Qusayr Amra: Jordan’s forgotten archaeological gem epitomises romance in the desert

Covid-19 halted work by Italian restorers on 1,300-year-old paintings in Umayyad palace

Powered by automated translation

Mural paintings of a bear playing music, a monkey dancing and women bathing adorn an eighth-century palace built during the Umayyad rule, which spanned for 88 years between 662 AD and 750 AD, in Jordan’s eastern desert.

Though Qusayr Amra (the small palace of Amra) was described by famed Spanish archaeologists who came to study it in the early 1970s as “a key moment for the understanding of early Arabic art”, plastic bags and other rubbish can be seen strewn along the modern road leading to the ancient palace, 100 kilometres east of Amman as visitors pass through long stretches of impoverished suburbs.

The small palace is situated along an ancient trade route near Azraq, an oasis depression that mostly dried up by the end of the 1980s. Its waters were siphoned off for mass use.

Along the route lie other Umayyad ruins.

Qasayr Amra: Jordan’s forgotten archaeological gem

Qasayr Amra: Jordan’s forgotten archaeological gem

One of the most famous is Qasr Al Mashta (the winter palace). A stunningly carved section of its facade was taken to Berlin in the 19th century. It comprises part of the permanent collection of the Pergamon Museum.

Until Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein financed the building of a road in 1985 to supply Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran, the palace was accessible only by camel or heavy-duty four-wheel drives.

The road contributed to more people accessing the palace, and more wilful destruction, until measures were taken in the past few years to protect it.

The art at Qusayr Amra was inspired by the Greeks, Sassanids, Romans and Byzantines. The mystique differentiates Qusayr Amra from the large Nabataean and Roman sites in Petra and Jerash for which Jordan is more known.

The paintings were in a “magnificent state of preservation,” 10 years before, concluded Spanish archaeologists Martin Almagro, Luis Caballero, Juan Zozaya, and Antonio Almagro.

They comprise a trove of early Arab art. Many are defaced with graffiti or  fires lit by trespassers.

But even with the help of foreign donors, Jordan’s Department of Antiquities has been struggling to counter the impact of the environment and urban encroachment on Qusayr Amra and elsewhere.

The country is dotted with smaller landmarks but scarce resources and lack of a uniform government approach have undermined preservation. After a decade of stagnation, the economy has fallen into recession.

Nature also took its toll. A storm flooded the palace in 1994 after channels built to divert water away failed. An international rescue effort started in 2011, which helped stabilise the structure.

Painting the enemy

Before coronavirus crisis swept the world, restorers from Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro, a division of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, worked meticulously on the interior, divided into the great hall, the throne room, the bed chambers, a Roman-modelled bath area and other quarters.

They brought back some of the shadows and colours – a distinct blue and a mix of browns, greens and whites – interrupted by pokes and holes that did permanent damage to the paintings.

Naked women painted on the walls of Quseir Amra. Amy McConaghy / The National
Naked women painted on the walls of Quseir Amra. Amy McConaghy / The National

A woman bathing and reclining in a divan  is thought to be an Umayyad ruler's wife. Another woman plays the flute and a girl is dancing.

Faces at different stages of ageing pay homage to the cycle of life. Saluki hounds pursue onagers (an animal similar to a donkey) in hunting scenes. The prey bleeds after being captured and slaughtered.

A heavily sabotaged mural shows foreign kings defeated by the Umayyads, an empire that extended from Spain to the edge of India.

Among them are the Visigoth King Rodrigo, who ruled from Toledo, and Khosrow, the Sassanid King of Kings who left architectural monuments in modern-day Iraq and Iran.

Mystery builder

Conjecture has swirled for decades about what or whom some of the murals depict, and which Umayyad ruler built the palace.

The four Spanish archaeologists were almost certain that it was Walid ibn Abd Al Malik, known as Walid I, who built Qusayr Amra.

He ruled from 705AD to 715AD and ordered the construction of the famed Great Mosque of Damascus (the Umayyad Mosque). His father, Abd Al Malik ibn Marwan, founded the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Walid I died from illness, at age 41. His rule marked an end of 30 years of peace, the archaeologists wrote in the book Qusayr Amra, Umayyad Residence and Baths in the Jordanian Desert.

“It was peace that made it possible to build these luxurious edifices, which were the principal civil buildings of the time,” they said.

But a 2014 report by the World Monument Fund, Istituto Superiore, and Jordan’s Antiquities Department, suggested that Qusayr Amra was built one to three decades later by Walid bin Yazid.

They based their hypothesis on a reinterpretation of Arabic Kufic inscriptions on the walls of the palace.

Known as Walid II, Walid bin Yazid ruled for one year before he was killed in 744 AD at age 35.

He would have built the palace during the rule of his uncle, Hisham Bin Abdul Malik, who reigned from 724 AD to 743 AD, as internal rivalries within the dynasty increased.

Walid II had a reputation for “impiety and licentiousness,” the report said.

It was based on “his alleged indifference to religion, cruelty and revengefulness and due to his passion for love, women and wine – all seemingly underpinned in the imagery selection at Qusayr Amra”.

By 750 AD, the Umayyad dynasty collapsed and the Abbasids took over and moved the seat of power from Damascus to modern-day Iraq.

Staunch guardians of romance in the desert

Hakem Al Sabileh looks towards Quseir Amra. Amy McConaghy / The National
Hakem Sabileh, a third-generation custodian of Qusayr Amra in Jordan. Amy McConaghy / The National

Damage to Qusayr Amra may have been worse, has it not been for guardianship by a branch of the Bani Sakhr, a large Jordanian tribe.

It is a job 35-year-old Hakem Sabileh inherited from his father, who passed it on from his grandfather Zaitoun (olive), who was born under an olive tree.

The Bani Sakhr first inhabited areas near Qusayr Amra a millennium ago, when water and animals were plentiful in the region.

"Many thought it was just a building and my grandfather was not very trusting of the people," said Mr Sabileh as he gave The National a tour of the palace.

“He told my father that this is an important place and you have to take care of it,” he said.

Although some religious conservatives may not like the Umayyads for having commissioned paintings, Mr Sabileh is an admirer.

Painting how they “hunted and danced and took baths and partied and played music” shows the Umayyads were bon vivants, he said.

A blue and red fresco of a well-dressed man is thought to be that of Walid II. He has large with piercing eyes and a slight beard.

Children, a scribe, and a woman weaving a fan surround him. Under two peacocks is inscribed in a form of Greek the words charis (grace) and nike (victory).

Brown is used in another painting of a man directing a hunt and surrounded by horses. He is thought to be Al Walid I.

He looks older than Walid II, with a thicker beard and a chiselled face. He is carrying a spear and his gown is raised above his thighs so as not to impede his movement.

The hunting scene conforms with Walid’s I reputation for toughness and as a ruler. During his reign, the Umayyads conquered Spain and steps were made to streamline the administration of the empire.

Whichever Walid built Qusayr Amra, “he was a romantic king and had an open mind,” Mr Sabileh said.

“Life is short,” he said. “You have to enjoy.”