to its being awarded Unesco World Heritage status. Definitively the finest of the Umayyad caliphs' desert dwellings, attracting a steady stream of intrepid Jordanian and foreign visitors who've already seen the set-pieces of Petra, the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum, it was also obvious that Amra was an example of one built mainly for pleasure. This was not true of our next castle, just 10 minutes' drive farther west along Highway 40: the austere, imposing Qasr al-Kharaneh. Named after the surrounding hara, or rubble plains, it's Kharaneh more than any other that is likely to have prompted the misnomer "desert castles".

Kharaneh rises sheer out of the steppe, stark against a cloudless sky, with rounded towers at each corner and walls punctuated by arrow-slits. Seen from afar, it's most people's idea of a fantasy fortress. Once we'd been let inside by the caretaker, however, its true purpose was revealed. Set round a large courtyard are vaulted storerooms and stabling for horses, while on the first floor are suites of rooms which, in their heyday, must have been as comfortable as you'd expect from a desert motel, as this caravanserai effectively was.

As we arrived, a bus-load of exuberant Italians were leaving, so we were able to explore this magnificent building alone, imbibing the tranquil atmosphere. We wandered around rooms suffused with golden light, decorated with carvings inspired, Mahmoud told me, by Mesopotamian art. We left the atmospheric Qasr al-Kharaneh reluctantly. The road to Amman is fast and straight, but before returning we couldn't resist another off-road detour to one last Umayyad "castle" in a final stretch of virgin desert before Amman's suburbs. In contrast to the previous two, this one lies in ruins, bypassed by time and Highway 40. Following directions from a Bedouin truck driver, we bumped across open desert until we spied Qasr al-Mushash emerging from the plain like a mirage.

While Hallabat, Amra and Kharaneh have been carefully restored by the Department of Antiquities, which owns all the desert castles, Mushash is far off the beaten track and lies totally abandoned, with only a few die-hard Umayyad groupies like myself making the trip to see it. Now almost entirely crumbled into the desert, you need buckets of imagination to really appreciate Mushash. But its lovely position, surrounded by a vast expanse of nothingness, made the trip worthwhile.

Like Qasr al-Aseikhin, it's unlikely this castle will ever be restored now - it's too far gone, and too far from the main tourist routes. But as a hopeless romantic, I found the place deeply moving and a fitting reminder of how even empires as great and glorious as that of the Umayyads eventually vanish. A timely thought as we drove back to the thoroughly modern, fume-choked city of Amman, itself a testament to our own tottering, carbon-dependent civilisation. travel@thenational.ae

The flight Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Amman on Royal Jordanian Airways (www.rj.com) cost from US$301 (Dh1,105), including taxes The trip Petra Moon (www.petramoon.com ; 00 962 3 2156665) offers a two-day trip to Jordan's Desert Castles from US$400 (Dh1,470) per person based on two people sharing, including a 4x4 car with English-speaking driver; dinner, bed and breakfast at Azraq Desert Lodge; two lunches and all entry fees. For more information on the Desert Castles visit the Jordan Tourism Board website www.visitjordan.com