Qasr Amra (Qusair Fortress) is an eighth century desert castle in the Jordanian desert. Listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, the square-shaped Qasr Amra is mostly gone, but its country house is extremely well preserved, with many of its walls and even ceilings intact.
It is not entirely clear who built the Qasr Amra. It is widely thought that it was constructed during the reign of Walid I (705-715 AD) of the Umayyad Caliphate, but some evidence points to it having been built later, perhaps between 743 and 744AD, during the reign of Walid II.
The remains of Qasr Amra’s country house include a reception room and bath house or “hammam” adorned with murals, which have been restored. Mythology, history and philosophy all play a part in these murals, with depictions of various events and figures, both real and imaginary.
With regard to Qasr Amra itself, visitors can see its foundations. Qasr Amra would have been used both as a garrisoned fortress and as a retreat for the Umayyad caliphs.
Qasr Amra (Arabic: قصر عمرة), often Quseir Amra or Qusayr Amra, is in the Eastern Desert region and is the best-known of the desert castles. It was built early in the 8th century (probably between 711 and 715) by the Umayyad caliph Walid I whose dominance of the region was rising at the time. It is considered one of the most important examples of early Islamic art and architecture.
The building is actually the remnant of a larger complex that included an actual castle, of which only the foundation remains. What stands today is a small country cabin, meant as a royal retreat, without any military function. It is most notable for the frescoes that remain on the ceilings inside, which depict hunting, naked women and, above one bath chamber, an accurate representation of the zodiac. These have led to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of four in the country. That status, and its location along Jordan's major east-west highway, relatively close to Amman, have made it a frequent tourist destination.
Quseir Amra is a cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site in Jordan. It was inscribed in 1985 and is located in the Zarqa Governorate. The site is a desert castle that was built in 743 AD by Walid Ibn Yazid. This desert castle was built at the time when the dominance of the region was on the rise. This desert castle is recognized as one of the best examples of early Islamic architecture and art. Hence, it was added to the UNESCO list in order to preserve it as a cultural and historic emblem.
There were inscriptions that were discovered on the castle in 2012. This has facilitated in a more accurate dating of this structure to help researchers understand exactly how long this structure has existed.
UMAYYAD CASTLES (QASR AL-HEER AL-SHARQI, QASAR HISHAM, QASR AMRA)
The Umayyads were well known as prolific builders, especially in and around their capital city of Damascus. Taking advantage of the construction expertise of local Byzantine architects and masons, the Umayyads dotted the region with dozens of palaces and castles. While few of these early medieval structures are still standing, the ruins can be found all over the region. These are collectively called the Desert Castles, some of which have become popular tourist destinations. Among the most important are the Qasr Al-Heer Al-Sharqi in eastern Syria, one of the largest surviving castles, and the Qasr Hisham in Palestine, one of the most visited, both of which were built by the Umayyad Caliph Hisham in the 8th century. The Qasr Amra in eastern Jordan is probably the most famous and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Most of the Eastern Mediterranean region was absorbed into the Islamic Caliphate in the mid-7th century, but it would be decades further before the area experienced its greatest architectural renaissance since the days of Herod the Great. The main catalyst for the region’s development was the relocation of the Islamic capital to Damascus during the Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyads, who had seized the caliphate in 661 AD, desired to establish their legacy in Syria, Palestine and Jordan through immense building projects. While these included some of Islam’s earliest and most important mosques, castles and other fortifications were their main focus, especially in the 8th century.
The reason for the shift in interest was twofold. First, by the early 700s, the Islamic Caliphate had grown incalculably wealthy, and the ruling family spent increasing amounts of time and money indulging in earthly pleasures. Second, and more practically, the Umayyads had a long history of making enemies, and sat uneasily on the throne. The construction of heavily fortified pleasure palaces and castles were designed to meet both of these needs. The first major builder-caliph was Walid I, who ruled at the very beginning of the 8th century. Walid, who had overseen the construction of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, built several important castles, including the Qasr Kharana and the Qasr Amra.
The most prolific builder of all of the Umayyads was Hisham ibn Abd Al-Malik. Hisham, who reigned for nearly two decades, was the second-longest ruling Umayyad caliph and probably the last really competent one. He built a large string of castles along his eastern and southern frontiers in response to the rising threat of the Abbasids in Mesopotamia. He also built some of the Umayyad’s most famous desert palaces, including the twin palaces of Qasr Al-Heer Al-Sharqi and Qasr Al-Heer Al-Gharbi, both in eastern Syria. His most visited palace is undoubtedly the Qasr Hisham, located north of Jericho in Palestine.
