The Striking Design of Quseir ‘Amra

Shadowed in mystery and the object of fascination for centuries, the ancient Arab palace of Quseir ‘Amra is truly a gem of Late Antiquity. A royal palace, fortress, and retreat, Quiser ‘Amra is an artistic and cultural “microcosm” of the the Middle East during an era of unprecedented transition.

In this exclusive interview with James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Professor Fatema AlSulaiti discusses the design and art of Quseir ‘Amra (located in modern-day Jordan), the confluence of Byzantine, Persian, and Arab cultures in the Levant at the end of Late Antiquity, and how modern design can be informed by ancient principles.

JW: Professor AlSulaiti, it is a delight to speak to you on behalf of the Ancient History Encyclopedia! You are the first art historian that we have had the pleasure of interviewing and we are thrilled to learn more about your research.

Al-Walid I (r. 705-715 CE), Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty (661-750 CE), ordered the construction of the resplendent Quesir ‘Amra complex sometime between 711-715 CE. Why was this complex built and how important is Quseir ‘Amra to one’s understanding of culture in Late Antiquity? Can we think of Quseir ‘Amra as perhaps a “microcosm” of the Levant, with architectural and artistic influences coming from Arabia, Persia, and Byzantium?

FAS: Many questions regarding Umayyad palaces functions, dates, and patrons remain to be answered. Our knowledge is not complete and this is partially due to the lack of contemporary Umayyad literary sources and the scarcity of inscriptions which have survived in Situ. Even without such supportive evidence, however, these Umayyad monuments are of immense historical importance. Although the construction of such buildings outside urban centuries was a short-lived phenomenon in the Islamic world, they are among the earliest known examples of Islamic architecture, and also the earliest examples of secular, and more specifically, palatial architecture, from the Islamic world.

Several explanations have been given for building these constructions: some scholars explain that they served as “pleasure palaces” where Umayyad princes participated in a variety of courtly events such as hunting and feasting with guests. Another popular suggestion was Umayyad’s passionate taste for life in the badiya (the desert border) where one finds fresh air and where the Arabic language is “purer” than it was in the city. This is also synonymous with the trends of the Arabs of Mecca and Medina. It has even been suggested that Ummayad palaces served as administrative and political centers where Umayyad princes met and reinforced connections with the Badiya tribes on whose support the Umayyad greatly depended upon. However, a more modern interpretation is that these complexes served as stations along trade and pilgrimage routes connecting Bilad al-Sham and al-Hijaz, along the Red Sea.

I suppose we can consider Quseir ‘Amra as a “microcosm.” One of the changes brought about by the Arab-Muslim conquests was the migration of tribes of Arabian origin to new settlements, which augmented the number of tribes already residing in Syria. The numbers of Arab immigrants were, however, no more than a small fraction of the total population of the region and the countryside remained largely Christian and agriculturally prosperous, except in the region bordering on the Byzantine frontier in northeast Syria (due to Arab-Byzantine rivalry).

Artisans, craftsmen and farmers continued their normal life under new rulers, and the affairs of cities and towns remained as before. What is more significant is that the Arab Muslim conquests removed the barriers between Persia and Mesopotamia on the one hand, and Mediterranean World of Greece and Rome on the other, thus creating a mixture of resources of two divergent civilizations.

JW: What challenges awaited the builders of Quseir ‘Amra and what technologies went into its construction? I do not imagine that it is easy to construct such an edifice out of limestone and basalt.

FAS: Although constructions of a vault in a barrel is common in the Levant region, in my point of view it was exclusively carried out by experts; masons, stone cutters, by stone cutters’ assistants, and additionally by carpenters for the realization of the framework. This construction technique dates back to the Roman and Byzantine period. The construction materials used to make barrel vaults are mostly limestone and terracotta brick and sometimes other kinds of stones, which are also used according to the local availability of the materials (schist and granite). The materials added for the filling of the gaps of the extrados or for the composition of mortars are broken brick, lime, gravel or pieces of broken pots and coal debris. So I presume having or getting the right people to build the palace in this faraway and deserted place was actually the biggest challenge!

