Jordan Desert Castles and Amman

Eastern Desert Highway

We had such a relaxing time floating on the Dead Sea the previous day, that even with the lure of three desert castles on today’s itinerary, we couldn’t blame the children for wanting another chance to jump in the beautiful pools of the Kempinski Hotel. We were already 1 hr late for our pre-arranged meeting time with our driver, Qais Bader of Jordan Select Tours. We contacted him on the company provided cellphone to let him know we would be at the lobby shortly.

As usual, he was more than accommodating. With adventure and excitement waiting, we pulled our wrinkled toes from the pool, had quick showers, packed up and headed to the lobby. This would be our last tour day as we would be flying back home tomorrow. On the agenda today: Desert Castles and Amman.

Qasr Kharana

Desert Castles

The Desert Castles refers to a group of historical ruins scattered on the eastern desert of Jordan. The ruins include castles, forts, baths, caravan inns and fortified palaces which all belonged to the Umayyad dynasty. There are at least 10 desert castles that can be visited, and of those, we visited the 3 most popular ones: Qasr Kharana, Qasr al-Azraq, and Qasayr Amra.

Qasr Kharana - Courtyard

Our first stop of the day was Qasr Kharana. Of all the desert castles, it looks the most like a castle. However, there is no evidence that the castle was ever actually used as a fort. In fact, the “towers” on the corners of the castle which look to have slits for launching arrows, are actually solid, which meant soldiers couldn’t have accessed the inside to mount a defense.

It’s thought that the castle was probably a meeting place or may have even been a private residence. The castle is two storeys and both the lower and upper floors can be easily explored. The courtyard was surrounded by about 60 rooms and the children enjoyed wandering around the maze-like corridors spotting ancient graffiti. Although the structure looks massive, the interior is not as big as would be expected due to its very thick walls.

Qasr Kharana - Room 51

After about an hour of exploring, we got back in the van and headed to the town of Azraq. Once an oasis in the eastern desert of Jordan, much of the water has now disappeared after being diverted for use for the surrounding farmlands and to supply the city of Amman. Recent efforts by the government have restored about 10% of the wetlands;

The Azraq basin was originally 12,710 sq km. To show our support for the restoration project, we stopped for a peek at the Azraq Wetland Reserve. There were other bird watchers at the reserve, however, due to the heat, we decided to cut our visit to this area short. So, off we went to our next stop, the Qasr al-Azraq desert castle, where we chased the ghost of T.E. Lawrence.

Qasr al-Azraq - Lawrence's Room

Qasr al-Azraq was the former headquarters of T.E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabia) during the Arab Revolt (1917-1918). Originally three stories high, the castle is constructed out of black basalt stone. The entrance door is made out of two slabs of stone and is still fully functional.

Qasr al-Azraq - Game

Near the entrance door, C and D spotted a game that had been carved onto the paving stones by bored soldiers attempting to pass the time during long desert shifts. They picked up some pebbles and enjoyed making up their own rules about what needed to be done to win. Both children were declared the winner, and then we were off exploring.

Our first stop would be T.E. Lawrence’s room which sits directly above the entrance.  The room offered sweeping views of the surrounding countryside during the Arab Revolt. There were also several other residences, storerooms, stables, a prison, and a mosque that could be visited. We then ran into another slab door said to weigh 3 tons. It led to the west tower. Of the door, Lawrence wrote in his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom how it “went shut with a clang and crash that made tremble the west wall of the castle”. Try as we might, we just couldn’t budge the massive rock.

Qasr al-Azraq


Qasr Armra

After our visit to Qasr al-Azraq, we headed off to our third and final desert castle, the UNESCO world heritage site, Qusayr Amra. Qusayr means little castle and the remaining structure was originally part of a much larger complex composed of a caravanserai, bathhouse, and hunting lodge. In fact, had it not been for the amazing 8th-century frescoes, Qusayr Amra could have been easily explored in five minutes.

Qusayr Amra

The entertaining gatekeeper showed us around outside the main structure where the children enjoyed trying out the reconstructed well as the gatekeeper explained the history of the site to us. Upon entering the main building, we were greeted by frescoes of bare-breasted women holding bowls.

Qusayr Amra - Frescoes

This is thought to be the audience hall where meetings and parties were once held. A small doorway on the left-hand side leads to the baths where we explored three other rooms. One room, the caldarium, had a domed roof that depicted what is believed to be the oldest map of the northern hemisphere with the zodiac signs added in. After exploring the desert castle for an hour, we headed back to the van for some much-needed lunch.

Qusayr Amra - Well Complex

Amman Citadel

We stopped at a restaurant for some delicious maklouba, a traditional Jordanian dish made with rice and chicken. Then, we were off to Amman to visit the Amman Citadel. The Citadel is located in one of Amman’s seven hills aptly called Citadel Hill (Jabal Al Qala), right in the middle of downtown.

Temple of Hercules at the Amman Citadel in Jordan

In fact, the towering columns of the ruins of the Temple of Hercules, re-erected in 1993, can be viewed from many vantage points downtown. The children enjoyed pretending to have Herculean strength by trying to move the massive pieces of broken columns that lay strewn about. You can easily imagine how grand the Temple must have been, especially when you see the giant hand of Hercules on the ground. The hand is all that remains of a 13 m high statue of Hercules that sat within the towering Temple of Hercules.

Jordanian flag flying over Amman

While walking through the site our guide pointed out the various Amman neighborhoods. We also had a great view of the Roman amphitheater, which we were supposed to visit next but it was closed due to a performance. Further along on Citadel Hill, on the upper terrace, we explored the Umayyad Palace.

