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Mike Bishop

You know my method. It is founded upon the observance of trifles

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Virtually a Tour of a Desert Fort

A Visit to Kasr Bshir

M.C. Bishop

Each illustration in the following piece is a thumbnail image which, if selected, will lead to a larger graphic with an explanatory caption. However, the tour ought to make sense if you only look at the thumbnails or, in fact, if you cannot see any illustrations at all.

Figure 1The Roman castellum of Castra Praetorii Moabeni, now known as Kasr Bshir, lies in the Jordanian desert, far from any modern roads. Back in 1986, finding it was by no means easy; even when you have with you somebody who has been there before (Fig.1). On the Desert Highway, one small track off to the west looks much like any other. When you have found the right one, you don't actually know it until you discover what you are looking for: a small square block squatting on a flat piece of chert desert.

Bshir is remarkable amongst Roman military sites, for it is largely untouched by the hand of modern man (unlike most sites in the region, the degradations it has suffered are almost exclusively the result of natural forces): it is all still there, only slightly 'rearranged' from its mint condition.

The castellum is very close to square, with a three-storey tower at each corner, and a single gateway in the centre of the south-western wall which, like its companions, is about 55m long. This type of castellum is a classic form (known as the quadraburgium) of the eastern provinces and is probably not Roman in origin, but it was certainly copied by later powers, as with some of the Islamic desert palaces or the police posts of the Turkish or British periods.

Figure 2Let us begin our tour by circling around the outside of the defences, just so we can appreciate the impressive state of preservation. Starting at the northern corner tower (Figs.2, 3), it is evident that - probably as a resultFigure 3 of an earthquake - one of its outer walls has collapsed outwards, revealing its internal structure, almost hidden by the tumble from the tower wall. Gaping doorways and plastered interior walls are plainly visible. There is a postern or sally port immediately east of the tower, while rubble to the north-west of the castellum is all that is left of extramural buildings, probably contemporary.

Figure 4In fact, all four of the corner towers have suffered some sort of collapse, although curiously each tower has collapsed outwards on a different side of the castellum. This is evident on the north-east and north-west sides (Figs 4 to 7).

Figure 5As we move around the outside of Bshir, noticing that it is built on a slight slope, we cross the tracks of pickup tracks used by the local shepherds; otherwise, the desert is devoid of signs of life.

Figure 6Passing near the south-east corner tower, we can go over and peer into the vast underground cistern. This cistern held the water supply for the settlement (and it is important to remmber that would not just have been soldiers here, but also traders, good-time girls, and families). In common with all eastern desert military sites, rainwater was gathered in theFigure 7 winter and stored for use in the dry months. Roman water management was extremely proficient and it is only in comparatively recent times that the desert has again been irrigated on a similar scale. As we peer into the gloom, a couple of pigeons we have disturbed flutter around, their wingbeats echoing eerily. The cistern (Fig.8) is still used by the Bedouin for watering their flocks... as well as by pigeons for roosting.

Figure 8 Finally, moving round to the south-western side of the castellum, and above a splayed pile of rubble (and a discarded oil drum), we can see the glory of Bshir - the single portal gateway (apart from the sally, the only entrance Figure 9through the defences) with its dedicatory inscription of A.D.306 (CIL III,14149), carved in an ansate panel on the lintel. The only one in the whole Roman Empire still in situ (Figs.9, 10).

Figure 10'To our best and greatest principes, Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Pius Felix, invincible emperor, and Flavius Valerius Constantius and Galerius Valerius Maximianus, most noble Caesars, Aurelius Asclepiades, praeses of the province of Arabia, saw to the completion of Castra Praetorii Mobeni from its foundations.'

 The only thing left to do now is move inside and have a look around...

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This page was prosaicly updated on February 17th 2007