Amman, Jordan, August, 2012
It is easy to forget just how much of the country is desert until you visit some of the country's 8th century Ummayad dynasty castles. Kherana appears to be a cube with corner circular towers set down intact on a basalt plateau in the middle of nowhere. But 'nowhere' was part of a series of caravanserais on a north-south trade route between Damascus and Mecca, that ran east of the traditional Haj route.
The better known, barrel-roofed Qasr 'Amra was a hunting lodge, hammam and pleasure palace, which has become known for its frescoes.
The interior walls are painted with richly-detailed scenes of bathing, hunting, dancing and singing. The domed caldarium is painted in celestial zodiac signs, the tepidarium has bountiful nudes bathing or dunking babies in basins, while the entrance tympanum has a slyly erotic scene of a seraph fluttering next to a pensive Cupid with a jug of wine at hand, looking down on what looks to me to be two figures under a sheet, although a description in the tiny nearby museum indicates the singular 'figure under a shroud'. Whimsical paintings of animals; a bear playing a lute, a monkey applauding, camels, rabbits, deer and dogs are inserted into each lozenge shape painted on the walls of the entrance to the tepidarium.
In the main reception hall are bare-breasted dancing girls, a large semi-nude bather and a hunting scene where dogs are chasing a herd of onagers into a net. To the left of the bather on the west wall is a scene with appears to portray the major leaders of the time alongside the Ummayad Caliph, Walid 1; the rulers of China and India, the Byzantine emperor, Roderic, the Visigothic King of Spain, Chosroes the Persian Shah, and the Negus of Abyssinia.
On the opposite side on the barrel vault are panels depicting scenes of the trades involved in building the castle; blacksmiths, masons and carpenters.
In this climate of increased religiosity in parts of the Muslim world, Qasr 'Amra is decidedly a counterpoint, although I rather wondered at the bearded Salafi type who was behind the ticket counter. Such scenes are anathema to hardline Salafis.
The third castle I went to see was Qasr 'Azraq next to what was once an oasis, but decades of pumping water to the ever-burgeoning Amman, has left this former watering hole a dried up, dusty, saltflat. The north part of Azraq is inhabited by Druze while the southern part is Circasssian and Bedouin.
The castle, used as a base by T.E. Lawrence during the Arab Revolt in the early 20th century, is built of black basalt rock which gives it a forbidding aspect. Dating originally to the Roman and later Byzantine periods excavations revealed stelae carved with animals and birds - peacocks, hares, ibex, deer, a baboon and fish, indicating early Christian work. Other stelae are incised in Latin and Greek script. A mosque in the center courtyard is Ummayad but the present building is principally 13th century Ayyubid.
Keystone arch construction, Qasr 'Azraq