Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Azraq Fortress - The Limes Arabicus

Azraq Fortress

The Limes Arabicus
Defending the eastern borders of Rome

The Limes Arabicus was a desert frontier of the Roman Empire, mostly in the province of Arabia Petraea. It ran northeast from the Gulf of Aqaba for about 1,500 kilometers (930 mi) at its greatest extent, reaching Northern Syria and forming part of the wider Roman limes system.

The defensive Limes was to protect the Roman province of Arabia from attacks of the barbarian tribes of the Arabian desert and to protect the commercial lines from desert-based robbers.

Next to the Limes Arabicus the Emperor Trajan built a major road, the Via Nova Traiana, from Bostra to Aila on the Red Sea, a distance of 267 miles/430 kilometres. Built between 111 and 114 AD, its primary purpose may have been to provide efficient transportation for troop movements and government officials as well as facilitating and protecting trade caravans emerging from the Arabian peninsula. It was completed under Hadrian.

Usually, Roman auxiliary troops were sufficient to deter any group of barbarians. Only rarely was it necessary to employ the legions, the backbone of their army. Still, they were the ultimate weapon.

We can discern two main types of military base:
  1. Castra: the fortresses of the legions. At the end of the reign of Trajan (98-117), there were thirty legions in twenty-eight bases. Almost all of these were close to the border, at some distance of each other.
  2. Castella: the forts of the auxiliary troops, which were usually infantry, sometimes cavalry, and sometimes mixed units. Typically, they were no less than twenty kilometer from each other. Along the road between the castella were watchtowers.

In Arabia there were castra every 100 kilometres (62 mi) with the purpose to create a line of protection and control.

Troops were progressively withdrawn from the Limes Arabicus in the first half of the 6th century and replaced with native Arab foederati, chiefly the Ghassanids. After the Arab conquest the Limes Arabicus was left to disappear.

Azraq was built and manned by the Romans in
the early 4th century AD.
(Photo - Roman Empire.net)

The Fortress of Qasr Azraq

The Roman province of Arabia Petraea would have been a somewhat quite sector of the Empire.  Though subject to eventual attack and deprivation by the Persians and Palmyrenes, it had nothing like the constant incursions faced in other areas on the Roman frontier, such as Germany and North Africa, nor the entrenched cultural presence that defined the other, more Hellenized, eastern provinces.

Petra served as the base for Legio III Cyrenaica and the governor of the province.

There are no histories of major battles involving the smaller fortresses of the Limes Arabicus.  The bulk of the major military campaigns were further north in Syria and Anatolia.  The fortresses on the Limes were mostly used to control bandits and maintain law and order among the locals.

Qasr al-Azraq (Arabic for "Blue Fortress") is a large fortress located in present-day eastern Jordan. It is one of the desert castles, located on the outskirts of present-day Azraq, roughly 100 km (62 mi) east of Amman.
6th Century Roman Soldier

The name of the fortress and associated town came from these. The settlement was known in antiquity as Basie and the Romans were the first to make military use of the site.

The castle is constructed of the local black basalt and is a square structure with 80 metre long walls encircling a large central courtyard.  At each corner of the outer wall, there is an oblong tower. The main entrance is composed of a single massive hinged slab of granite, which leads to a vestibule where one can see carved into the pavement the remains of a Roman board game.

Although very heavy — 1 ton for each of the leaves of the main gate, 3 tons for single the other — these stone doors can quite easily be moved, thanks to palm tree oil. The unusual choice of stone can be explained by the fact that there is no close source of wood, apart from palm tree wood, which is very soft and unsuitable for building.

The strategic significance of the castle is that it lies in the middle of the Azraq oasis, the only permanent source of fresh water in approximately 12,000 square kilometres (4,600 sq mi) of desert. Several civilizations are known to have occupied the site for its strategic value in this remote and arid desert area.

The area was inhabited by the Nabataean people and around 200 CE fell under the control of the Romans. The Romans built a stone structure using the local basalt stone that formed a basis for later constructions on the site, a structure that was equally used by the Byzantine and Arab empires.

The Roman Empire was heavily pressed by invasions in both the Balkans and Anatolia.  That resulted in the somewhat quite sector of Arabia being drained of troops to help more threatened sectors.  Christian Arab foederati such as the Ghassanids were paid to patrol the southern frontiers.  

Because of the local wetlands the Azraq fortress would have still been considered important.  But there are no records on troop levels or military activity.

With the invasions by Muslim Arabs in the 630s the Romans lost control of all their border fortifications as they retreated north to Syria never to return.

Later, the fort would be used by the Ottoman armies during that empire's hegemony over the region. During the Arab RevoltT.E. Lawrence based his operations here in 1917–18, an experience he wrote about in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The connection to "Lawrence of Arabia" has been one of the castle's major draws for tourists.

The Roman Frontier in Jordan - Part I

Azraq Wetlands
Water in a desert made the Fort of Azraq an important stronghold for Rome.  The wetlands were created some 250,000 years ago as a result of being fed by aquifers that corresponded with geological changes. Azraq has, since ancient times, been the crossroads of both human trade routes and bird migrations. Millions of cubic meters of freshwater attracted camels caravans.

Azraq Fort

Qasr el-Azraq, praetorium

Qasr el-Azraq, south tower

Qasr el-Azraq, south tower, room

Qasr el-Azraq, inner court from south tower

Qasr el-Azraq, inner court

In AD 106 the Romans under Emperor Trajan achieved control of the region east of the Jordan River, which was previously ruled by the Nabataeans. Until then, the Nabataean kingdom had provided a buffer between the Roman Empire and the threat of enemies to the east. Historians do not know how and why the Romans took direct control. Perhaps the lack of a legitimate successor to the deceased Nabataean king resulted in a power vacuum. The Romans annexed the area and called it Provincia Arabia. It was governed by a senatorial legate appointed by the emperor, and its capital was Bostra (or Bosra) in southern Syria.

(Azraq Wetland Reserve)      (livius limes)      (livius.org)      (Azraq fort)

(Arabia Petraea)      (Limes Arabicus)      (desert castles)      (Qasr Azraq)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Surprising how well preserved still are that roman construction after all those centuries .