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Excursion to Jordan: day three (May 11, 2004)

The international congress on global and regional economics held at Shuneh (May 16-18, 2004) dictated a change in our visit program because the road to the Dead Sea would have been closed. The congress was presided by King Abdallah of Jordan and the Secretary of State of the USA, Colin Powell. As a result, we settled for a prolonged visit to the Baptismal Site in the morning and for a ride to the Umayyad Castles in the Eastern Jordanian Desert.

Wadi Kharrar, Site of the Jesus' Baptism

The Jordan River in the vicinity of the Baptismal Site. The Jordan originates from the sources of Banias, Dan, and Hesbani; it enters the Lake of Tiberias, and then moves down slowly towards the Dead Sea. In this last part of its course, the river makes an infinite series of meanders and curves like the ones in the above panoramic view recorded by our official photographer R. Pierri.

Sketch-plan of the taditional Baptismal Site (wadi Kharrar) after the excavation and restoration works done in view of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000.
1: Prophet Elijah's Hill
2: Laura
3: Foot path
4: Wadi Kharrar
5: Ancient basin
6: Rock-hewn cells
7: St. John the Baptist's Source
8: Church of St. Mary the Egyptian
9: Church of St. John the Baptist
10: Jordan River
In the wadi Kharrar (Sapsafas or Bethabara in ancient sources), Christians from the Byzantine Period memorialized Jesus's Baptism by the establishment of churches and hermitic cells. The new site was inaugurated by Pope John Paul II during his historic visit to Jordan (March 2000).

The source of St. John the Baptist. Our Jordanian guide, George Sweiss, recalled well the Pope's visit and the warm welcome shown to him by the local Christian community.

The distinctive path leading to the Jordan River bank. A lush plant growth is made possible by the presence of many small springs and by the intense heat of the Jordanian Valley.

Ruins of the Church of St. John the Baptist.
Below: detail from a Byzantine mosaic.

View from the eastern bank of the Jordan River. On the western bank, you can notice the structures of el-Maghtas in the vicinity of the Prodromos Monastery. In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. (Mk 1:9)

Reading the gospel accounts of Jesus' Baptism (Mt 3:13-17 parall.).

Desert Castles

Map of the Desert Castles in the region east of Amman.
I: Qasr Mushatta
II: Muwaqqar
III: Baths of Qasr Mushash
IV: Qasr Kharaneh
V: Quseir Amra
VI: Oasis of Azraq

The great number of Umayyad Castles (Qastal, Qasr al-Mushatta, Muwaqqar, Qasr Mushash, Qasr et-Tuba, Qasr Hallabat, Qasr Kharaneh, Qusair Amra) remind us of a historical period of great economic, artistic, and political prosperity under the wise rule of the Emirs based in Damascus (661-750 A.D.).

Qasr Kharaneh

The palace of Qasr Kharaneh is built in the south direction, towards Qasr al-Azraq and wadi Sirhan. Having no military purposes, it was the privileged abode of the Emirs where they used to go either for hunting gazelles or just for a little rest.

Fragment of stone with a Greek inscription. Various inscriptions found at Qasr Kharaneh point to two different building phases: the first one was around 661-684 A.D. and the second one was under Yazid II (720-724 A.D.). One inscription reads: Abd al-Malik son of Ubayd wrote this, on Monday three days before the month of Muharran in the year 92 (of the Hijrah - the Muslim era), corresponding to November 24, 710 A.D.

The monumental entrance to Qasr Kharaneh after the restoration work directed by S.K. Urice (1977-1981). The tiniest windows are not meant for warlike purposes, but for ventilation and lighting.

Interior view: the courtyard is flanked by the dwelling area consisting of two floor levels. The rooms number up to 61.

Above: A chamber topped by semi-domes: one of the first examples of this typical component of the palatial architecture of the Umayyads.
Left: Plan of Qasr Kharaneh, the ground (bottom) and the first floor (top).

Rigth: The group from the SBF enjoys eating lunch under the shadow of a Bedouin tent.
Below: Arab jugs typically used by Bedouins to prepare tea or some other beverage.

Quseir Amra

The name Qusair Amra means the "little red castle". This castle is located 90 km far from Amman and it is the most interesting among the Umayyad Castles of Jordan.

Quseir Amra.
View from above with a detailed plan of the main edifice.

A: Entrance Gate
B: Audience Hall
C: West Aisle
D: Central Nave
E: East Aisle
F: Space reserved for the throne
G: West Chamber
H: East Chamber
I: Entrance to the Bath Area (Vestibulum)
J: Intermediate Room (Tepidarium)
K: Hot Room (Caldarium)
L: Furnace
M: Basins

The complex is composed of different parts: the hydraulic system to fetch water from the well, the audience hall connected to the throne area, and the thermal baths. Qusair Amra is attributed to the caliph al-Walid I (705-715), the same caliph who built the Great Mosque of Damascus. The caliphs made use of this small castle for hunting and amusement in the baths.
Because of the 8th cent. frescos which adorn its walls, Qusair Amra is under the protection of UNESCO as a patrimony of humankind. After the restorations conducted by a Spanish team under the direction of M. Almagro and L. Caballero, the frescos are now displayed for the admiration of many thousands of visitors every year.

On the ceiling of the East aisle, the paintings illustrate the various works accomplished in the construction of the castle of Qusair Amra.

The Audience Hall of Qusair Amra shows painting on its walls and on its ceiling. On the right wall are depicted the enemies of Caliph al-Walid I, viz: the Byzantine Emperor; Rodericus, the last Visigot King of Spain; Kusruh, King of Persia; the King of Ethiopia, the Emperor of China, and the King of India.

The cupola of Caldarium in the thermal baths where the Zodiac appears. The frescoes of Qusair Amra were disclosed to the West by A. Musil and A.L. Mielich at the beginning of the 20th cent.

Qasr Azraq

The corner tower and the main gate to Qasr al-Azraq (which means "the blue castle") built next to the oasis known by the same name. A first phase goes back to the Roman Emperor Diocletian (end of 3rd cent. A.D.). The identification with Diafenis (Notitia Dignitatum 80,11.23) is based on literary and archaeological data. The castle is square in plan with sides of 80 m wide; it has been re-used and re-made practically in every epoch since its construction.

Left: A stairwell in the main building of al-Azraq castle.

Below: A Greek inscription. Inscriptions are of great help in dating the different phases of this military fortress. The earlier inscription mentions Emperors Diocletian and Maximian (300 A.D.); a later one marks a restoration done under Jovianus (363 A.D.). The latest adaptations appear to have been made by the Ayyubid governor Eziddin Aybak (1236-1237 A.D.), who built the mosque. In modern times, al-Azraq became the central quarter of Lawrence of Arabia during the war of liberation from the Turkish Empire (1916-1918 A.D.).

A view of the fort's internal court towards the north. On the right is the cistern, in the center the Ayyubid Mosque, and on the left is the guard tower beside the West gate.

Click on the photos to enlarge.

External Links

The Baptism Site (Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities - Jordan)

The Pope visits Wadi Kharrar (from

The Sanctuary of "Bethany beyond the Jordan" (FAI)

The "El Maghtas - Bethany - Baptism Site" Homepage

The Desert Castles (how to visit)

Islamic Architecture (Forts and Castles)

 SBF main, Index

Biblical Excursions

Biblical World



Umm el-Jimal



W. Kharrar




M. Nebo




Umm er-Rasas





Archaeological Museum

Iraq el-Amir

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