Jordan is a fusion of cultures, and its history offers layers of civilizations. Its geographically privileged position has made it a nexus of the Levant, Arabian Peninsula, Asia, and Africa, and this resulted in many of the world’s great civilizations seeking to expand their power in and control over it. Consequently, over the centuries many castles and fortresses have been constructed in Jordan. These structures are believed by some to be the best indications of political situations, economy, social lives, and cultures in every period of time: they were symbols of power and reflections of conflicts, victories, and defeats (Al-Momani 1987). Today, a considerable number of castles in Jordan dating to different historical periods—especially those from the crusader and Islamic periods—are still in good condition and are open to tourists, archaeologists, and researchers. They present an integrated picture of history of the country and the whole region, varying in features and facilities, depending on the place and time in which each was built.

Map of castle locations that are also in the ACOR Digital Archive. The map is available on Google Maps

Crusader castles were built to defend against the most advanced siege techniques of the time. In some cases, halls were surrounded by earthen embankments of great strength to improve defensibility. This can be seen, for instance, at Al Shawbak castle, which was founded on an isolated hill in a watered and settled valley (Kennedy 2001).

Shaubak castle, early 12th century, as seen in 1980–1981. (Linda K. Jacobs collection.)

Later, when Muslim forces seized power over the region and the situation became more stable, some castles became the residential palaces of rulers or governors, and new ones were constructed to perpetuate the memory and names of their builders with written inscriptions (Al-Momani, 1987. Umayyad caliphs reused some existing castles, including those at Kharana and Muaqqar, as caravan khans. They also used Roman castles at Hallabat and Azraq—and they built new ones, too, such as those at Mushatta and Tuba, which are rare structures that bear witness to the uniqueness of the Umayyad civilization (Ilayan 2003). The function and usage of these desert castles expanded beyond military purposes. Muslim rulers employed these fancily decorated yet forceful structures to show off their power, to monitor transportation routes, to protect trade caravans, and to serve as rest houses (Al-Momani 1987).

Mamluk inscription on a wall of Shaubak Castle, as seen in 1980. (Linda K. Jacobs collection.)
Mamluk inscription on a wall of Shaubak Castle, as seen in 1999. (Jane Taylor collection.)
Mamluk inscription on a wall of a Shaubak Castle tower, as seen in 1999. (Barbara A. Porter collection.)
Shaubak Castle. (Barbara A. Porter collection.)
The Umayyad palace of Qasr Kharana, 8th century. (Rami Khouri collection.)
Room with arches in Qasr al-Hallabat, as seen in 2005. (Jane Taylor collection.)
Room with mosaic floor in Qasr al-Hallabat, as seen in 2005. (Jane Taylor collection.)
Detail of the mosaic floor of room 4 in Qasr al-Hallabat showing guineafowl. (Rami Khouri collection.)

Built by crusaders in the mid-12th century, Kerak Castle is one of the most historically significant sites in Jordan. From its founding into the 20th century, it was an administrative, economic, and defensive center in the southern Transjordan region. After the crusaders lost it in the late 12th century, Ayyubid, Mamluk, and Ottoman rulers used the castle and added more substantial architectural features to its main building (Jordan Times 1989). All of this has made it a “living witness” to each of these successive civilizations.

Kerak Castle (looking south), as seen in 1957. (Paul and Nancy Lapp collection.)
Kerak Castle viewed from the stairs, as seen in 1979. (Paul and Nancy Lapp collection.)
Kerak Castle and its steep terrain. (Rami Khouri collection.)
Kerak Castle dojon (keep) and landscape, as seen in 1967. (Barbara A. Porter collection.)
Kerak Castle and town, as seen in 1967. (Barbara A. Porter collection.)
Kerak Castle’s crusader-era chapel, as seen in 1987. (Paul and Nancy Lapp collection.)

From another period with its own fascinating architecture is Qasr Al-Mushatta, considered to be the largest and most ambitious of the Umayyad palaces in Jordan. Built in the 8th century, the palace is surrounded by a 144 m2 wall with twenty-five semicircular towers. Its stone facade is exquisitely decorated with delicate and varied geometric, faunal, and floral motives carved in relief (UNESCO n.d.). Entering the palace, you witness its spectacular remains, which are a unique example of Islamic architecture, with a most sophisticated and regular plan. And you will wonder how amazing it would have looked if the palace had been completed (Khoury 1988)! For all of these reasons, Qasr Al-Mushatta was inscribed on the World Heritage Tentative List in 2001 and hopefully will soon be named a World Heritage Site.

Decorative stonework on the façade of Qasr al-Mushatta. (Rami Khouri collection.)
Decorative stonework on the façade of Qasr al-Mushatta. (Rami Khouri collection.)
Hall leading to the throne room in Qasr al-Mushatta. Because of its three aisles with columns between, the hall is often compared to a basilica. (Rami Khouri collection.)
Hall leading to the throne room in Qasr al-Mushatta (Rami Khouri collection.)
Qasr al-Mushatta, as seen in 1987. (Paul and Nancy Lapp collection.)
Qasr al-Mushatta. (Rami Khouri collection.)

Due to the significance and beauty of the historic fortresses in Jordan, immense efforts have been undertaken to preserve, interpret, and present these majestic structures for tourists and the local community. The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, in cooperation with the American Center of Research and other Jordanian and foreign institutions, led projects to conserve the inherited treasures of Jordan’s castles.

In the ACOR Digital Archive, we have astonishing photos of these castles in several collections and spanning many years. They are open access, for all to see, and you are all invited to have a look and discover how these sites had changed over the decades.

خوري، رامي. (1988). القصور الصحراوية. ترجمة: غازي بيشه. الكتبي، ناشرون

المومني، سعد. (1987). القلاع الإسلامية في الأردن: الفترة الأيوبية المملوكية. دار البشير للنشر.

Ilyan, Jamal. 2003. “New ‘System’ of Presentation of Umayyad Desert Castles in Jordan. Integral Museum of Umayyad Civilization.” In ICOMOS 14th General Assembly and Scientific Symposium, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, 27-31 October 2003: Place, Memory, Meaning—Preserving Intangible Values in Monuments and Sites.Victoria Falls: ICOMOS.

Jordan Times. 1989. “More Riches at Kerak Castle.” Jordan Times, 17 May 1989, p. 3

Kennedy, Hugh. 2001. Crusader Castles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

UNESCO. n.d. “Qasr Al-Mushatta.” UNESCO Tentative List.