Jordan's desert castles, beautiful examples of both early Islamic art and architecture, stand testament to a fascinating era in the country's rich history. Their fine mosaics, frescoes, stone and stucco carvings and illustrations, inspired by the best in Persian and Graeco-Roman traditions, tell countless stories of the life as it was during the 8th century.
Called castles because of their imposing stature, the desert complexes actually served various purposes as caravan stations, agriculture and trade centres, resort pavilions and outposts that helped distant rulers forge ties with local Bedouins. Several of these preserved compounds, all of which are clustered to the east and south of Amman, can be visited on one - or two-day loops from the city.
Quseir Amra, one of the best preserved monuments, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its interior walls and ceilings are covered with lively frescoes, and two of the rooms are paved with colorful mosaics.
Qasr Al-Mushatta, Qasr A-Kharrana, Qasr A-Tuba and Qasr Al-Hallabat have been restored and are all in excellent condition. The black basalt fort at Azraq, in continuous use since Late Roman times, was the headquarters of Lawrence of Arabia during the Arab Revolt.
For those fascinated by the Crusader Legends and Lore, a second group of castles beckons. The scenic Kings' Highway is littered with the remains of Crusader forts and outposts. The most important among these are Karak and Showbak - fascinating examples of architectural and military traditions of the time. Their galleries, towers, chapels and ramparts still echo with the resolve of the Crusaders who built them almost a thousand years ago.