Jordan’s Forgotten Eastern Desert Qasour

Casey D. AllenThe University of the West Indies, Barbados
DOI: 10.21690/foge/2019.62.2p

The typical tour of (the Hashemite Kingdom of) Jordan usually includes three main sites: Amman’s citadel (and its downtown souks), Petra, and Wadi Rum – all indeed spectacular, and the latter two UNESCO World Heritage sites (WHS). The more ambitious tourist might also visit Jerash, Ajloun, a resort at the Dead Sea, maybe a hot spring or Wadi Dana, and perhaps a few religious sites such as Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Mt. Nebo, Madaba, and the Red Sea. A few more days and some digging online might lead to Jordan’s castle circuit: Kharana (most likely a caravanserai), Amra (a UNESCO WHS with unique Islamic frescoes), Azraq (where T.H. Lawrence and his comrades wintered), Kerak and Shobak (infamous Crusader castles), and Umm ar-Rasas (another UNESCO WHS) mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. All these places together, however, barely scratch the surface of Jordan’s innumerable ancient and important sites.

I first visited Jordan as part of an undergraduate study abroad program in 1995. We spent only a couple days in the country: a few hours in Wadi Rum and an overnight in Petra. I returned 20 years later as a Fulbright Scholar, initially to identify indicator species to help establish biomes in the Wadi Dana Biosphere Reserve. But once there, as with many field-based projects, my focus changed and broadened to document the Kingdom’s Eastern Desert ruins. Jordan’s Eastern Desert has an extraordinary historical and archaeological heritage that spans multiple occupational periods from pre-Roman to the present day, but many of its sites are almost entirely unknown and/or lack formal archaeological assessment. My own search for documentation on them turned up exactly three studies. Mainly I learned of other sites by pouring over (old) maps, (out-of-date) guidebooks, conversing with locals, and tapping colleagues engaged in other Eastern Desert research efforts (e.g., biological assessments, refugee relief, etc.). These sites are a tremendous cultural asset and could be a much needed economic benefit to the country, appealing to those seeking intellectually rigorous adventure travel.

The Eastern Desert has a wealth of ruins. More akin to fortresses than castles-proper, these structures have served multiple purposes throughout their existence. Some were caravan stopovers, others private getaways for Caliphs, and almost all functioned in various capacities for multiple ruling peoples over long timeframes – as evinced by layered architecture, building footprints, etchings in different languages at individual sites, and explanations by traditional Bedouin people who have inhabited the region for generations. Locals call these ruins qasr (pl. qasour, an Arabic term for “castle” or “palace” with no English equivalent and often used to denote any old stone structure). And, as long as you stay away from Jordan’s neighbors’ borders (Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia), discovering these ruins for yourself remains relatively safe – assuming you have reliable transport, decent field sense, and do not mind getting lost from time to time.

Qasr Khan-az-Zahib represents the spark of my interest in Jordan’s forgotten fortresses. It took me the better part of a day to find it, as, like most of the qasr I “discovered”, it was just a dot on an old map. As I was taking photos, a young Bedouin herder, perhaps 10-years old, came over to me with some tea. He said these were Roman-era ruins and, just behind some rubble, there was another fortress from the Crusader era (az-Zahib to the west, the Crusader fort to the east). The rubble in between the two sites represents looting pits. Sadly, this is a problem all over Jordan. With limited funds focused on the more established sites, ruins and looting pits often go hand-in-hand in the Kingdom.

Looking southeast over az-Zahib, the Bedouin boy standing on the qasr, far-left. Typical for forgotten qasr, they often look like a pile of rocks until you clamber over them.

After photographing the two sites, I discovered toppled ancient columns and capitals and dressed stone, supporting the Bedouin boy’s statement that this was a Roman era fortress.

The opening to a natural cistern, with Qasr az-Zahib in the background. The Bedouin boy said the cistern was built during the Roman era, and still serves as the regional herders’ water source today. Note the livestock in the background.

Qasr Usaykhim: Looking to the east while driving along highway 5 from Azraq to al-Safawi, a casual observer might notice a faint outcrop in the distance and mistake it for a small cinder cone volcano. This is the black desert after all, so-named for late-Neogene/early-Pleistocene basalt flows covering the area that has resulted in such sharp rocks that even camels won’t traverse it (the white-ish colored splotches on the rocks are lichen).

It is possible to drive up to Qasr Usaykhim's entrance if you have a vehicle with decent ground clearance. In fact, there are faint vehicle trails scattered around the entire area, as goat herders use the region throughout the year.

The dusty Bedouin-made tracks, however, are not for the faint of heart, as the road is rough, and the climb to the entrance is steep. The sharp basalt rocks also wreak havoc on tires for the uninitiated desert driver.

