Several Locations, Palestine, Jordan & Syria
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.
One of the best surviving Umayyad castles is the Qasr Al-Heer Al-Sharqi in Central Syria, approximately 165 miles northeast of Damascus. The outer walls and towers of Qasr Al-Heer Al-Sharqi are almost completely intact, giving a fairly good idea of the massive size of the place in its heyday. The highlight of the exterior is the imposing entrance gate which is still in use today. The interior includes a number of large courts, as well as the remains of foundations, rooms and the like. The Qasr Al-Heer Al-Sharqi is theoretically an open site, but it is likely that it will soon be a paying attraction. No other visitor information was available as of this time. Web: www.syriatourism.org (official tourism website of Syria)
The most visited is the Qasr Hisham, or Hisham’s Palace, just outside of the city of Jericho in Palestine, approximately 15 miles east of Jerusalem. Hisham’s Palace, which was probably among the most ornate and western of the various Umayyad castles, was modeled after a Greco-Roman bath house. It is far less intact than the Qasr Al-Heer Al-Sharqi in Syria. However, it boasts a greater wealth of surviving artwork, largely in the form of tile mosaics. Hisham’s Palace is open daily from 8:00am-5:00pm. The cost of admission is NIS10.00. Web: www.goisrael.com (official tourism website of Israeli Palestine)
The majority of the Umayyad Desert Castles can be found in northern Jordan, and the best known of these is the Qasr Amra, approximately 65 miles east of Amman. Most of Qasr Amra is a ruin, and only rough foundations give any indication to how large it once was. Qasr Amra’s real claim to fame is the royal apartment which, though small, is largely intact, making it more or less unique. The small residence, which is believed to have once been used as a small hunting lodge, has several chambers which were at one time richly furnished. The site is currently undergoing a restoration. As of this writing no other visitor information was available. Web: www.visitjordan.com (official tourism website of Jordan)
The Syria/Palestine/Jordan area is littered with the ruins of many more Umayyad Desert Castles in various states of decay. The Qasr Al-Heer Al-Gharbi in Syria is the twin of Al-Sharqi, though what is left little resembles its sibling. The Qasr Kharanah is close to Amra, while the Qasr Al-Qastal, the Qasr Al-Muwaqqar and the Qasr Mushatta are clustered near each other just east of Amman. The Qasr Al-Hallabat and the Qasr Hammam As-Sarah are close to each other near the Syrian border. Qasr Azraq, in eastern Jordan, was still in use during the First World War, when T.E. Lawrence used it as a base of operations against the Ottomans. Also in the vicinity of the Desert Castles is the Masjid Umar in Bosra, an ancient mosque founded by the second Rashidun caliph.