This palace comprises of an audience hall and a bath complex (hamman/therma). A hydraulic complex contains a well, water reservoir and water wheel operated by animal power. The latest excavations shed light on the fact that the main residence with its hydraulic installation was part of a very large structure. The discovered remains were another small castle-like structure with rooms organized around a courtyard, a watchtower and a second watering system similar to the first installation. With it were also found retaining walls to prevent erosion of arable land in an agricultural plot.

The exterior of palace matches the interior. The audience hall small measures about 8.50×7.50 m (27×24 ft), and is surrounded on the south three small rooms. The hall which is one of the earliest examples of its type in Islamic architecture, contains three barrel-vaulted aisles separated from each other by two slightly pointed transverse arches.

On the east side is the bath that consists of three small rooms. The “changing room” (apodyterium) is barrel-vaulted leads to a “warm room” (tepidarium) roofed with cross vault and a raised floor allowing circulation of air. The warm room leads to the “hot room” (caldarium), covered by a dome on pendentives with four windows. A hallway that had a water tank on it roof leads from the hot room to an enclosure that contained the furnace. Ceramic pipes connected the water tanks to the baths and drainpipes to pass the used water from the bath to a drain.

Some rooms are paved with lovely mosaic other rooms with the finest marble. The prominent feature of the palace is undoubtedly the fresco paintings–they are gorgeous! The paintings, which covered most of the walls and ceilings, are ornamental and captivating.

JW: Many art historians have utilized the label “desert castle” to describe Quesir ‘Amra. Is this terminology appropriate? Should we instead refer to Quseir ‘Amra as something else in your opinion, Professor AlSulaiti? Should we look to ancient Byzantium or Persia for analogs?

FAS: Jordan has the largest concentration of Umayyad complexes usually referred to as “desert palaces” or “desert castles.” Some scholars have rejected these terms indicating that the areas in which these complexes are located were not deserts during the Umayyad period. In fact, the irrigation systems that have been excavated in a number of them provide a clear sign of agricultural activities. These structures are too complex to be referred to simply to as “castles” or “palaces.” Some of them can be more precisely described as estates or small scale settlements that comprise residential quarters, a mosque, a bath complex and the infrastructure necessary for agricultural activities. Some also functioned as important caravan stations and as vital trading posts.

Palatial architecture from the Islamic world provides one of the few examples in ancient and medieval architecture, where a significant number of more than 20 historical buildings and similar building types are still extant. In addition to being important material evidence of princely life in Late Antiquity and the early Islamic period, they also provide continuity to the Roman country villas (villa rustica) that survived antiquity, and therefore they can shed some light on this building type.

JW: Your past research entailed analyses of the stunning frescoes, which adorn the interior walls and ceilings of Quseir ‘Amra. Many of the frescoes depict sumptuous scenes of hunting, exotic flora and fauna, social revelries, celestial manifestations, and even depictions of foreign royalty. Why was such a concerted effort made to decorate the walls with such vivid frescoes and what purpose did they serve the caliphs who resided at Quseir ‘Amra? Did they reflect a new multicultural aesthetic or something more political?

FAS: The palaces that have survived from the Umayyad period provide proof of the lavish lifestyles that Umayyad princes sought through their patronage of art and architecture. The echo of such luxury can be found in the mosaic floors and stucco sculptures of Khirbat al-Mafjar, in the wall painting of Quseir ‘Amra, and in the impressive feature of the basilica-like hall crowning in the tri-apsidal throne room of Qasr al-Mushtatta.

