“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure-dome decree”
The opening line of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan, one of the most famous in the English language could have been written about Jordan’s eastern desert. Yet the poem’s subtitle, A vision in a dream. A Fragment, better describes my search for ancient Arab forts, pleasure palaces and even older Roman and Byzantine outposts, in the vast and atmospheric eastern desert.
This is a landscape that can trick the eye and fool the mind. The ferocious sun and the endless flat red-brown desert can easily disorient, and the sight of a magnificent pleasure palace standing in the middle of this blasted landscape is dreamlike. If you’d been travelling for weeks across the desert on a camel you might start to question your sanity.
I faced a more surreal problem as I drove into the desert: a thick desert mist obscuring everything. A wall of white blanketed the entire area and visibility was minimal. So dense was the shroud of mist that I actually passed Qasr Kharana without seeing it, remarkable given it’s size and the fact that it’s only about 100 metres from the road.
I stopped at a police post and asked where I’d find Qasr Kharana. The policeman laughed and pointed me back in the direction I’d just come from. As I drove back the mist began to clear and I realised why he found it so funny, in normal weather it’s impossible to miss this spectacular building.
Built in the 7th Century, the purpose of Qasr Kharana has been lost in the ‘mists’ of time: a fort to protect trade; a pleasure palace for the Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid who ordered its construction; or perhaps a safe haven for travellers to spend the night? Or possibly all three. What is true is that as the mist lifted, the yellow-brown stone glowed in the early morning sun. A beacon in the desert.
Not for the first time on my trip I was the only person there. As I parked the car a guard came out to say ‘hello’ and direct me to the entrance. Qasr Kharana stands forlornly in a barren landscape, proof that ‘civilisation’ once existed in the desert. I walked up to the front gate and pushed it open, an arched entrance led into a courtyard and stairs led to the upper floors. I had a desert fortress to myself.
Despite the occasional truck thundering past on the nearby road – headed for Iraq or Saudi Arabia – walking around Qasr Kharana in the silent desert morning was an eery and atmospheric experience. Leaving, I closed the door behind me so the next person would have the pleasure of opening this door into another world.
Back in the car I headed east towards the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Qasr Amra. The exterior of this desert pleasure palace doesn’t look anything special: quite small, one story, three arches adding a touch of intrigue. This plain facade hides an extraordinary interior though, one that truly deserves its World Heritage status.
Decorating the entire interior are colourful frescos which include some extremely risqué exotic (and naked) female dancers, musicians, hunters, fishermen as well as more ordinary decoration of flowers and animals. Amidst these fantastic scenes is a bear playing a banjo being applauded by a monkey. Apparently the Umayyads enjoyed a varied selection of entertainment.
It’s a small miracle that these images haven’t been destroyed. They’re forbidden under Islam and that they survived to give us an insight into 7th Century High Society is extremely fortunate. If ISIS ever make it this far south we can say goodbye to the frescos for ever. For the time being a team from an Italian university are restoring them to their former glory – they’ve suffered from generations of graffiti and neglect.
The building is home to a deep well that provided water to the occupants and passing caravans. It also gives a hint that Qasr Amra contained a bathhouse, making it by some estimates the world’s oldest hammam. The visitors’ centre, like many others I visited, was closed with no one collecting ticket fees. I’d happily have made a donation but there was no one to give it to.