Lonely Planet review
Of the five major desert castles, the ‘winter palace’ of Qasral-Mushatta is the most difficult and time consuming to reach, and thus usually not part of most organised tours. But this is not to say that Mushatta is located in the middle of nowhere – on the contrary, it’s actually the closest of the desert castles to Amman. In fact, if you’re travelling around Jordan in a rental car, the ruins may be the last thing you see in the country as they’re located right next to Queen Alia International Airport!
The construction of Qasr al-Mushatta is believed to have started in about AD 743, under Caliph Walid II, who intended to establish a large city in the area. Although the fort was planned as the biggest and most lavish of all the desert castles, it was never finished. In 744, Walid II was assassinated by angry labourers, many of whose colleagues had died during construction due to a lack of water in the area. If you ignore the occasional sound of jumbo jets soaring over head, the extensive ruins hint at the vast potential of the caliph’s grand vision.
Many pieces have disappeared over the years, ending up in museums around the world. The elaborate carving on the facade was shipped off to Berlin (it’s now in the Pergamon Museum) after the palace was ‘given’ to Kaiser Wilhelm in 1903 by Sultan Abd al-Hamid of Turkey. Mushatta was also partially destroyed by earthquakes, and most of the columns and watchtowers have long since collapsed. However, the huge exterior wall and carved facades still hint at the original grandeur and beauty of the site.
Right of the entrance are the ruins of a mosque, with its obviously rebuilt mihrab (niche in mosque, indicating direction of Mecca). The northern sections have the remains of a vaulted audience hall and residences. Segmented pillars lie scattered around like broken vertebrae. One unusual feature of the site is that the vaults were made from burnt bricks (an uncommon material in buildings of this style) rather than black basalt. And of course, be sure not to miss the ancient toilets (complete with drains), which are located at the back of the hall.
Qasr al-Mushatta is impossible to reach by public transport or hitching. As the castle is located near sensitive areas – primarily the airport – make sure you have your passport ready to show the guards at the military checkpoints along the route.
If you’re driving from Amman, head towards the Queen Alia International Airport, turn left off the Desert Highway to the airport, then turn right at the roundabout just past the Alia Hotel. Leave your passport at the first security check and then follow the road for 12km around the perimeter of the airport, turning right by the second and third check posts.
An alternative is to charter a taxi from the airport – a great idea if you have a long wait for a flight – or combine a taxi to the airport with a visit to the ruins. A visit can be made from the airport in an hour.