Destination: Desert Castles of Jordan (near Azraq)
Number of Days Spent: 2 days
Where we stayed: Azraq Resthouse - 40 JD ($56 - overpriced, we suspect not very honest, not very clean and the rooms are way past their prime but it did have a great pool which was very welcome after a day in the desert. There were only 3 choices in this dusty little town...it was this one or the one with the dirty looking bathroom, complete with squat toilet...the most desirable lodging was booked up, we suspect by a single tour group because our hotel had only one other room occupied and the squat toilet one was empty)
Best restaurant: No name chicken house (name is only in Arabic) in Azraq -8 JD for a barbecued chicken, a huge plate of fatoush, Arabic bread & a plate of fries - it was enough for both of us with room to spare...luckily we had a fridge and our leftovers made for tasty chicken sandwiches for breakfast! Look for the restaurant off the main drag with the barbecued chickens out front but don't confuse it with the mutton roasters.
Best of: Islam's first pleasure (aka pervert) palace, complete with naked ladies, clapping monkeys & bears playing banjos!
Worst of: I wouldn't suggest this town as a stopover, its claim to fame seems to be grilled mutton. Not only did we see the poor things being slaughtered, skinned & hung up in front of the restaurants on the street but the air was heavy with the distinct smell of old, smelly mutton and the sounds of their demise. We also ran across two restaurants serving beef, complete with the whole cow head posted outside the restaurant. No thanks..we'll stick to the barbecued chicken...
Most Memorable: We'll never forget the smell of diesel fuel & grilled mutton wafting through the air.
Just to the east of Amman lies what is collectively known as the Desert Castles. Built by the Umayyads, the first Islamic leaders, or caliphs, based in Damascus, the castles are really a collection of castles, palaces and inns. The elite Islamic leaders built these "oases of pleasure" in the middle of the harsh desert as an escape from the strict religious practices they preached. In these private getaways, the wine flowed, the women danced and the men hunted and held horse races. While most of the buildings are modest affairs from the outside, the walls contain some great stories of days gone.
Leaving Jarash, it didn't take long before we left the farmland and were into the rocky and unforgiving desert. It is out here that Bedouins seek out an existence herding animals from one spot to another as they have for centuries.
Our first stop was at Qasr Hallabat. Hallabat began life as a Roman outpost, later converted to a monastery, until the Umayyads added elaborate baths, a mosque, and colorful frescoes and mosaics. The fort today has a few great mosaics, and scattered amongst the Islamic ruins you can see the evidence of the earlier Romans with Latin inscriptions carved into a few of the building blocks.
Just on the outskirts of the forgettable town of Azraq lies Qasr Azraq. While the fort is the least impressive on the circuit and was nearly completely destroyed by an earthquake in the 1920's it does boast one claim to fame. In the winter of 1917 TE Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, set up camp in this fort with his troups getting ready for battle against the Turks during WWI and the Arab revolt.
After spending the night in Azraq (rather forgettable town - see above) we headed out for the last two of the major desert castles. Qasr Kharana is one of the most intact and photographed of all the castles. This imposing structure boasts what looks like towers and narrow arrow slots in the walls at first glance. Once inside you realize that the towers are solid rock and the slits are to awkward to be used for shooting arrows. It is now believed that this structure served as an inn on trade routes and pilgrimages to Mecca.
Our final stop on the desert castle tour led us to Qusayr (little castle) Amra. Amra was the highlight of our trip out to the desert. The current structure is believed to be built by the same caliph that built the famed Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem as well as the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Unlike those two buildings however, this UNESCO heritage site has the best preserved frescoes that give a glimpse into what the caliphs might have been up to in the far reaches of the desert away from the watchful eyes of the faithful. The frescoes range from rather innocent scenes of hunting to more risque scenes of naked women bathing and even a bear playing a banjo with a money dancing in tune?!? While the official line of Islamic scholars blame the paintings on other groups of Arabs or rogue rulers, the evidence strongly points to the caliphs being the culprits.
After getting our feel of 8th century "sin" city, we drove off to the Mosaic capital of Jordan, Madaba.