Qasr Bshir: 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.

The magnificent ruins of the Roman fort at Qasr Bshir lie in the sweeping expanse of Jordanian desert, raising questions about why it was built there. IMAGE: Copyright APAAME. Photo by Bashar Tabbah (APAAME_20221103_BT-0017)

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.

This map, created by Rien Polak, shows Roman frontier fortifications in the vicinity of Qasr Bshir from the late 3rd to the 6th century AD. IMAGE: Rien Polak

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). Here the three promoters of the project explain the history of Qasr Bshir, its importance, and their plans for its future.

In September 2022, HRH Prince Hassan of Jordan launched a new volume dedicated to the eastern frontiers of the Roman empire. Standing behind him are the three authors of this feature: Fawzi Abudanah, David J Breeze, and Mark Driessen. IMAGE: courtesy of David J Breeze

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.

A plan of Qasr Bshir, showing both surviving elements of the ground plan and the projected dimensions of the ranges of buildings positioned along the rampart. IMAGE: David Kennedy
The remains of Qasr Bshir, with the gateway visible along the stretch of rampart facing towards the top right of the photograph. IMAGE: Copyright APAAME. Photo by Firas Bqa’in (APAAME_20221103_FB-0022)

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 remains of rooms built against the fort rampart. At the very bottom of the visible section of rampart, just above the rubble mound, the tops of mangers set into the wall are visible. IMAGE: Mark Driessen

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 entrance to Qasr Bshir offers a unique example of a Roman military gateway inscription that is still in situ. Image: David J Breeze
Ominous cracking is now apparent in this slab. Image: Mark Driessen

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.

Despite being surrounded by desert, the location of Qasr Bshir had been carefully chosen. It appears to occupy the site of an earlier Nabataean tower, and also lay in the zone where agriculture becomes possible due to sufficient rainwater. IMAGE: Copyright APAAME. Photo by Robert Bewley (APAAME_20221121_RHB-0518)

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.

Discovering Qasr Bshir

It was in 1897 and 1898 that two ancient historians, Rudolf Ernst Brünnow and Alfred von Domaszewski – both from the University of Heidelberg – mounted an expedition to the Roman province of Arabia, visiting Qasr Bshir, or Kasr Bser as they called it. Their account of the sites was published between 1904 and 1909, in three volumes entitled Die Provincie Arabia. They photographed the site and were the first to record the inscription over the entrance. In their photograph, cracks are already visible. The main change since their visit is a noticeable subsidence in the stone, so that its parts no longer sit neatly together. Further, the stones above are not secured by mortar and thus in danger of collapse.

This photograph, taken in the 1890s, shows the condition of the fort gateway when it was visited by Rudolf Ernst Brünnow and Alfred von Domaszewski. IMAGE: courtesy of Mark Driessen

Qasr Bshir today

Qasr Bshir is magnificent even in decline. It sits majestically in the landscape, master of all it surveys. On approaching the site, however, it is clear that the structure is damaged. This includes the catastrophic collapse of numerous walls, so that the fort is now surrounded by a jumble of enormous stones. Inside, it is no different. Trying to navigate the interior is a hazardous exercise. It is apparent, too, that some stones rest precariously over-head, and it is natural to wonder how much longer they will remain in place.

There are numerous cracks in the masonry at Qasr Bshir, including those visible in the fabric of this tower. Note also the scale of the fallen masonry compared to the human figures. IMAGE: Mark Driessen

A survey of the fort by Professor Ignacio Arce in 2006 revealed points of particular concern, most importantly the corner towers. In one case, the external corner of the superstructure now rests on a single cornerstone at its base. This sole support is in danger of being crushed by the weight overhead. Looters have removed stones at the rear of some of the mangers, again threatening their stability. Every photograph of the fort reveals major cracks that require ‘stitching’ if the structure is to be properly stabilised. Remedying these problems would pose a challenge anywhere, but in a fragile landscape, where there is no electricity supply, and all traces of the interventions must be removed, they present Herculean tasks.

For now, the main entrance and its cracked inscription are our primary concerns. Discussions are under way on the best course of action. While these take place, Qasr Bshir is on the Jordanian Tentative List as a potential UNESCO World Heritage site. One of the necessary requirements in the process to create new World Heritage sites is a demonstration that the property can be properly conserved and managed, a very necessary action at Qasr Bshir. Once these works are undertaken, we are confident that Qasr Bshir will retain its status as the best-preserved Roman fort for generations to come.

David Breeze discusses Qasr Bshir on an episode of The PastCast. You can listen to the conversation here.


The support group includes Professor Ignacio Arce of the German Jordanian University; Richard Beleson of the San Francisco Ancient Numismatic Society; Dr Robert Bewley, chair of the Council for British Research in the Levant; Professor Rebecca Jones, co-chair of the International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies; Professor David Kennedy, Emeritus Professor at the University of Western Australia and author of several books on Roman Jordan; Professor Jan Kolen, Dean of the Archaeology Faculty at Leiden University; Orsolya Láng, Director of the Aquincum Museum and Archaeological Park in Budapest; René Ployer, co-chair of UNESCO’s scientific advisory committee (the Bratislava Group) on the Frontiers of the Roman Empire; and Professor Michel Reddé, formerly of the Sorbonne and a specialist on Roman Egypt.

For more details on Qasr Bshir and Jordan’s Roman frontier, see:

David Breeze, Fawzi Abudanah, Mark Driessen, Simon James, Michaela Konrad, and Marinus Polak (2022) Frontiers of the Roman Empire: The Eastern Frontier (Oxford: Archaeopress).
David Kennedy (2004) The Roman Army in Jordan (London).
David Kennedy and D N Riley (1990) Rome’s Desert Frontier from the Air (London).
S T Parker (ed.) (1987) The Roman Frontier in Central Jordan: Interim Report on the Limes Arabicus Project 1980-1985 (Oxford: BAR IS 340). The report on Qasr Bshir is on pp.457-495.


David Breeze is a former chair of the Congress of Roman Frontier Studies. Mark Driessen is Assistant Professor of Archaeology at Leiden University. Fawzi Abudanah, who graduated from Newcastle University, is Professor of Archaeology at Al-Hussein bin Talal University.