In 750 AD the last Umayyad caliph in Damascus was overthrown by the Abbasids, and the golden age of the Desert Castles came to an end. The Abbasids, who moved the Islamic capital to Baghdad, had little use for the old fortresses, either for military or recreational purposes. Most had long fallen into ruin by the time the Crusaders arrived in the 11th century. There were a few exceptions, such as the Qasr Azraq in north-central Jordan, which was renovated and used by first the Mamelukes and later the Ottomans. But most were simply abandoned to the ages. Thanks to the dry desert climate and the sparse populations, however, the ruins of dozens of castles have been somewhat preserved and are among the most popular non-religious sites of Muslim interest in the Middle East.
Just east of Amman, the historic site of Quseir Amra was built as a royal desert oasis.
Year Designated: 1985
Reason for Designation: A remote desert palace with remarkably preserved frescoes opens a window into the short-lived Umayyad caliphate, revealing the artistic blend of Byzantine and Islamic cultures in the eighth century A.D.
The small domes and triple arches of Quseir Amra stand out as the sole ornamentation in the stark and rocky desert east of Amman. Though the isolated location appears desolate and severe, Amra is just one of the many desert castles that dot the long caravan route from Damascus, the ancient capital of the Umayyad caliphate, and Mecca, the holy city of Islam.
Quseir Amra (“small palace of Amra”) was commissioned by Walid ibn Yazid sometime between 723 and 743, before his short reign as caliph from 743 to 744. Walid escaped city life by traveling to this pleasure palace, just a few days’ camel ride from Damascus, with his entourage. A free-spirited individual, Walid was a lover of extravagance, art, music, and beautiful things.
Today, Quseir Amra is not merely a surviving symbol of the Umayyad Dynasty, but also an architectural representation of the lively and hedonistic Walid. Constructed as a lavish hammam, the building follows the same concept of the traditional Roman bathhouse, with a tepidarium (warm room), caldarium (hot room), and frigidariam (cold room). Still open and visible, the hundred-foot-deep well provided ample water for the baths, with tethered animals drawing water into a larger cistern that flowed into a sophisticated clay-tile plumbing system running beneath the floors.
By far the most jaw-dropping aspects of Quseir Amra are the emotive, brilliantly colored frescoes that cover the plaster walls and ceilings of the main room. Animals, plants, hunters, musicians, bathers, and even pagan scenes are all depicted in a playful medieval reverie, some larger than life, with features influenced by Byzantine artwork.
Snapshot of a Civilization in the Making
The eastern desert of Jordan is unforgiving, a lunar landscape that races 500 lonely miles from Amman to the outskirts of Baghdad. Along the main road, there are few signs of life: a dusty army base, a desert grouse, the bleached bones of a dead animal. Yet through the sandy silence, the wind carries whispers of luxury. About 50 miles from Amman stands a small, richly decorated bathhouse called Qusayr Amra. It is among the strangest, most spectacular examples of early Islamic art, a solitary monument to la dolce vita in this sun-scorched earth. At Qusayr Amra, we can catch a glimpse of Islamic high culture in the making. The picture that forms is surprising, to say the least.
Qusayr Amra is one of several castles, hunting lodges and fortresses built across the deserts of Syria and Jordan during the first half of the eighth century, roughly 100 years after the death of Muhammad. With big cities like Damascus often roiled by plague and intrigue, princes and their retinues could escape to these desert retreats for much-needed safety and relaxation.
Built of sand-colored limestone, Qusayr Amra strikes a low profile against the desert expanse. The main hall is not large, comprising three barrel-vaulted aisles—among the first of their kind—45 feet long and 35 feet wide. A door on the western wall leads into an attached bath complex, once fed by rain water stored in an underground cistern. The Roman-style baths include an apodypterium, or changing room a tepidarium, or warm room and a caldarium, or hot room, along with a domed chamber for housing firewood.
More noteworthy than Qusayr Amra's architecture is its interior decoration. Brightly colored frescoes cover practically every inch of wall and ceiling—presenting images of battle and the hunt, symbols of the zodiac, and mythological scenes. The harsh climate, graffiti, and bad restoration have diminished the beauty of the paintings, but their exuberance remains palpable. Indeed, for a bathhouse that once belonged to a Muslim prince, the imagery is shockingly profane, showing little regard for modesty, much less for religious prohibitions on the depiction of human and animal forms.
Qusayr Amra was probably built by the caliph al-Walid II between 724 and 743 while he was still an amir, or prince. Medieval sources (some of them exaggerated, no doubt) portray him as a reckless and profligate man, who allegedly used the Quran for target practice, sent a singing girl from his harem to lead the communal prayers, and planned to build an open air "martini deck" atop the Ka'ba in Mecca, where he could sip wine and gossip about the passers-by.
