Castles fit for a khaleesi
ame of Thrones has never been filmed in Jordan. But it should be. In its red landscapes, the Mother of Dragons would definitely have found a few Dothraki to join her in her crusade to reclaim the Iron Throne.
The desert castles would have been an ideal hideaway to regather her strength on the long path to King’s Landing. Built between the 7th and 8th centuries, during the Umayyad dynasty, they are a valuable example of early Islamic art and architecture. They are found to the south and east of the capital of Jordan, on a desert plain that extends to Saudi Arabia. Some, like Qasr al-Qastal and Qasr al-Mushatta are only around 30km from Amman.
Brainstorming for George R. R. Martin
If the author needs inspiration for the latest edition in his saga, he could journey to south Amman and visit Karak castle, an ancient crusade fortress and the setting of the battle of Hattin. Following the conquest of the castle, Saladino pardoned the prisoners, but he executed their leader himself, in true Ned Stark style.
The Umayyads left their mark on this Bedouin land through sand-coloured stone structures. If it weren’t for their imposing size, they would be camouflaged against the arid, dry desert terrain. Inside, mosaics and frescoes, probably inspired by Persian and Greco-Roman traditions, decorate the rooms. Some still maintain part of the splendour of those days, with paintings of stories and legends that took place long ago.
They are called castles, but not all of them are fortresses. Most were actually built for caravans (caravansaries), granaries, trade centres, hammams and rest stops. A few of them were used as military forts, however, of which, Qasr al-Azraq is the best known. Although the existing structure dates from the 13th century, it is thought that the original one was built by the Romans in the year 300AD. Since then, they have been used by the Byzantines, Umayyads, Mamelukes, Ottoman and even Lawrence of Arabia, who turned it into his headquarters in the winter of 1917. In his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he described an enormous gate made of black basalt, like the rest of the building. The fort is located in a strategic position, at least 6km from the Azraq oasis, the only source of water in the eastern desert of Jordan. Its 12 square kilometres of plants, pools and marshland are the reason why a castle in this area was so coveted.
A Jordanian road trip
At Amman, you can also rent a car and travel the King’s Highway, a road that is 335km long and 5,000 years old. It passes through Madaba, Mount Nebo and the Dana Biosphere Reserve, among other places. Prehistoric settlements, biblical towns, castles from the crusades and ancient Islamic cities make up this journey through history.
Qusair Amra is another essential stop on this route. It is about 28km from Azraq and is the best preserved of the desert castles. From the outside, it is reminiscent of a Star Wars set, but the best part is the murals inside. What is so special about these paintings is that they contain living beings, which was prohibited with the arrival of Islam. They include a portrait of caliph Walid I on his throne, with a further six governors of the time. It is unknown whether they were allies or enemies. The castle probably formed part of a larger complex, of which only the reception hall and a luxurious hammam with mosaic floors remain. It is included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, an honour to which Qasr al-Mushatta also aspires, although the building has never been completed.
The mysterious Qasr al-Kharrana looks most like a castle, but archaeologists and historians can’t agree on its origin. Its enormous walls give it a defensive appearance, but the design of some parts seems to have been based on aesthetic rather than military motives. Perhaps it is still waiting for a new use: a khaleesi to occupy it with her Dothraki army and dragons, to give the castle its identity back.