19 June 2012

Desert Castles
Meet up with Mohammed
Cave of the Seven Sleepers
Rabbit Castle / Qasr Kharaneh
Bath House / Qusayr Amra
Oasis Castle / Azraq
Lunch and drive back

Today we are doing a tour with Mohammed, of the desert castles. We are both praying it will be good, as our experiences with tours have always been disappointing. Unfortunately a tour seems to be the only way to get out there if you don’t have your own transport. We thought, maybe this time we won’t go for the cheapest tour, but for the best. It is costing us, but our tour guide is a history teacher, and we are hoping this will make it all very informative.
We meet up with him after breakie and get going. First up is the Cave of the Seven Sleepers. This was not on the itinerary, so we are a bit surprised. So are the guards there, cause we are an hour before openings time. Mohammed talks his way in though. He cannot talk the guard down for making Anna wear some oversized dwarfsrobe.. This is a religious site, and therefore a woman needs to be covered up. Anna doesn’t care much and looks wonderful in her new outfit..

Andrew & The Dwarf

The story : The Seven Sleepers were running from oppression. They went to sleep in the cave. Nobody knows exactly how many men there were, but there was definitely one dog. (3+dog, 5+dog, 7+dog..) God made them sleep for 309 years to proof a point. When waking up, one of them went to town for food, and he realised what had happened. They all explained it to the townsfolk and when they were converted, the sleepers died. This story is in the holy Koran and in the old testament. It has always been an important site, and people like to be buried out there. They have now built a new mosque and muslim library next to the cave. It used to be a proper cave, but over the years Jordan has improved on it. It is now a vaulted room, with about 6 big tombs in it. A few decorations are there, but a lot have been plastered over in the latest improvement..
We walk around the site, and anna is relieved to be able to ditch the robe.

After a few wrong turns, Mohammed makes it onto the desert road. This road leads to Iraq and Saudi. We are on our way to Qasr Karaneh. This castle is named after the rabbits that used to live in this area. It is one of the best preserved Umayyad monuments in the Jordan steppe.

It just pops up out of the desert!

Not exactly a castle though, more of a Road stop and hotel for pilgrims and traders. The building has an elaborate ventilation and lighting system through narrow openings in exterior walls. The Main area downstairs is for the horses and camels. There are 61 rooms over 2 levels. Some are quite nicely decorated with stone carvings of flowers. These rooms were most likely for the wealthier guests. The castle itself is made out of rough natural stone and then covered in a mixture of local mud and ground up limestone.

Good windows in the Main Hall

The pillars etc are therefore not carved, but molded and rendered.
Along the way we pass big American military installations. These are for training Iraqi soldiers and police. the Jordanians don’t like to have them here, but are given no choice. Besides the training camps and barracks, there are missile bases, F16s at an airforce base and a big military radar thingy.. Compared to all this, the castle is kinda small, and easily overlooked. At the end of the day, this is the best castle though. It is relatively sensitively restored and has a nice feel about it. Our history teacher has overloaded us with facts, but not many are sticking. Apparently the family responsible for building this, also build the Al Hambra later.

The Bath House @ Amra

They also built our second castle : Amra. Know as the five-star castle, they build this one just for them selves. It used to be a huge complex with gardens and hunting area. Unfortunately nowadays only the bath house remains. Extensive fresco paintings cover most of the interior surfaces. These are in a european style and depict all aspects of live here for the rich. Hunting scenes, bathing scenes and a surprising amount of half naked ladies. It is now Unesco listed and currently the Italian antiquities board is fixing it up. (do not make the mistake of calling them student, they seem to take offence to it) They are repainting the fresco’s and rebuilding the water system. We don’t really agree with repainting the old stuff, but the french had

Sexy Dancing Lady

tried some preservation work before and messed it up bad. All the paintings are now bright yellow, where they are supposed to be blueish. The water system was advanced for it’s day. There is deep well next to the furnace for bringing up fresh water. This was down by bullocks. The water would then be funneled past the fire to create the warm and hot baths. All in all the building is impressive. On the way out we were invited to join the bedouin in their tent. All castles have a tent at the parking lot, selling trinkets and cold drinks. The invite was nice, but as we were not planning on buying, we thought it better to decline.
As we found out later for our informative guide, every Jordanian is a bedouin. Of course not all live the bedouin lifestyle anymore, but all are still associated with a certain bedouin group. (A bit like our aboriginals) When you meet people, you will be asked wich group you belong to. Every group has a Sharif to lead them. If there are trouble, even legal ones, you do not go to the police but to your Sharif. He will then contact the Sharif of the opposition and work out an agreement. This works even for the worst crimes. Most severe punishment would be being kicked out of your group. You can then no longer get a job or wife. This used to mean the death penalty. Of course nowadays, you can just change your name, call yourself Egyptian, and lead a happy new live. So not to sure how the old ways are still working..

Azraq Church

On to the last castle. This at least is a proper castle.
It is castle Azraq. Asraq means blue because it is surrounded by an oasis. This is why it has been inhabited for so long. The oasis dried up 4 years ago, as the water was being pumped to Amman. The town is now looking at bit sad. Many people have had to leave.
The castle is built from local basalt stone, volcanic and blackish. The stones are naturally leaking tar. The roofs are made from stone covered by palm leaves and then covered by mud. Some rooms seemed to have had balconies attached. (to enjoy those nice desert evenings)
This looks more like a European castle as it was built by the Romans. A big central courtyard with rooms along the sides, 2 stories. Each of the corners has a lookout tower. In the middle of the courtyard is a church. Later of course converted by the Arabs to a mosque. Lawrence of Arabia was based here during the first world war fighting the Ottomans. We got his whole live story from Mohammed (a big fan), but you can just look it up online..

Tea on the Balcony?

Needless to say the Arabs got screwed by the english in the end and it took them another 35 years to gain independence. During a break with a cold drink, we got into politics with Mohammed. It’s great, you can ask him anything, and he will answer honestly. We discussed Syria, Egypt and the number of Palestinian refugees in Jordan. (About 1 million) All went well untill Israel came into it. This proofed to be a touchy subject. Not surprising as we later found out his wife is Palestinian.
On the way back we got the story of how Mohammed met his wife, and how his family is doing. His kids are spread out over three countries. He is quite liberal in his views on Islam, but  seems conservative in a lot of other ways. He is 65 years old though.. His first five children were all girls. They are now all married, but it borders on arranged marriages. They do get to meet their future husbands, and can say yes or no, but ultimately it is fathers choice how they will mary. His wife and him did a pilgrimage to Mekka to pray for sons, and were rewarded with another three kids, this time all sons. They are still in Uni.
It’s a nice insight in Jordanian life.
All in all a good day. Tomorrow we are planning on leaving Amman for a bit. Probably going north.



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