The most famous feature of Quseir ‘Amra are, however, the frescoes paintings. The paintings, which covered much of the walls and ceilings, are the most extensive frescoes to survive from any secular building before the Romanesque period (c. 1000-1300 CE). The paintings deal with a wide range of topics. In the reception hall there are hunting scenes, nude or sheered dressed women and engaged athletes. There are also scenes of craftsmen at work like blacksmiths, carpenters, masons and stone cutters. A ruler, probably the owner of the palace, is shown surrounded by birds and flanked by two attendants. The personification of poetry, history and philosophy can also be seen.

A unique painting embellishing the hot room of the bath complex represents the constellation of the Northern Hemisphere accompanied by the signs of the Zodiac, the Great Bear (“Ursa Majo”), and Little Bear (“Ursa Minor”).

The best known painting, is the “Painting of the Six Kings” at the southern end of the west wall. As you correctly observed, Quseir ‘Amra has been attributed to Caliph al-Walid I (705-715 CE), under whose rule Umayyad power reached its apex. This attribution is based primarily on the study of the “Painting of the Six Kings.” It has been argued that most of the figures represent rulers (or their descendants, as in the case of the Persian king) that had been defeated in battle by al-Walid. The painting depicts the Umayyad ruler surrounded by six sovereigns who have been identified as the Byzantine emperor, the emperors of Persia and China, the Visigoth king of Spain, the king of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and a Hindu or Turkish chieftain. It is seen as symbolic representation of the family of kings to whom the Umayyad dynasty belonged. This theme symbolizes the glorious position of the Umayyad Caliph as he accepted the tribute paid by the most important rulers of the world. The brief rule and life of the Visigoth Roderic, King of Spain (r. 710-711 CE), came to an abrupt end when he was defeated by the advancing Muslim troops. If the interpretation of the painting is correct, the demise of Roderic provides a date for the construction of Quseir ‘Amra. It can thus be inferred that the palace could not have been built before c. 711 CE.

Ancient Greek influence in many of these painting can be recognized in their subject matter and in the fact that some even bear Greek inscriptions. Dr. Glen Bowersock, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History at the Institute for Advanced Study School of Historical Studies, has remarked that in Qusier ‘Amra there is little sign, apart from the architecture of the building themselves, that the region was then firmly in the hands of an “Islamic administration.” He adds that what we see is an “indigenous Hellenism that is local, not alien.” Some of the hunting scenes could fit into this interpretation. They seem to have been inspired by local nomadic cultural traditions going back far beyond any Greek influence.

For Islamic architects, the Sasanian Persian palace at Ctesiphon greatly influenced the building of the Umayyad palaces; the decoration of Ctesiphon may have influenced the frescoes of the Umayyad palace at Qusier ‘Amra (painted c. 724-743 CE). One cannot underscore the fact that the Sasanian civilization had a tremendous influence on Islamic culture. Sasanian emperors maintained an elaborate court ritual, which was later to be closely imitated by the early Islamic rulers of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties.

JW: Ultimately, the Umayyad dynasty was deposed by the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258 CE). The Abbasids moved the capital away from Damascus–relatively close to Quseir ‘Amra and the center of Umayyad power–to more distant Baghdad. What eventually became of Quseir ‘Amra and the mélange of art that had inspired it?

FAS: Qusier ‘Amra  is 80 km (50 miles) east of Amman and 16 km (10 miles) east of Kharrana, where another Umayyad palace or caravansary is located. I believe that several Umayyad palaces in the desert were used by travelers or hunters for many years. Centuries even. I highly doubt that Quseir ‘Amra was abandoned directly after the fall of the Umayyad dynasty. It was probably kept or used as caravansary or shady spot for many travelers and nomads across the desert.

Islam is a non-iconographic religion; therefore, it encourages non-figural and non-imitating forms of art. When the Muslims gained power and wealth during the Umayyad period, they concentrated on the development of architecture. The great mosque of Damascus and the Dome of the Rock are their masterpieces. On the other hand, on a smaller scale and under the intensive influence of Byzantium, some architectural and decorative structures demonstrate that figurative art was practiced; the fresco paintings found in the ruins of Quseir ‘Amra are a solid proof and example of such activity.

