Jordan desert castles route

If you're reading this post, chances are, you already know that Jordan has desert castles and you have probably seen pictures of th...

If you're reading this post, chances are, you already know that Jordan has desert castles and you have probably seen pictures of them, which have very likely brought loads of questions to your mind - after all, they do look a bit mysterious.

I mean, if they are castles, why do they look completely different to the rest of the castles in the country? When were they built and for what purpose? How many are they and how can we see them? - These were all questions that crossed my mind while I was doing some research about them and so here, on this post, you will get all of your questions answered.

Qasr Kharana, Jordan

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Last updated: March 2021

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS



HISTORY

In order to understand what they really are, let's get started with a little bit of history.

These desert castles or Qasrs (meaning palace or castle in Arabic) were built around the 7th and 8th centuries by the Umayyads for a series of purposes such as accommodation, commerce, politics, agriculture and even defence. Even though they are called palaces or castles, they're nothing like the other castles in the country (such as Ajloun, Al-Karak and Shobak castles, all mentioned on the blog post about hidden gems in Jordan): they have a completely different architecture since they were created in a very different time, are not sitting on a hill and they're generally much smaller because, once again, they were built for different purposes rather than just being a military fortress.

Up until this day, a few name suggestions have been given, but none were considered adequate, so they remained as desert castles, even though that's not exactly what they are.

Oh, and before we carry on, just for a bit of context, Umayyads were the first major Islamic dynasty to rule the empire of the Caliphate (based in Damascus, Syria). And if you don't know what a Caliphate is, it's basically the rule of a Caliph - an Islamic religious and political leader who claims to be a successor of Muhammad.



LOCATION, SAFETY AND ACCESS

To see these "castles", you will be venturing yourself towards the borders on the east of the Country (Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia), through the desert, in the complete form of the word: the arid landscape and the emptiness of the road. In some of these castles, you might not see a single person on the horizon, and there is beauty in that, but it can also be scary to some. If you worry about security for whatever the reason, hire a private driver or join a tour for peace of mind. Nevertheless, know that many people, specially the curious ones, have done these routes before. 

On top of that, bear in mind that not all castles can be easily accessed by a regular car, so if you're driving yourself, chances are, you might not be able to see all and in those particular cases, joining a tour might be ideal. You can find some below:





THE DESERT CASTLES 

To answer the question "how many desert castles are in Jordan?", I spend countless hours on Google trying to research every possible one in the country - and even though we do say that "Google knows everything", that is not always the case. So the answer is probably not going to be what you wish to hear, but here it goes: I don't know exactly how many desert castles are in the country. And I believe Google doesn't as well. But one thing I know: after loads of research, I can tell that at least 7 desert castles can be found in Jordan, and I will be covering all of them, starting from the most popular to the least popular.


MOST POPULAR

These are close to one another, making it easy to see all 5 within a day trip (if you've got the time) and they have easy access, meaning you can drive to the location on your own if you feel comfortable to do so.


1) Qasr al-Kharana

Qasr al-Kharana, Jordan

One of the oldest in the region and most popular desert castle in Jordan, Qasr al-Kharana (or just Qasr Kharana) was never used for military purposes and used to serve as a place to host political meetings and later on as an inn for traders and visitors.


2) Qusair Amra

Qusair Amra, Jordan

Qusair Amra is the only World Heritage Site desert castle in Jordan and it's known for it's beautiful fresco paintings related to life, trading, hunting and kings. It's considerably small comparing to others Qasrs and has a bath complex.


3) Qasr Al-Hallabat and Hammam al-Sarah

Qasr Al-Hallabat, Jordan
Hammam al-Sarah, Jordan
Qasr Al-Hallabat on the left and Hammam al-Sarah on the right

Next on the list is the Umayyad desert complex of Qasr Al-Hallabat, originally built for defence and known for it's well preserved mosaics as well as the related mosque and bath house Hammam al-Sarah, used in the past as a venue to receive local tribal leaders and ask for their political and military support.


4) Qasr Azraq

Qasr Azraq, Jordan

Qasr Azraq has a very distinct architecture to the ones mentioned above: it was built by the Romans 4 to 5 centuries before most of the other "castles", it looks a lot more like a fortress and has a much darker colour thanks to the use of black basalt on its construction. It was used as a hunting residence and military base.


5) Qasr al-Mshatta

Qasr al-Mshatta, Jordan

The last one of the most popular castles is actually a not so popular one (yes, I know, a popular castle that is not popular nor a castle). Many guides will just forget about it and most people won't even know about it's existence - to the point that it can be difficult to find good photos online. The only reason I placed it on the most popular list was because it fits perfectly within the rest: it's not far from the others and it doesn't have a difficult access. The only difference is... just not being the most favourite dessert castles of these five.

