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Standing for centuries, Azraq Castle has more to tell

The weathered stone walls of the Azraq Castle, located some 100 kilometres East of Amman, have witnessed much of human history, serving as a strategic site in Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic times.A scholar said that studies of the history of the fortification are not complete.

Ahmad Lash, a Jordanian scholar from the Department of Antiquities (DoA) told The Jordan Times in a recent interview that “most of scholarly studies have focused on the Roman, Byzantine and Ayyubid periods, so questions about other periods remain unanswered”.

He added that it is well known that the Azraq area is referred to in many historical sources on account of “its militarily and commercially significant location, as well as its position on the pilgrim route from Damascus to Mecca”. 

Nevertheless, said Lash, who managed a DoA project to restore the castle between 2006-2008, the oldest inscriptions in Greek and Latin date back to as early as the 2nd century AD, when the castle was built to protect the caravan road that connected southern Syria with Arabia because of its strategic importance as an outpost for the Persian Empire.

The Arabic inscription above the main gate details the castle’s rebuilding during the Ayyubid period ten centuries later, in 1236, when the area was under threat from invading Tatars.

From historical evidence and archaeological indications, it is clear that in the pre-Islamic era, there was a trade route connecting the Arabian Peninsula with the Levant via Wadi as-Saran to Damascus, the expert noted.

“Other routes led south from Azraq to Bayir Al Jafir, Maan and to Hijaz through Tabouk, or to Sinai and Egypt through Aqaba,” Lash stressed.

During the Umayyad period (661–750 AD), Azraq was not as important in military terms as it was during the Roman and Byzantine periods, the scholar underlined, which rendered the black-stone castle less strategically important, although the area, an oasis in the eastern desert, was frequented by the new Arab rulers in Damascus for recreation. 

The strategic and military importance of Transjordan, in general, and Azraq in particular, was revived during the Ayyubid and Mamluki periods, when the Ayyubids realised the strategic significance of the desert town during their military campaign against the Crusader occupation of Palestine and south Jordan, which posed a threat to communications between Egypt and Syria, and to the pilgrimage route between Damascus and Mecca.

“In this respect, Sultan Naser Dawood (1206-1261) ordered the rebuilding of the castle in 1236 while Izz Eddeen Aybak restored it,” he noted.

With the Mongolian incursions, the importance of Azraq and its old military fort increased.

“This posed a real danger to the existence of the Mamluk state, as well as a threat to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina,” Lash underlined.

“During the early 20th century, Azraq Castle was used by Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein and T. E. Lawrence as a base from which to launch the Great Arab Revolt towards Damascus, and then it was re-used by the Druze in the Syrian uprising against the French colonial forces in 1924,” Lash stated.

In more recent times, after the creation of Jordan, the Azraq oasis became the headquarters of Border Guards.

“This all demonstrates how the importance of Azraq fluctuated according to wider social and military conditions,” the researcher concluded.

But after standing for centuries in the harsh desert environment, the need for its restoration become apparent. 

Lash and his team restored the southwestern portion of the site, one of several restoration projects conducted by DoA since the 1970s.