Qusayr Amra perfectly expressed al-Walid's alleged love of debauchery and power. All around, he placed frescoes of naked women—some dancing, others lifting basins of water. These are no Kate Mosses, but ancestors of the zaftig beauties we find on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Frescoes covering almost every inch of the bathhouse's walls and ceilings present images demonstrating the prince's skill and dominance.
Al-Walid was also concerned to showcase his muruwwa, or manliness. Across the walls of Qusayr Amra leap packs of antelopes, dogs and hunters in hot pursuit. They stand as a probable record of what often took place when al-Walid was in residence—great desert chases, like the hunting parties of ancient Persian literature and pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. For al-Walid, the hunt was both high sport and political theater, an opportunity to demonstrate his skill and dominance.
Still, not everything at Qusayr Amra was added for entertainment. Certain frescoes convey deep religious and political messages, such as the portrait of the enthroned ruler, possibly al-Walid himself, who faces visitors as they enter the main hall. The image draws on a long tradition of imperial portraiture in Rome and Persia, but the closest iconographic parallels may be images of Adam found on church floors throughout the Levant. Early Islamic lore regarded Adam as the prototype of earthly royalty, one of two people in the Quran given the title "caliph" (meaning literally, successor or deputy). For a member of al-Walid's entourage who entered Qusayr Amra for the first time, the portrait would have emphatically underlined al-Walid's status as "caliph in waiting" and a second Adam.
Al-Walid included another political statement on the hall's eastern wall. Here, we find six kings paying obeisance to members of al-Walid's family, who are shown nearby. With labels in Arabic and Greek, we can identify them as the rulers of Persia, Byzantium, Spain, Ethiopia, China and central Asia. They were the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient world, and by the time of al-Walid, several had fallen to the forces of Islam. The fresco thus celebrates Islam's victory over its enemies, as well as its role as heir and caretaker of the ancient past.
The image of the kings helps us to focus on a central ambiguity at Qusayr Amra. On the one hand, it is a masterpiece of Islamic architecture, commissioned by an Arab prince a full century after Muslim armies captured Jordan. Yet at the same time, it is a last excited breath of ancient visual culture, closer in its imagery and playful spirit to the mosaics of Piazza Armerina in Sicily than to the mosques of Damascus or Baghdad. At Qusayr Amra, we find ourselves astride the fuzzy line between antiquity and the Middle Ages, between Jordan's Roman past and its Islamic future.
Qusayr Amra seems to have been abandoned not long after al-Walid's death in 744. Within a decade, Abbasid revolutionaries would sweep the Umayyads from power, claiming to restore dignity to a caliphate tarred by the impious and the power-hungry. Whatever we make of al-Walid, Qusayr Amra offers a snapshot of a civilization in the making. It is a meditation on the eclectic cocktail of ingredients—Greek, Roman, Persian, pagan and Christian—that mixed to produce Islam's first courtly culture.
&mdashMr. Sahner, a former Robert L. Bartley Fellow on the Journal's editorial page, is a doctoral candidate in history at Princeton University.
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Views of the architecture
Well house View from south View from east
The most fascinating of the Umayyad castles, with extensive fresco paintings in the audience hall and bath complex. UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.
Art Destination Jordan
Recommendations for cultural travellers: Contemporary art, art history, architecture, design, cultural heritage
Web guide, including informative photo tours with interactive maps and special presentations of venues, sites, events
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The desert castles of Jordan are in the kingdom's Eastern Desert.
The desert castles are a series of buildings (not all castles) built by the Umayyads in the desert, east of Amman. They provide a fascinating glimpse of how the Umayyads controlled the unforgiving desert. In Arabic, the word for "castle" is قَصْر (qaṣr, ultimately from Latin castrum), and this word features in many of the castles' names.
It is hard to see much of them by public transport.
The main castles can be seen in a loop, with some near 32.060955 36.094436 1 Zarqa on the main road east of Amman, some near 31.834494 36.814531 2 Azraq , and some on the southern road from Azraq to near Amman airport.
- 32.093362 36.328575 1Qasr Al-Hallabat ( the first castle on a clockwise loop, east of Zarqa and just west of Hallabat ). A large castle that went through multiple phases of building, showing black rock additions to the original work, plus some large mosaics.
- 32.083583 36.363161 2Hammam as-Sarah ( a few km east of Qasr Al-Hallabat ). The baths used by the rulers of Hallabat castle, now undergoing some archaeological work. The gate will be closed but unlocked. Free .
