en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 41, Number 5September/October 1990

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents


Written and photographed by Rami G. Khouri

The most celebrated Umayyad desert complex in Jordan is centered on the bathhouse at Qasr 'Amra, a diminutive structure nestled in a broad depression about 85 kilometers (53 miles) east of Amman and 21 kilometers (13 miles) southwest of the Azraq Oasis, alongside the highway that now links the two. Though the limestone and basalt building is not particularly impressive from the outside, 'Anna's interior walls and ceilings display a dazzling array of painted frescos from the mid-eighth century, with less well-preserved fragments of mosaics, carved stone and marble cladding. The fresco art is important not only for the information it provides about the culture and tastes of the notables who built these complexes; it also shows the Umayyad dynasty's dear links with both the classical and Byzantine traditions it had inherited, as well as demonstrating contemporary cultural influences from Mesopotamia, Persia and other. Asian civilizations to the east.

The 'Amra complex, long known to and used by local nomads, was rediscovered for the West by the Czech scholar Alois Musil in 1898. The frescos were painstakingly cleaned and preserved between 1971 and 1973 by a team from the Madrid National Archeological Museum, under the direction of Martin Almagro.

'Amra is thought to have been built during the reign of the Caliph Walid I (705-715), builder of the great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, although some scholars believe it may be the work of his uncle, Walid II (743-744).

The complex comprised the baths, an attached audience hall and domestic rooms, the hydraulic system - all within a walled area -and a small square, fort-like residential building (or caravanserai) and nearby watchtower (or mosque) in the hills to the northwest, where the staff and troops of 'Amra's patron probably lived. There are also traces of what some people believe is an ancient dam, and enclosure walls that delineated an agricultural area of some 25 hectares (62 acres).

The eighth-century water system includes a 40-meter (131-foot) circular well, and remains of the saqiya, or water-lifting apparatus, still marked by the circle walked by some beast of burden that provided the power to raise the water and send it through ceramic pipes to the baths or the adjacent outdoor tank.

The walls and ceilings of the spacious, rectangular, three-aisled audience hall are covered in relatively well-preserved frescos depicting a variety of scenes that were typical Umayyad decoration: hunting scenes, bathing scenes, and the famous Fresco of the Six Kings, with Greek and Arabic inscriptions under busts of Caesar - as the Byzantine emperor was called then - the Sassanian king Kisra; Roderic, the last Visigoth king of Spain, killed by Walid I in 711; the Negus of Abyssinia; and two other busts thought to depict the emperor of China and the king of the Turks,. The audience hall also has frescos of Victory, attended by servants and flanked by peacocks; heavy-set wrestlers; flying angels; pacing lions; dancers and musicians; "a very Byzantine-looking enthroned ruler; saluqi hounds energetically chasing some hapless onagers; female figures personifying Poetry, History and Philosophy, according to the accompanying Greek inscriptions; a lion attacking a horse; and 32 individual panels depicting, craftsmen in various stages of the construction process, including blacksmiths carpenters and masons.

The baths were typical of the period, consisting of a changing room, or apodyterium; the moderately hot room, or tepidarium, with its raised floor to allow warm air to circulate beneath the bathers; and the hot room, or calidarium, closest to the furnace. The frescos in the baths display an equally wide variety of motifs and styles, including three busts thought to represent the three ages of humankind - childhood, youth and old age - and pastoral scenes reminiscent of those in Byzantine mosaics of churches in the region, in the several centuries before and during the Umayyad era.

Many consider the dome above the calidarium to be 'Amra's most pleasing combination of architecture and art. Presented as the Dome of Heaven, and painted with the constellations of the northern hemisphere accompanied by the signs of the zodiac, it is thought to be the earliest surviving attempt to represent the vault of heaven on a hemispherical, rather than a flat surface, as had been frequently done by preceding civilizations.

Oleg Grabar has suggested that the ascendant Umayyad aristocracy of the early eighth century drew upon the land's ancient cultural heritage to produce a rich new iconographic repertoire, which Ghazi Bisheh, in turn, shows was rooted in the Greco-Syrian tradition. Dr. Fawzi Zayadine, deputy director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, says that "'Amra's frescos can be considered an artistic renaissance of Hellenistic art in the eighth century, stimulated by the will and sensibility of the Umayyads...." Martin Almagro, who worked on the frescos with his Spanish colleagues for three years, says 'Amra is "a key monument for the understanding of early Arabic art, which was still in a transitional state between the personality of Byzantine culture and the discovery of its own inspiration.

Rami Khouri has written two guidebooks to Jordan's antiquities, heads that country's Friends of Archaeology society, and is host of a television interview program.

This article appeared on page 33 of the September/October 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1990 images.