legio ii building stone

Mike Bishop

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


Virtually a Tour of a Desert Fort

A Visit to Kasr Bshir... Continued

M.C. Bishop

Each illustration in the following piece is a thumbnail image which, if selected, will lead to a larger graphic. 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.

 Walking into the fort for the first time is both awe-inspiring and disappointing. Although the walls and towers survive to an impressive height, the internal buildings have been completely reduced to rubble by the effects of earthquakes.

Figure 11In common with most of the desert forts, the buildings in Bshir butted against the fort walls, unlike the more familiar Roman fort-building tradition, where free-standing structures filled the interior (an example of this type being Da'janiya). A good impression of what this must have been like can be gained at the Ummayad period Kasr Kharana (near Azraq), where the structures are cool and dark, even in the heat of the midday sun.

Figure 12There were towers on either side of the gateway originally, but these have largely collapsed. Immediately to our left as we enter through the portal, beyond the gate tower, is the western corner tower. Some rather determined growling suggests that a couple of feral dogs are holed up in there, so we're forced to forego the pleasure of exploring the tower and its neighbouring sally port (the latter boasting one of the few arches still to be found at Bshir). Instead, we can pause for a moment to notice the bonding courses still protruding in pairs (every three courses) from the inner faces of the main curtain walls, all that remains of the structures that now lie in piles of rubble.

Figure 13Comparison with similar forts, and trial excavations carried out by the Limes Arabicus Project, suggest that the structures were two-storeyed, with stabling on the ground floor and accommodation for the men above (a similar arrangement is found at the much later Kasr Kharana). If flat-roofed (they probably were, as the doorways from the towers are offset from the line of the curtain walls), these buildings might also have served to provide a broad fighting platform at wall-walk level, but there is no convincing evidence to corroborate this.

Figure 14Time to explore a tower. We head for the northern corner of the fort and enter through the doorway at ground level. Inside, it is immediately apparent that the treads of the steps are made of single monolithic blocks of stone, four flights to each floor.Figure 15 We can make it up to the second floor, but any higher is going to be too risky (some treads are so loose that they rock disconcertingly). Whilst up there we notice that the lintels over the doorways are made of double monoliths - not an arch in sight. 

Figure 16Over to the east tower now, slightly easier to climb and capable of taking us to our next important goal: a view along the rampart-walk of the south-east wall. There are very few Roman defences anywhere in the world that still stand to this sort of height, to the extent of having part of the Figure 17breastwork surviving (that part of the city wall at Dura-Europos buried beneath the Persian siege ramp being an obvious parallel). Looking along the wall it is possible to see the line of the floor level of the upper story of buildings behind the wall, distinguishable as a slight offset on the inside face. 

Figure 18Figure 19Finally into the southern tower, where we can inspect some of the perfectly-preserved tooling on the door jamb of one of the tower rooms - the crisp marks of a claw chisel are clearly visible - before turning our attention to the rendering on the inside of the wall. Is it Roman? There seems to be no reason to doubt it: near perfect, even down to the marks of the plasterers' floats on the surface. 

Figure 20Back to the gateway and it is time to leave. There can be few more powerful evocations of life in a remote desert outpost than Bshir, for all the world feeling as if has only just been abandoned. Having visited it once, you can do little else except count the days until you return.


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This page was judiciously updated on February 17th 2007