Jordan is much more than Petra, Wadi Rum, the Dead Sea or even Jerash. In fact, a large swath of eastern Jordan is dotted with several well-preserved castles all easily seen on a day trip from Amman. The eastern desert of Jordan is not nearly as visited as Jordan’s other more popular attractions, translating into few - to no other visitors at these impressive structures.
In search of an escape from bustling Amman, we rented a car over a weekend and set off east late one Friday morning. We were excited to see this part of the country as it had been on our to-do list ever since we lived here as Peace Corps Volunteers 10 years ago. It was well worth the wait and a trip we definitely recommend especially for those who enjoy off the beaten path travel!
There are four main castles in Jordan’s eastern desert that you should include in your trip. Here’s what we suggest.
Qasr al Hallabat (Hallabat Castle)
Start with Hallabat Castle which is about one hour from downtown Amman. For roughly half the trip eastward you drive through Amman’s seemingly endless suburbs before turning onto Highway 15 south of Zarqa. From there the desert landscape opens up as you merge onto Highway 30 which happens to be one of Jordan’s best highways!! Trust me you’ll know what I’m talking about when you experience it.
We arrived at the castle during Friday prayer and were the only visitors for our entire visit. We were also surprised to find there was no admission price to enter. I can’t say it’s always like that, but during low season in late January on a Friday it was free to enter. A free castle to explore all on our own with beautiful warm weather. We’ll take that any day.
Hallabat Castle, originally a Roman fort has undergone a fair bit of restoration. The fort’s location on top a hill once provided vantage over the surrounding landscape now makes for perfect desert castle photos. One interesting part of the fort is the inclusion of basalt rock (black-colored rock) in the interior of the larger structure. Conveniently this volcanic rock comes from the area. You’ll also find a well-preserved mosaic.
Qasr al Azraq (Azraq Castle)
Azraq, an oasis town surrounded by nothing but the desert is about as far east as visitor really ever travels in Jordan. The small town, 45 minutes east of Hallabat Castle is big on things to see and do. For this trip, we kept to our castle tour and checked out Azraq Castle located in the town. Azraq however, is also home to the Wetland Reserve and the Shawmari Wildlife Reserve, two of Jordan’s oldest and most important nature reserves. We decided to keep them for our next trek east.
The castle, the largest of the four desert castles is where TE Lawrence and Sharif Hussein bin Ali based themselves during winter of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Dating back further the castle also built by the Romans, played an important role commercially and militarily during not only the Roman, but the Byzantine and Islamic civilizations as well.
Azraq Castle was built entirely using basalt stone giving it a darker color compared to the other desert castles. The present-day form of the castle dates back to the 13th century with little renovation done since. The outer perimeter wall remains very much intact, with the interior vast and great for exploring.
Like Hallabat Castle we had the site all to ourselves, something that would never happen in Petra, Wadi Rum, Jerash, or the vast majority of Jordan’s attractions. This made for a pleasant visit for sure.
Qasr Amra (Amra Castle)
Amra Castle built in the 8th century was the third of four castles we visited. The castle, a 22-minute drive west along highway 40 from Azraq was once home to a small garrison located in the middle of a plain. Its strategic location had more to do with access to a spring which allowed the castle to function more as a residence to serve as a retreat with a hammam (bathhouse).
This castle happens to be the smallest of the four desert castles we visited on our day-trip from Amman. It was here that we saw lots of other visitors, all of whom were Jordanian.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by a witty guide who insisted we go along with him as he would open up the inside of the castle for us. While the outside of the UNESCO World Heritage Site is in terrific condition, it’s the murals inside that you really should see. Given the age of the castle, the murals are in the best possible condition. Honestly, the 5 JD tour was well worth it. We learned a lot about the function of the castle or residence and the purpose of the many rooms. Typically, we would have wandered around and taken photos, not truly appreciating what we were looking at. My advice is to get the guide if you have 5 JD to spare, especially if there is no cost to enter.
Fun fact, Amra Castle became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 the same year as Petra.
Qasr al Kharanah (Kharanah Castle)
Kharanah Castle, perhaps the most iconic of the four eastern desert castles was the one we saved for last. This castle is relatively close to Amman, less than 1 hour along highway 40, and only 9 minutes away from Amra Castle. If you don’t have the time or aren’t interested in seeing the other castles, then this is the one you should visit. The castle is in impeccable condition.
The two-story castle’s location in the middle of a barren moon-like landscape with no clear water supply has led historians to conclude that the castle served a short-term purpose, like for meetings between the elite families of Damascus and the nearby Bedouin tribes. This theory is strengthened because the castle is comprised of 60 rooms of various shapes and sizes around a large central courtyard and lacks any defensive measures that a castle would typically have.
The 8th-century castle was terrific for exploring, especially the many rooms spread out over two floors. For almost our entire visit we were the only visitors at all, but were joined by families and a bus-load of children at the end. Again, we happened to be the only non-Jordanians at the castle. It might be because it’s the low season for travel to Jordan, but we didn’t have to pay to visit any of the castles. We were approached by guides at only Azraq and Amra castles.
As you can see the eastern desert of Jordan shouldn’t be overlooked especially for history buffs or those who like to travel off the beaten path. A visit to these picturesque desert castles are not only a great way to explore a part of Jordan most travelers rarely see, but a chance to see historic sites either all to yourself or with just a handful of others, which if you’ve been to Petra, Jerash, or Wadi Rum will be a welcomed treat. The tour as we described can be done without any backtracking. Rent a car or find a guided day tour and escape Amman. It’s worth it.
Photography by Carrie and Albert Bond