Qasr al-Mshatta is a surprisingly big complex and was originally built to serve as a sophisticated meeting site for the caliph and so you will be able to find loads of details on it's walls. Part of its faรงade was sent to Pergamon Museum, Berlin, in 1903.



LEAST POPULAR

Unlike the most popular castles, these ones are a lot further away and have difficult access, making them less attractive to tourists and so, are often ignored by guides. Because of their lack of popularity, I couldn't find any stock photo that I could use on the blog to represent them, so I would advise you to Google both locations or check my map and audio guide on Peoople so you can see the photos for yourself.


1) Qasr Tuba

Despite it's lack of popularity due to difficult access, Qasr Tuba is actually one of the most impressive castles on this list because of being a large residence complex in the middle of the desert.


2) Qasr Al-Burqu

And finally we have Qasr Al-Burqu, a less impressive structure with very difficult access, but located in a very unique landscape. Qasr Al-Burqu is surrounded by the Burqu lake, in an area that is home to a large amount of species: birds, gazelles, foxes, hyenas and more. The castle was built as a stopping point to provide water to travellers moving between Syria and Arabia, and it was later used as a monastery. 




THE DESERT CASTLES LOOP (DRIVING ROUTE)

If you're convinced that these desert castles are worth visiting (which you should be, by the way), then it's time you start thinking about how you will be able to do this.

As mentioned on the top of this post, you can hire a private driver or join a tour to do so, or you can simply drive yourself around (at least to the easily accessible locations). Most self driving guides only include the three most popular locations - Qasr al-Kharana, Qusair Amra and the Qasr Al-Hallabat complex (including Hammam al-Sarah) - but since I am a sucker for exploring every single thing, I will be including the 5 locations I mentioned under "most popular" on this driving route, and you can see them on the map below, in orange:


Tips to use the map above
  • You will find different layers on this map, showing you all points of interest by categories. To see these, click on the tab icon (top left). All layers will be enabled by default. By clicking on the check marks, you can disable/hide a specific label to better understand the info you're looking for.
  • To view more detailed information on any point of interest, click on it's icon over the map.
  • You can save this by clicking on the star on the top of the map (right next to the title). This will be added to your Google Maps, and you will be able to access it from any device (Google Maps - Your Places - Maps)


Please bear in mind that I am personally someone who loves to visit every single place and don't mind waking up early and making the most of the day so I don't miss anything. On the other hand, you might want to sleep until late in the morning, and on that case, you will have to prioritize and possible end up with a shorter route, containing only two to three locations.

Unfortunately, I did not have the time to visit these places and drive this route myself, so I can't say exactly know much time it will take you to drive, but I will give you an estimation thanks to Google Maps (Google coming to rescue once more):

  1. Amman - Qasr Al-Hallabat and Hammam As Sarah: 1h drive
  2. Qasr Al-Hallabat to Qasr Azraq: 50min drive
  3. Qasr Azraq to Qusair Amra: 25min drive
  4. Qusair Amra to Qasr al-Kharana: 10min drive
  5. Qasr al-Kharana to Qasr al-Mushatta: 50min drive
  6. Qasr al-Mushatta to Amman: 40min drive


This will take under 4h (roughly 3h50 - 261 km) of driving in total, so you will have to add the time spending on sightseeing on top of that, and don't forget that the traffic in Amman can be pretty bad during peak times so make sure you leave and come back outside of these hours if you want to save some time.

As for the other two locations, I wouldn't recommend trying to access on your own, so your best chance is to book a private tour and check if it's possible to do both in one day (like one in the morning and one in the afternoon) or if you will need to do each on a separate day.






RESOURCES




TOP PLACES TO STAY IN AMMAN
Luxurious hotels: Amman Rotana, Amman Skyline, InterContinental Jordan, Four Seasons Hotel AmmanLandmark Amman Hotel and plenty others (Amman has plenty of choices when it comes to 4 and 5 star hotels)
Budget travel hotels and hostels: The Wanderers and The Cabin for the best value (quality-price) and Mansour Hotel, Jordan River HotelCliff Hostel and The Boutique Hotel Amman for cheaper options

Booking.com




READ MORE ABOUT JORDAN






I hope you enjoyed this blog post and that it was useful to you! If you manage to do the driving route with the 5 castles please leave me a comment and let me know how much time it took you to do everything! I would love to know your experience :)




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