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.
How to Get There
Quseir Amra is just a one-hour drive east of Amman, on Highway 40.
How to Visit
Jordan’s desert castles make an easy half-day or single-day trip, depending on how many you want to cover. The informative visitors center at Quseir Amra provides licensed, English-speaking guides to lead you on a detailed tour—allow at least a full hour or more. The larger and more imposing Quseir al-Kharrana and Azraq castle are not far away, and both offer a different perspective on the scope and purpose of the desert castles.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
When to Visit
Open year round, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.