Eastern desert castles: What to See and More Information

The eastern region of Jordan is often overlooked by mainstream itineraries, which tend to focus on popular destinations in the Highlands or the Dead Sea. However, that’s not the case with our agency, Jordania Exclusiva, as we integrate the main attractions of this region into our pre-set and customized travel packages, with the ‘desert castles’ as the main highlights. That’s why on this page, we’ll tell you what to see in eastern Jordan, how to get here, and other useful information.

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What is the Eastern Desert of Jordan

The eastern region of Jordan is dominated by an immense desert that seems to have no end, stretching into Saudi Arabia and reaching all the way to Iraq. However, from a tourist perspective, the Eastern Desert of Jordan is marked on maps by the so-called ‘desert castles’.

The most significant castles are located at a strategic crossroads of ancient caravan routes between Syria, Arabia, Jerusalem, and Iraq. The largest population center in the region is Al Azraq, with only around 15,000 inhabitants. Coupled with the vast expanse of the area (spanning over 30,000 sq km), this creates an overwhelming sense of solitude and tranquility.

The inhospitable and almost lunar landscape of the region also contributes to this feeling. It is an immense plain with hardly any elevations, and oases are few and far between, with rocky terrain dominated by black volcanic rock, mainly basalt.

A Bit of History

During the Neolithic period, this region was quite different from how it appears today: its wetlands were much larger, and the land was more fertile, making it easier for sedentary populations to settle and engage in agriculture.

The Greeks and Romans were familiar with the area, and the Romans even occupied it, passing the torch to their Christian successors, the Byzantines, between the 5th and 8th centuries. However, the most significant contributions to the architecture in this territory came from the new Arab civilization that conquered the region in the mid-8th century, particularly the Umayyad dynasty that ruled their vast caliphate from Damascus, leaving clear signs of their refined culture here.

For the Abbasid successors, who governed their wealthy caliphate from Baghdad, the area also had strategic importance as it lay on the route to Jerusalem. Ayyubids, Mamluks, and Ottomans also contributed to the consolidation or expansion of some of the structures that can still be visited today.

In more recent times, the Eastern Desert of Jordan has been closely associated with the Arab Revolt and the figure who made it known in the West: T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. This archaeologist, writer, military officer, and lover of Arab culture, a member of Emir Faisal’s troops, spent a winter here, using some of its historic structures, which are now visitable.

However, since the 20th century, the Eastern Desert of Jordan has also developed a long tradition of hosting immigrants and refugees fleeing conflicts in their countries, including Druze, Chechens, Palestinians, Iraqis, and more recently, Syrians, who have formed a large refugee camp in the vicinity of Al Azraq.”

What to See in Eastern Jordan: The Desert Castles

Traveling for kilometers on end on roads without any towns, one might think that there is nothing to see in Eastern Jordan. However, the desert holds some surprises for those who have the courage and daring to venture out here. These surprises are known as the ‘desert castles,’ which are not just historical fortresses, but also caravanserais and hunting pavilions. Here are some of the most prominent ones, which are actually part of some of our tours.

Qasr Al Azraq

Qasr Al Azraq East: Desert Castles

Not much is known about the history of this desert castle, although it is known to have been known by the Greeks and Romans. The Umayyad caliph Walid II used it as a hunting pavilion and military fortress in the 8th century, but its current appearance is largely due to the expansion by the Ayyubids in the first half of the 13th century, used as a defensive stronghold against possible Crusader incursions. It was also used by T.E. Lawrence for a period of time, and we know the details of that period thanks to his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” which describes the harshness of winter.

The most representative spaces that can be visited during the tour are:

  • T.E. Lawrence’s room
  • Remains of a Roman altar
  • Ruins of a jail
  • Mosque
  • Towers

Qusayr Amra

Qsay Amra East: Desert Castles

This castle, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is now in the middle of nowhere, so it has little resemblance to its original state: it was built next to a wadi that centuries ago was very fertile and filled with trees, also serving as a caravanserai or inn. Its construction was commissioned by the Umayyad caliph Walid I in the early 8th century, one of the great promoters of monuments during the early days of Islam.