Fortifications surrounding Qasr Usaykhim. These walls, averaging about 1 meter high and 1 meter wide with occasional L-shaped, almost interlocking openings every few dozen meters, weave around the hillside in a teardrop shape (see aerial view). Presumably, these date to the same time as the original construction.

Perched on top of the outcrop – which is indeed, a cinder cone remnant – sits Qasr Usaykhim, a 3rd century BC fortress. Most likely Roman in origin (as denoted by the archways) but, as with all forgotten qasr, subsequently used during Crusader and Ottoman times. Three still-intact arches at this qasr highlight Roman architectural prowess.

Just outside the qasr, looking WNW over a potential looting pit showing cinders (the dark red-colored rocks) underneath the surface. This hole could also have been the foundations for another structure, as it hosts angular blocks of basalt (center) similar to the those used in the qasr’s construction (toppled, angular blocks of the fortress in the background).

A view of qasr Usaykhim looking WSW. The qasr is on the right, and the small outcrop in the background (upper-left) is a modern cinder quarry. The fort’s encompassing “wall ring” is also visible.

Dayr al-Kahf, the “Cave Monastery," often overshadowed by its neighbor Umm al-Jimal just a day’s camel ride northwest of Usaykhim and a scant three kilometers south of the Syrian border, sits the qasr of Dayr al-Kahf. Built with local basalt like Qasr Usaykhim (as opposed to limestone like its nearest neighbor to the west, Umm al-Jimal) it is thought Dayr al-Kahf functioned as a Roman sentry post in the 4th century. Its still-standing Roman arch (far-right) lends credence to this idea.

Looking north-northwest, this image’s horizon marks the current Jordan-Syrian border. Note the large “hole” in the image’s center. Dug a few meters deep with plastered walls directly in the fort’s center, this functioned as a cistern. An archaeological excavation occurred here in the 1980s, but no research since. The lone caretaker with the only key (center, in white and red kafieyeh ) was more than happy to play tour guide, and invited us to his house – a very typical thing for a Jordanian to do – for lebn, a very salty and thick yogurt-ish drink made from goat’s milk (and an acquired taste). While I find most people generally hospitable and helpful wherever I travel, Jordanians seem to go the extra mile. They are the most genuinely considerate, welcoming, generous, and friendly people I have yet to encounter in my travels.

Our lovely “tour guide” who was born and raised in the village – and only traveled beyond it a few times in his so-far long life – explained that until the 1980s, people used the Dayr al-Kahf as living quarters. This is evinced by the mud-and-straw plaster remnants on the walls, ceilings, and archways. Around the country, as tourism became an ever-increasingly-important economic sector, the government built nearby villages to relocate many locals who at that time inhabited historic sites (like Dayr al-Kahf and even Petra), to new villages built for them. In some regions this worked well, in others, the historically populated village/location became a ghost town.

Re-used roman columns give further evidence of both Roman construction and occupation, as well as local residences. While obviously the columns and their sections do not match, the locals used what they could find to create this entranceway into their village – an example of what some call “Bedouin Ingenuity”. The locals are masters at using whatever they have on hand to remedy a perceived problem. (Dayr al-Kahf's key master and my wife standing in the entrance).

Cresting a small mountain, I saw two herders sitting on top of this pile of rocks. I stopped, got out of my truck, and walked over to ask directions to Qasr Qilat. They just stared at each other for a moment, and then pointed around them. Imagine my surprise when they said they were sitting on a qasr! While I stood there imagining how it must have looked when in use, they said the rubble pile was called "Qasr Ashid". When I asked them for "Qasr Qilat", they pointed/suggested I drive further across the mountains toward a "tree". This was a coincidental discovery en route to finding another qasr (Qilat, below). Being lost in the Eastern Desert is exciting -- for the first few hours at least -- because even if you find a “road”, it may not lead to anywhere specific (this is, consequently, how I found most of the qasour).

Over tea, the two herders told me Qasr Ashid was one of several Ottoman Era outposts that used to dot the skyline, but that maybe Romans had originally built them. Being on top of mountain, I imagined Ottoman and Roman turrets scattered across the surrounding points. Lending credence to the herders’ assumptions, I found this “dressed” stone – one of many – in the rubble pile. The scratch marks are indicative of Roman architectural techniques.

Here, in the rubble pile, are a few interesting stones. The stone on top of all the others with the convex, smooth face is in fact one of several partial pillar pieces discovered in the rubble pile. The stone directly underneath it (bottom-center) has some ancient etching, too decayed to decipher. The other stone with engravings (upper-middle-right) hosts a multitude of inscriptions, but has yet to be translated. Directly above that stone (upper-right-hand corner) is another convex-shaped stone, potentially part of a pillar. After showing me a supposed entrance to crawl into and under the rubble pile (I did not have the right equipment), they suggested I drive down the mountain towards the reservoir.