In time, new steps were taken by Muslims to decorate buildings with non-iconographic styles which later engendered different decorative elements. Therefore, instead of figural decorations used by the Byzantines and Persians, Muslims made calligraphy a unique and key feature of Islamic art and architecture. Furthermore, they developed and used arabesque designs through which floral and geometric motifs replaced human and animal based motifs.

JW: Moving to contemporary times, what principles can we take from the Early Islamic Period or Late Antiquity to create more attractive and efficient buildings? Can modern denizens draw any lessons from Quseir ‘Amra or Umayyad Damascus in your opinion? As a Qatari citizen, I would suspect that you are quite proud of how impressive Doha’s impressive skyline is these days!

FAS: The use of historic buildings as a concept to contemporary architecture is the ideal way to contribute to the historical fabric of any tradition or society’s identity. Using a contemporary style that respects the history of the region will avoid any misrepresentation and add to the historic building’s elements that truly speak for the present. But what is most important is to conceive a relationship between the two–historic building and contemporary design–in a cohesive way. In order to achieve this goal, it is important to clearly define the specific elements that make a successful, complimentary relationship.

In my opinion, the defining element in a successful cohesive relationship between a historic building and contemporary architecture is the proper use of all architectural elements.

One thing that I personally experienced through my research and which definitely helped me find an equilibrium in the relationship between historic buildings and the contemporary ones was learning more about the spectrum of elements in architecture. Looking for that specific jargon and trying to define these, in a contrasting architectural composition and their relevance for a unified relationship, helped me to delve deeper and understand it more profoundly, leaving behind the ambiguity of personal taste.

Without classifying resources which I considered as architecturally beautiful or not, I concluded reclassifying them to what really worked cohesively was the respect I have towards historic structures. There are many principles or elements we can benefit from the Early Islamic Period or Late Antiquity, butmore research and analysis on contemporary style taken from these historic buildings is strongly recommended to better understand the process of  borrowing. This way, architects and designers can learn how each element works in different contexts and situations. With the rapid evolution of our lifestyles and the development of new technologies, it is important to find a way where old and new elements of the “built environment” can be represented in a balanced approach. The relationship between historic buildings and contemporary design has always been a tension in retaining the heritage of both types.

Yes, I am very proud of the contemporary architectural approach in Qatar and to see elements of Islamic principles and contemporary techniques work positively, respecting and promoting each other’s architectural and cultural significance. The varieties of modern architecture in Qatar utilize Islamic elements of design and patterns for building embellishment or have been inspired by its architectural features.

JW; Finally, to conclude this interview, may we inquire as to the nature of your latest research? If I am not mistaken, you have been investigating the influence of Hindu architectural traditions on mosques found in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Would you mind telling a little bit more about this project with AHE readers and users?

FAS: The ports of Gujarat were among the earliest Muslim cultural centers in India outside the Caliphate and had been introduced to posterity by Arab traders. I visited Gujarat, last September, examining and exploring Muslim monuments, particularly mosques of the city of Ahmadabad.

I observed the provincial style of Gujarat, an outstanding fusion of Hindu and Islamic styles. I think the influence of Islamic architecture is reflected in the construction of the two types of façades, which are the open colonnade as in the Jami Masjid at Broach, with its quadrangular Muslim style court, and the second closed type with screens of arches as in the Jami Masjid of Cambay. The two traditional Muslim façade types are found in Ahmadabad Jami Masjid. Other examples of Muslim architectural elements are the deep course walls, the pointed mihrabs, the raised zenana area, the riwaq, the upper story and rotunda in the Jami Masjid of Cambay.