However, his successor Walid II, who was much more puritanical, let it fall into disrepair due to the excessive boldness of its decoration. In the 20th century, it was restored by European archaeologists, including Spaniards.

The most attractive feature of Qusayr Amra is undoubtedly its fresco decoration, which is quite rare for Islamic civilization, as themes represented here such as hunting and bathing with naked people were soon censored. Particularly noteworthy is the Fresco of the Six Kings, which mentions some of the great monarchs of the time or preceding centuries, including the last Visigoth king, Rodrigo, who succumbed in the Iberian Peninsula to the Arab conquerors.

The main spaces to visit are:

  • The audience hall
  • Baths: apodyterium, tepidarium, and caldarium.

Qasr Kharana

Qasr Kharana East: Desert Castles

Of all the desert castles, this one has the closest resemblance to a proper fortress, although its original function is not clear. Some hypotheses propose its use as a caravanserai, while others consider it a meeting pavilion between Arab elites and the nomadic Bedouin population. What seems clear is that it does not conform to a traditional defensive structure, although its semi-circular towers suggest otherwise. Over fifty rooms have been identified, possibly to accommodate the delegations that were convened, and it is believed to have been built around the year 714.

What to do in Eastern Jordan

Unlike the southern desert where Wadi Rum is located, there is not a wide variety of adventure experiences available to visitors in the eastern desert of Jordan. Instead, the main activities in the area are related to its natural reserves, each with its unique characteristics and differentiated activities, often organized or supervised by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Here are the highlights:

  • Birdwatching in the Azraq Wetland Reserve: The remaining water mass here is much smaller than what it used to be centuries or millennia ago, estimated to be only 10% of the former marshes and ponds, mainly due to excessive exploitation to supply Amman. However, it is still sufficient to attract significant populations of migratory birds. Therefore, this is one of the best places in Jordan for spotting species such as finches, larks, or plovers. Large mammals such as buffaloes are also often seen.
  • Observation of indigenous animals in the Shaumari Wildlife Reserve: The reintroduction or introduction programs of indigenous species are particularly important here. The Arabian oryx, an antelope resembling a horse, which has been in serious danger of extinction, deserves special mention.
  • Living with Bedouin communities in the Burqu Nature Reserve: Recently established around a large lake that dries up in summer, this reserve offers opportunities for bird watching and exploring castles and other archaeological sites in the area. There are also initiatives to promote cultural interactions and exchanges with local tribes, allowing more adventurous travelers to experience a reality very different from what mass tourists witness.

How to get to Eastern Jordan

When it comes to traveling and getting around Eastern Jordan, you only have one option: private transportation. As the region is not only a vast natural desert but also sparsely populated, there is no efficient public transportation network or major infrastructure serving as a gateway for travelers.

With no airport, train, or regular buses, the only option is road travel. The most common route is from Amman, as the capital city is also the closest. However, there are also two other highways that directly connect to Eastern Jordan from other parts of the country: the Al Badiyah Road from the south or the Desert Highway from the Highlands.

Here are the distances and approximate travel times from Al Azraq to other places of interest in the country:

  • Amman: 130 km, 1 hour and 45 minutes
  • Dead Sea (Swemeh): 150 km, 2 hours
  • Jerash: 120 km, 1 hour and 45 minutes
  • Madaba: 120 km, 1 hour and a half
  • Karak: 200 km, 2 and a half hours
  • Wadi Musa (Petra): 300 km, 3 and a half hours
  • Wadi Rum: 350 km, 4 and a half hours
  • Aqaba: 380 km, 4 and a half hours

Plan your trip to the Desert Castles

Disfruta de East: Desert Castles
Enjoy experiences
Cambia tu moneda unicamente Espana East: Desert Castles
Change your currency (Spain only)
Vuelos muy baratos East: Desert Castles
Very cheap flights
Alquila tu coche East: Desert Castles
Rent your car
Contrata Wifi o telefono East: Desert Castles
Hire Wifi or phone
Quieres una tarjeta East: Desert Castles
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