Conserving a special Roman fort
Deep in the Jordanian desert lies an extraordinary ruin. It is a Roman fort that can stake a claim to being the best-preserved example anywhere in the former empire. But this relic of imperial power is in urgent need of conservation work. David Breeze, Mark Driessen, and Fawzi Abudanah discuss why Qasr Bshir is special, and the challenges that lie ahead.
An insignificant tarmac road leading off Jordan’s Desert Highway about 80km south of Amman soon becomes a dirt track across the desert. The landscape looks bare all around. No habitation can be seen, apart from a small modern farm in a side valley. The desert rolls on. And then, a speck on the horizon. A dark form, barely visible. Gradually, it becomes larger until it is a recognisable building: a square fortification with large towers at each corner. This is Qasr Bshir. And the visitor has just experienced one of the most-sublime journeys to any Roman fort anywhere. On arrival, most visitors must have similar thoughts. Why was a Roman fort built here in the middle of nowhere? What did the soldiers do? Where did their supplies come from? Happily, the ruins of Qasr Bshir present answers as well as questions.
Today, the fort offers an iconic example of a Roman military installation. While a powerful imagination is often essential for visitors seeking to appreciate the former scale of even comparatively well-preserved Roman forts, Qasr Bshir is different. Its imposing corner towers still stand three storeys – that is, 13m – high, while a Latin dedication slab commemorating the construction of the post still greets anyone passing through the main entrance. Erecting such texts was once standard practice, but now Qasr Bshir finds itself unique as the sole example of a Roman fort where the original building inscription is in situ over the gateway. How long this will remain the case is a different matter, as the inscription is cracked in two places. It is just one of several conservation concerns that have been flagged up.
Efforts to address these have recently gained momentum. On 28 September 2022, HRH Prince Hassan of Jordan launched a new publication, The Frontiers of the Roman Empire: The Eastern Frontiers, in Amman. Three of the authors were present: Fawzi Abudanah of Al-Hussain bin Talal University, Mark Driessen of Leiden University, and David Breeze. The following day, they visited Qasr Bshir, noted deterioration of the dedication slab, and decided that it was time to tackle its conservation. Within days, HRH Prince Hassan had agreed to be patron of the newly named Qasr Bshir Conservation Project, Richard Beleson had offered a grant to cover the cost of the conservation of the entrance, and a group of international Roman scholars had agreed to offer their names to a support group (see ‘Further information’ box on p.36). Here the three promoters of the project explain the history of Qasr Bshir, its importance, and their plans for its future.
A desert fort
Exploring the ruins of Qasr Bshir reveals much about this military post. It is almost square in plan, measuring about 57m by 54m, which is small by Roman fort standards. The same cannot be said of the masonry used to build it. Some of these stones are enormous – megalithic is an appropriate description. This massive masonry may have been intended to overawe onlookers; the inside walls, however, were plastered. The great corner towers would also have made an impression. These have three rooms on each floor, and it remains possible to climb to the top via a set of stairs and landings arranged around a central column in a manner likened to a ‘square spiral staircase’. Preservation is such that visitors can still observe the small hole in the stone door jambs where a piece of leather could hold the door fast.
Between each pair of corner towers were ranges of two-storey buildings set against the rampart. Most of the lower rooms contain three mangers built into the curtain wall, suggesting that this space served as stables with – presumably – three horses in each room. The soldiers will have been quartered on the floor above. One room, positioned directly opposite the fort entrance, is notable for the absence of any mangers. This, coupled with the existence of similarly placed examples elsewhere, suggests that the structure was a temple. As well as providing a focus for religious life in the fort, this was where the unit standards would have been kept.
The inscription over the main entrance tells us that the installation, Castra Praetorium Mobene by name, was built during the reign of the emperor Diocletian and his colleagues between 293 and 305, under the governor of the province of Arabia. As well as providing unequivocal evidence for when the fort was founded, this helps us to date the whole framework of defence in this section of the eastern frontier. In particular, it reveals that the security arrangements were overhauled after the empire had weathered 50 years of turmoil, which included invasion, civil war, and violent political instability. Eventually, in 284, a soldier by the name of Diocles seized the empire, changed his name to Diocletian, and began a renewal that ushered in a new phase in the long history of the Roman Empire. Today we call this era ‘the late Roman Empire’.
Diocletian’s measures included strengthening the eastern defences of the empire against its neighbour, the kingdom of Persia, which was now in the hands of a new dynasty of strong rulers known as the Sassanids. Possibly the emperor also had in mind the task of defending his people against a different enemy, the Saracens, who undertook hit-and-run raids against the Romans. In order to achieve this, a line of new forts – including Qasr Bshir – was built along the frontier. The northerly forts on this line were linked by a road, the strata Diocletiana, although it did not extend as far south as Qasr Bshir. Even so, this answers the question of what the fort was doing. Rather than standing as a lone sentinel in a vast wilderness, it formed a crucial link in a chain of posts.
The location of the fort was well chosen, as it had good visibility in all directions except towards the south. Indeed, the Romans were probably not the first to appreciate the potential of the setting. Instead, the fort appears to sit on the site of an earlier Nabataean tower. Even so, the position was not without its constraints. In a desert, water is always a problem, especially as there was no oasis near the fort. To make up for this, a reservoir where rainfall could be collected was created about 600m away, while two cisterns lay within the fort courtyard. And there was rain at Qasr Bshir. The line of forts constructed by Diocletian’s officers lay on the 200mm isohyet: the point at which agriculture remained possible because of sufficient precipitation. Sure enough, there is evidence for farming in the area during antiquity, when rainfall in the region was higher and more evenly distributed than nowadays.
Harvested water was essential for animals as well as humans and, as we have seen, the internal arrangements of the fort indicate that it contained horses. Some might suspect that camels would be a better bet – and the Roman army did have camel-riders – but the surrounding terrain is good for horses. They would not be struggling over a soft, sandy expanse of desert, as the ground in the region has a hard, stony surface. This, then, provides a sense of what the garrison was doing. Founding Qasr Bshir was not just about creating a military strongpoint in the landscape, it also established a base for cavalry patrols monitoring activity over a much wider area.
The final question – where did the supplies come from – is not so easy to answer, except to note that the Roman army was very efficient at supplying even its most-outlying installations. We can be certain that the military rose to the logistical challenges posed by Qasr Bshir with its customary aplomb, as the fort remained in occupation for at least 100 years. Indeed, it was later occupied by the army of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate.
This is an extract of an article that appeared in CWA 118. Read on in the magazine (Click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which offers all of the magazine’s content digitally. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current Archaeology, Minerva, and Military History Matters.