I learned later that some later mosques exhibit other features of Muslim architectural elements, such as the arches, the domes, and the arcuate Islamic style found in the mosque of Muhafiz Kahn as well as the pointed arches and the domes of Islamic origin in Saidi Sayyid via its traceries with palm motifs. It was a curious journey. I realized that that Muslim architectural traditions were not smoothly digested by the local artisans and therefore, the influence from Hindu temples strongly persisted during the early periods and this is that characterized in the provincial style of Gujarat. It was evident to me that the influence of Gujarati temple traditions was manifested in the borrowings from temples such as the turned pillars. Those pillars, which are Hindu in style, are arranged according to the Muslim architectural rules as in the Jami Masjid at Broach. Jami Masjid of Cambay has pillars that replicate Hindu shrines.

Other forms that I looked at for Hindu influence were the shallow balconies and the eaves in the mosques. Interestingly, I noticed some mosques followed the Hindu trabeate style as the Tanka mosque and the Haibat Khan mosque with its trabeate sanctuary and the traditional Hindu open courtyard as in the Tanka Masjid. Moreover, the Hindu style of turrets, which were the first attempts to construct minarets, appeared in the mosque of Hilal Kahn Qazi at Doholka. The use of oriel window as in the Jami Masjid in Cambay is another attractive decorative motif taken from Hindu tradition. Other examples of deliberate and constant Hindu influence are the Hindu carvings in the mosque of Sidi Sayyid.

I assume that the fusion of the Hindu and Muslim architectural traditions took place in order to suit Muslim religious purposes as seen in the changes to the mandapa in the Jami Masjid of Ahmadabad. I noticed that the form of mosques with its Muslim ambiance still retained some Hindu features.

Gujarat made advancements in the construction techniques. For example, there is the use of buttresses for support as in Jami Masjid at Cambay. The brilliance of Gujarat architecture was in solving the problem of height and light with traceries that give indirect light, for example the illumination plan in Jami Masjid in Ahmadabad, and in solving the problem using minarets in the two types of the façade. The influence of the architectural style of Gujarat not only extended to western and northern India as reflected in façades with tall archways, interior galleries under central domes, screens and stone lotus which are all features of Gujarat influence, but I also believe that the Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great (r. 1556-1605), employed artists from Gujarat to construct his beautiful palaces.

JW: Thank you so much for speaking with us Professor AlSulaiti! We wish you the best of luck as you complete your doctorate in archaeology and hope that you will remain in touch with us.

FAS: Thank you very much for interviewing me and I feel privileged to be featured in the Ancient History Encyclopedia. It was indeed a pleasure talking to you! I wish you all the very best!

Professor Fatema AlSulaiti is a Qatari archaeologist with specialties in Islamic art, history, and architecture. AlSulaiti’s study on the role of modern design in contemporary and traditional architecture has received widespread acclaim and international recognition from a variety of cultural and heritage organizations in the Middle East, Europe, and North America. At the present, AlSulaiti is engaged in research on the technical and engineering aspects of archaeology and their application to contemporary design projects. Committed to the preservation and study of ancient and Islamic history, AlSulaiti’s work affords much-needed visibility to Islamic cultural heritage. Dr. AlSulaiti is a Professor of Islamic Art, Art History, and Architecture at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is a freelance writer and who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his articles and interviews to be “illuminating.”

Image INDEX (in order of appearance):

1- Exterior view showing the palace one of the earliest examples of its type in Islamic architecture, containing a three barrel-vaulted.

2- The reception Hall, scenes of craftsmen at work like blacksmiths, carpenters, masons and stone cutters.

3- Ancient Greek influence in these scenes of engaged athletes.

4- Exterior view showing the palace and the hydraulic complex.

5- Jami Masjid in Ahmadabad, India (Gujarati style).

All photographs and images are the exclusive property of the interviewee mentioned herein. They have been given to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, as a courtesy, for the purposes of this interview. All rights reserved. ©Ancient History Encyclopedia 2012.

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James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.