Making my way down the mountainside towards the reservoir, I met a young boy relaxing in the shade of a large water tanker. I asked him if he knew where Qilat was, and he just stared at me. After explaining to him as best I could, he suggested we visit with his grandpa, and hopped in my truck, pointing the way. After a half-hour or so, we pulled up to a Bedouin herder’s tent, and out walked an older man. His son told him what I asked, and he nodded, jumped in my truck, and pointed. After another half-hour of rough terrain driving, I saw a lone tree at the end of good-sized reservoir.

A few moments later, he told me to stop. I asked him where Qilat was, and he said, houn (“here”), pointing to the dam. As I looked at the dam, he told me the Romans built it, and that every ruling people after took advantage of the resource, adding to and strengthening the dam. Standing on top of the dam, surveying the landscape, my Bedouin Guide said this reservoir represents the only potable water source for miles in any direction – and the only greenery, which often stretches a kilometer or so downstream.

Skeptical of his assessment that Romans built the dam, I went searching for evidence. I found several dressed stones (note the scratches next to the pen) and even a couple remnants of pillars. However, these could have been moved from an adjacent site, merely being reused by later peoples. But my guide insists. Wallah? (“really”?), I say, and he motions for me to get back in the truck.

Driving downstream a bit, he tells me to stop, and walks me over to a cliff side. As I look down the small canyon, he points beneath our feet. There, scattered across the rocks, are several small divots (note keys for scale). I recognize these from Petra, Azraq, Jerash, and other Roman-inhabited sites around the Middle East. Used for a kind of mancala (board game), this represents one way Roman soldiers would while away the long days of doing nothing in the middle of nowhere. Bedouin kids throughout the Middle East still use ancient divots to play the same game today.

Walking upstream a few yards, he points out another engraving, a Romanesque cross. I have seen these symbols at other Roman-inhabited sites as well, lending credence to my guide’s story that Romans were here and perhaps even built the dam.

As the shadows become longer, and knowing I have a few hours of driving ahead of me (and not wanting to drive through the desert at night), I take one last picture of the area. We ramble through the desert back to my Bedouin friend’s tent just as the sun is dipping below the horizon. He asks if I want some tea, and I say no twice before finally agreeing. Watching the sun get even lower, I thank him and tell him I have to go. “Stay”, he says, offering me a place in his tent. I decline, noting I have to get back to Amman. He gives me his phone number, reminds me to visit again, and points me in the direction of Amman. Following his azimuth, an hour after dark I turn onto the main highway. A few weeks later, I learned the words qasr and qilat both mean “castle” (I was asking where the “castle-castle” was?!) This explained all the blank stares. Luckily, the old Bedouin man knew what I meant.

Jordan got the short end of the Sykes-Picot stick, the 1916 Great Powers agreement that divided the Middle East into states and spheres of influence. While some states got oil, Jordan was left without any real natural resource benefits. Instead, tourism remains one of its main economic prospects. Thus far, Jordan has concentrated its limited funds on infrastructure, development/research, and protection for the most known and accessible sites. My documentation, what archaeology colleagues call “landscape archaeology”, seeks to acknowledge less known sites, helping make them accessible to the perhaps more adventurous person.

Jordan’s forgotten qasour remain a hidden gem. Looking at a map of the well-known sites, the main qasr tourist circuit of Kharrana-Amra-Azraq all lay within a day’s walk of each other (~20km or so). Interestingly, many of the forgotten qasour are separated by approximately the same distance, indicating that their locations followed the same principles as the better known ones. For example, traveling from Usaykhim to Azraq was a day’s journey by foot or camel. From Azraq, you could then head directly west to Amman via stops at Amra, Kharanna, and Muwakkar. But you could also go from Azraq to az-Zahib via Qilat, and then head south or west, following another string of qasour, to Petra or the Dead Sea, respectively. Each forgotten qasr has likely been around for several hundred years or more, and has been used by various peoples throughout that time. Only in the last couple of centuries have they have fallen into disrepair and been all but forgotten by most people. Yet even in their dilapidated state, their potential to enhance Jordan’s most important economic sector (tourism) remains high, especially given the recent and fast-growing interest in adventure travel experiences/tourism. With a four-wheel drive vehicle, basic field supplies, an old-fashioned paper map (cell service in most parts of the Eastern Desert remains intermittent at best), a little bit of Arabic language, and snacks and water, anyone can “discover” Jordan’s Forgotten Eastern Desert Qasour.