Sunday, 10 July 2011

Castles in the desert

When we began researching Jordan and setting our rough itinerary, there was one area that really fascinated us, particularly as we’d heard next to nothing about it before. Many of Jordan’s attractions are world famous, and for such a small country, we imagined that the main tourist trail would hit most of the sites. Yet when researching the Eastern desert, we found very little information, even though it holds numerous desert castles. These odd structures, scattered from Amman right across to the Iraqi border, promised a bit of out-of-the-way adventure, so after leaving Jerash, we drove across for a couple of days of castle-spotting.

The term ‘castle’ is a bit misleading – the buildings are much smaller, and more forts than anything that resembles a traditional castle. We began with Umm al-Jimal, a ruined town of black basalt to the north of Jordan near the Syrian border. Many of the buildings are unfortunately crumbling and destroyed, but the scattered rocks are a playground to explore and made the remaining structures even more impressive against the background. The black rocks soaks up the heat, so care is needed when walking around the site as they can become very hot, but it is well worth seeking out the standing archways, wells and churches.

We spent the night in Azraq, a crossroad town in the east. Although the place itself is pretty unattractive, with huge trucks rolling through and exhaust filling the air, it is a convenient stopping point and home of one of the more famous castles, Qasr al-Azraq, TE Lawrence’s base during the Arab revolt. After a decent (but expensive – we tried out several accommodation options in the area and couldn’t haggle a decent price) night’s sleep, we were ready to seek out some more castles the following day. Although there are many off the main route from Azraq to Amman, a number require a 4x4 to reach, so we stuck to the closest; Qusayr Amra, Qasr Kharana and Qasr al-Mushatta. The last was the most difficult – located around the back of the airport, the directions Lonely Planet gave are no longer usable due to police blocks, and we couldn’t find any road signs or directions on our driving map. After drifting around for ages, and accidentally driving into farms, construction sites and factories, we asked a parked lorry driver if they recognised the name. He didn’t, but immediately grabbed a friend and they both whipped out their mobile phones and began phoning around, seeing if anyone knew. It was yet another example of the helpful and friendliness of all the Jordanians we met. Still getting no luck, we thanked them and drove off, deciding to have one last try before finding a hotel.

Turning down a dirt road, we found ourselves driving through airport supply buildings, and after ten minutes and worries of trespassing laws, suddenly the castle was there, in the middle of it all. We jumped out, and began to explore. Wandering around, I turned a corner and sitting there in front of me was a baby owl. Lizards scurried to and fro as I sat and watch the tiny bird, completely unafraid of me and happily perched in the sun. After taking a few pictures we carefully left it in peace, and returned to find the car surrounded by sheep as they were herded around by their owner. Our path eventually cleared, we drove back out again, glad we’d held on that bit longer and found the final castle.

The desert castles were a wonderful ending to our trip. We were completely alone at all of them, as they seemed rarely visited (in fact, we had expected to pay an entrance fee to each but every time the lone wardens waved us through despite our protests. One even passed us the key to the castle and asked us just to lock up again afterwards!) and the remaining paintings and rooms inside were beautiful. Well worth a couple of days of exploration if possible.

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