- 31.946512 36.952337 3Qasr Ussaykhim ( Qasr Assekhin ), head east from Azraq - there will be a signposted turnoff, but the sealed road ends 1 km before the castle . A ruined castle built from the black desert rock, a few arches standing out against the pile of rubble. This is an amazing peaceful place to look out over the rocky desert. Free .
- 31.879612 36.827331 4Qasr Al-Azraq ( Azraq Castle ) ( 5 km north of the Azraq t-junction, right next to the road ). A large ruined castle in the northern suburbs of Azraq. Good for exploring.
- 31.801443 36.588224 5Qasr Amra ( right by highway 40 ). Bath complex with spectacular frescos. This castle is a typical tourist attraction and includes a small museum ( updated Apr 2021 )
- 31.72868 36.465664 6Qasr Kharana ( right by highway 40 ). A large rectangular building that was likely a meeting place. It stands out against the desert and, unfortunately, the highway and power lines. The courtyard may be cool enough for a quick picnic. This is a typical tourist attraction with bathrooms available. ( updated Apr 2021 )
- 31.81361111 36.31833333 7Qasr Mushash ( Only accessible with four wheel drive. It is easiest to go off road at Lat: 31.82431 Long: 36.19882. ). It is not as impressive as other desert castles, but worth visiting. At first, one might notice only small remains, but after a second look, buildings (stone walls) can be identified. ( updated Apr 2021 )
- 31.78506 36.7342 8Qasr Uweinid ( only accessible with a four wheel drive. It is best to go offroad at Lat: 31.78661 Long: 36.76769 ). This Qasr impresses the visitor with the thick walls and the amount of black stone that must have been transported to build it. Although only some walls and its shape remind us of the stone's former use, the landscape in the area around it is fascinating. ( updated Apr 2021 )
- 31.32555556 36.57083333 9Qasr Tuba ( Only accessible with four wheel drive. It is easiest to go offroad at Lat: 31.29881 Long: 36.52409. ). This is a rather impressive Desert Castle. It was once renovated and features several, still existing, tall rooms. It was had a formidable size, but many parts of it are now destroyed. Unfortunately, visitors have left rubbish and many of the walls that once were paintings are now decorated by graffiti. ( updated Apr 2021 )
- 30.7618 36.67891 10Bayir Castle ( Only accessible with four wheel drive. It is easiest to go offroad at Lat: 30.78404 Long: 36.51759. ). This is a more modern castle which was probably built by a Turkish investor as a restaurant. Unlike the other desert castles it is not Umayyad and it is built very differently. Although it looks like a castle, it could also be considered a "lost place". Close by is a small, less impressive, historic building and a few metres further a small, but idyllic green valley and a water reservoir. ( updated Apr 2021 )
Larger towns like Zarqa, Hallabat and Azraq will have restaurants but you might want to take your own food and have a picnic.
Although many desert castles once served as a place to sleep in the Umayyad period, they don't have accommodation close by nowadays, unless the castle is in the city.
Today in Jordan, Qusayr Amra was a bathhouse built by the caliph Walid b. Yazid when he was still heir to the throne. It is famous for its frescoes, which depict bathing, hunting, and building scenes, as well as a zodiac and presumed to be Walid himself. The artwork at Qusayr Amra reflects Umayyad familiarity with both early Christian and Byzantine imperial imagery.
The vaulted ceiling with image of a youth, mature man, and old man. plus a bear playing a stringed instrument:
8th-century Inscriptions & Mural
One of the more famous murals of Qusayr Amra shows the “six kings.” Four are labeled in both Greek and Arabic: the Byzantine emperor, the King of Spain, the Sasanian emperor, and the king of Axum. The other two are too damaged to identify, but historians have suggested the kings of China or India.
This may depict the patron, the Umayyad caliph Walid b. Yazid.
At eye level in the audience hall, in Arabic:
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the [Merciful], there is no [god except] / God, unique, who has no associate […] / God … God…
High up on the wall, above a window in the audience hall, in Arabic:
Oh God, make virtuous Walid b. Yazd thanks to the virtue of […]/cause him to unite with the pious ones. Surround him with refreshment of kinship, oh protector of the two worlds / for his eternal community…the religion on the day of… the gathering
At eye level, in center of the wall in the audience hall, in Arabic:
Oh God, make virtuous (?) the successor to the Caliphate of the Muslim men and the Muslim women… …the protection of God ad his mercy.
High up on the wall, above a window in the audience hall, in Arabic:
Oh God, bless the prince as you blessed David and Abraham and the people of his community… … the prophet…