The palace has undergone extensive renovations since the late 1990s and it has not been without controversy. The plaster, used on the inner wall details, for example, is a different color than the rest of the wall, and the detail work is of a far lower craftsmanship than the original, making the restoration quite obvious. After exploring the palace complex, we meandered slowly back towards the entrance so as to catch a glimpse of the sunset over the citadel.

Amman Citadel - Umayyad Palace

The sun was starting to set and so our Jordanian adventure was coming to a close. Tomorrow, we would hop into the van one last time so that Qais could bring us to the airport for fond farewells to good friends and a spectacular country.

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About the Author

Christina Wagar grew up in a travel loving family. She strives to instil her love of learning about different cultures and seeing new and old places to her husband Kevin and their two young boys. Having experienced over 20 countries across 4 continents Christina is well versed at travel planning and thrives on sharing that information with others with the hopes of encouraging more families to experience this incredible world that we live in.

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    1. Hi Amber,

      Safety was our initial concern with Jordan as well, but after some research we learned that Jordan, despite being amidst many countries in conflict, is an oasis of peace. It actually has one of the lowest crime rates on earth and the country takes it’s position in the world very seriously. Expect to see a lot of metal detectors in hotels and even some pat-downs, however once we arrived, safety was never anything that concerned us. It’s a beautiful country and well worth the trip!

  1. Jordan is absolutely one of our top destinations to come. My family love Middle East cultures, tastes and traditions. We are focusing on northern Africa at the beginning of next year, but Jordan will surely follow. My kids would really love to see Petra. And to be honest, me too. Your pictures are fantastic. And you really look like you had a great time!

  2. Wow! Your photos are amazing and make me want to head over there!

    Really informative article too. I have thought about heading over, but it’s not a place at the top of my list. After reading this though, I am way more interested in heading over now 🙂

  3. The castles and citadel look absolutely amazing! I knew Jordan was full of wonders, but I never realized just how many there are to discover. Great photos and guide!

  4. I have long wanted to go to Jordan! This is awesome info to help get me re-motivated to looking into it more. I also LOVE that you are doing it with your kiddos. We just had our first baby and can’t wait to prove all those nay-sayers wrong that we won’t travel now that we have a kid!!!

    1. Congratulations on your new little adventurer! I sincerely hope you get the chance to visit Jordan while they’re young. I’ve never travelled anywhere that dotes on kids as much as Jordan.

  5. Those castles look absolutely incredible – it must have been amazing to see them close up. The pictures are remarkable, and I think the citadel even more so. Extraordinary.

  6. Wonderful images, especially those of the temple of Hercules. The kids seem to have had a great time. Understandable, since castles are great places for kids. I speak from personal experience. I don’t have kids, but I was one, once. I loved castles as a kid. I definitely would have loved these.

  7. This would be a dream trip for us – so much history here to share with the little ones, and so many great things to photograph!

  8. I have yet to visit this area of the world, but it is something that my hubby and I want to do. How was the weather when you were there. I hate hot weather and want to go to the Middle East when the temperatures are more milder (if that is even possible!). My hubby is a photographer so we would definitely have castles on our list to visit!

    1. Hi Andi! When we went the temperatures most days were in the neighbourhood of 28-32 degrees celsius. The hottest day we had was down near the Dead Sea when we visited Bethany Beyond the Jordan and the temperatures were above 40 degrees celsius. It was hot but dry so it was more bearable. I haven’t experienced it, but I have heard that Jordan is still very spectacular in the winter and spring time when temperatures would be cooler.

  9. I also visited these 3 “desert castles” when I went to Jordan 3 years ago. The frescoes of Qusayr Amra are quite beautiful. Overall it was a morning well spent and highly recommend it.

    Had a wonderful time in Jordan!

  10. It’s a different kind of castle but it’s so unique. I can already see myself enjoying every corners of it. It makes you wonder how hot it must have been to be inside during those times though!

  11. Back before I started traveling, my idea of castle was limited to those you’d see in Europe, after some time I got introduced to different kinds of castle. Thanks for sharing the castles in Jordan. It’s also quite interesting how you manage to travel with kids around.

  12. The historic castles look really intact and seem like amazing sights to explore. The game your kids were playing at Qasr al-Azraq looks like mancala. Have you heard of it? Today, we have little wooden boards that fold out with the same holes. You use flat edged marbles to fill the holes. It’s all about strategic thinking. I actually saw adults and kids playing it in a poverty-stricken mud hut village in Haiti. They had dug the holes need to make the board right in the dirt.

  13. That’s such welcome news that Jordan is actually an oasis of peace! I have hesitated to go for such a long time!

  14. Thanks for sharing. The desert castles are absolutely beautiful. I love how they just blend in with the terrain. Will have to head out that way sometime soon to explore them myself.

  15. I’m glad you enjoyed Jordan. I studied there for six months and am dying to return. My very first trip while I was there (and one of my very first blog posts!) was about the castles in the Eastern Desert and reading this brought back so many fond memories.

  16. I would love to visit Jordan. My mum lived there for a bit as a girl and my Grandma started the first brownie guide pack there. It’s a beautiful place – lovely to see it works for kids too

  17. I am so glad to see visitors to Jordan getting out and visiting places that most Jordanians do not even see! While the big draws are amazing, I love that you took the time to visit the lesser known places in Jordan

  18. Hi – I am planning a trip to Jordan for March 2020 and the Desert Castles is on my list. Your review and pics are wonderful. Can you let me know which tour you took with Jordan Select Tour – was a pre-set one they offer, or a personalized one for you? Thanks!

    1. Hi Julie,

      Jordan Select was able to completely customize our itinerary. We were even able to visit a rarely visited one that we learned had opened as we were on the road.

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