A few kilometers north of Jericho, at more than 12,000 years old one of the oldest cities in the world, lie the ruins of a palace with the largest and most artistically accomplished mosaic floor to survive from the ancient world. Composed of 38 intricate panels covering a space over 30 by 30 meters square, the mosaics of the audience hall and bath at Khirbat al-Mafjar (“Ruins of Flowing Waters”; also called “Qasr Hisham” or “Hisham’s Palace”) are masterpieces of early Islamic artistic design.
Patterns of Moon, Patterns of Sun
Written by Paul Lunde
“It is he who made the sun to be a shining glory, and the moon to be a light (of beauty), and measured out stages for her, that ye might know the number of years and the count (of time).”
—Qur‘an 10:5 (English by Yusuf Ali)
The Hijri calendar
In 638 ce, six years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s second caliph, ‘Umar, recognized the necessity of a calendar to govern the affairs of Muslims. This was first of all a practical matter. Correspondence with military and civilian officials in the newly conquered lands had to be dated. But Persia used a different calendar from Syria, where the caliphate was based; Egypt used yet another. Each of these calendars had a different starting point, or epoch. The Sasanids, the ruling dynasty of Persia, used June 16, 632 ce, the date of the accession of the last Sasanid monarch, Yazdagird iii. Syria, which until the Muslim conquest was part of the Byzantine Empire, used a form of the Roman “Julian” calendar, with an epoch of October 1, 312 bce. Egypt used the Coptic calendar, with an epoch of August 29, 284 ce. Although all were solar calendars, and hence geared to the seasons and containing 365 days, each also had a different system for periodically adding days to compensate for the fact that the true length of the solar year is not 365 but 365.2422 days.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, various other systems of measuring time had been used. In South Arabia, some calendars apparently were lunar, while others were lunisolar, using months based on the phases of the moon but intercalating days outside the lunar cycle to synchronize the calendar with the seasons. On the eve of Islam, the Himyarites appear to have used a calendar based on the Julian form, but with an epoch of 110 bce. In central Arabia, the course of the year was charted by the position of the stars relative to the horizon at sunset or sunrise, dividing the ecliptic into 28 equal parts corresponding to the location of the moon on each successive night of the month. The names of the months in that calendar have continued in the Islamic calendar to this day and would seem to indicate that, before Islam, some sort of lunisolar calendar was in use, though it is not known to have had an epoch other than memorable local events.
There were two other reasons ‘Umar rejected existing solar calendars. The Qur’an, in Chapter 10, Verse 5, states that time should be reckoned by the moon. Not only that, calendars used by the Persians, Syrians and Egyptians were identified with other religions and cultures. He therefore decided to create a calendar specifically for the Muslim community. It would be lunar, and it would have 12 months, each with 29 or 30 days.
This gives the lunar year 354 days, 11 days fewer than the solar year. ‘Umar chose as the epoch for the new Muslim calendar the hijra, the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad and 70 Muslims from Makkah to Madinah, where Muslims first attained religious and political autonomy. The hijra thus occurred on 1 Muharram of the year 1 according to the Islamic calendar, which was named “hijri” after its epoch. (This date corresponds to July 16, 622 ce, on the Gregorian calendar.) Today in the West, it is customary, when writing hijri dates, to use the abbreviation ah, which stands for the Latin anno hegirae, “year of the hijra.”
Because the Islamic lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar, it is therefore not synchronized to the seasons. Its festivals, which fall on the same days of the same lunar months each year, make the round of the seasons every 33 solar years. This 11-day difference between the lunar and the solar year accounts for the difficulty of converting dates from one system to the other.
The Gregorian calendar
The early Roman calendar was lunisolar, containing an average 355 days divided into 12 months. To keep it more or less in accord with the actual solar year, a month was added every two years. The system for doing so was complex, and cumulative errors gradually misaligned it with the seasons. By 46 bce, it was some three months out of alignment, and Julius Caesar oversaw its reform. Consulting Greek astronomers in Alexandria, he created a solar calendar in which one day was added to February every fourth year, effectively compensating for the solar year’s length of 365.2422 days. This Julian calendar was used throughout Europe until 1582 ce.
In the Middle Ages, the Christian liturgical calendar was grafted onto the Julian one, and the computation of lunar festivals like Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, exercised some of the best minds in Christendom. The use of the epoch 1 ce dates from the sixth century, but did not become common until the 10th.
The Julian year was nonetheless 11 minutes and 14 seconds too long. By the early 16th century, due to the accumulated error, the spring equinox was falling on March 11 rather than where it should, on March 21. Copernicus, Christophorus Clavius and the physician Aloysius Lilius provided the calculations, and in 1582 Pope Gregory xiii ordered that Thursday, October 4, 1582, would be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. Most Catholic countries accepted the new “Gregorian” calendar, but it was not adopted in England and the Americas until the 18th century. Its use is now almost universal worldwide. The Gregorian year is nonetheless 25.96 seconds ahead of the solar year, which by the year 4909 will add up to an extra day.
Converting years and Dates
The following equations convert roughly from Gregorian to hijri years and vice versa with one deficiency: The results show only the year in which the other calendar’s year begins. For example, 2016 Gregorian begins in Rabi’ i, the third month of hijri 1437, and it ends in Rabi’ ii, hijri 1438; however, the equation’s result is 1437.
To convert a precise date in any Gregorian or hijri year, online calculators are available on a number of websites. Find them by searching “hijri date conversion.”
Gregorian year =
[(32 x Hijri year) ÷ 33] + 622
Hijri year =
[(Gregorian year – 622) x 33] ÷ 32
Dating from the first half of the eighth century, the time of the Umayyad caliphate, about a century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the patterns are mostly abstract, but a few use pictorial elements. Drawing from both Byzantine and Sasanian (Persian) traditions, the artists at Khirbat al-Mafjar created a new, exuberant esthetic of intricate geometric and floral motifs. Many are based on infinitely repeatable patterns, a technique that later came to be characteristic of geometric art across the Islamic world; others are based on textile arts and fresco painting.
Until recently, few of these patterns had been published. In 2010 the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage uncovered, cleaned and assessed the state of conservation of these mosaics. The floor was comprehensively photographed for the first time. A small museum opened last year, in partnership with the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.
The ruins at Khirbat al-Mafjar were discovered in 1894 and first excavated in the 1930s and ’40s by the Palestinian Department of Antiquities under Dimitri Baramki and Robert Hamilton. Baramki identified the patron of the site as Umayyad Caliph Hisham ibn ‘Abd al-Malik, who ruled from 724 until 743 ce. This elaborate complex stood for only a few years, however, until the audience hall and bath were largely ruined by an earthquake in 131 ah (748 or 749 ce). In the 1950s and ’60s, further archeological work and some restoration were carried out under Jordanian rule, but the site was abandoned under Israeli occupation from 1967 to 1994. Beginning in 1996 the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage revived conservation and archeological efforts.
In addition to the audience hall, Khirbat al-Mafjar included within its 60-hectare complex a large, two-story palace, a multi-room bath, a mosque, a monumental fountain, a perimeter wall and residences. It served as an occasional winter residence for the caliph, and it was part of an array of such palaces (qusur) throughout Syria, Jordan and Palestine that served variously as caravan stations, royal or elite residences, trading posts and security outposts. Like Khirbat al-Mafjar, many developed irrigation systems that allowed them to continue as agricultural estates.
Among its ruins, the audience hall and bath of Khirbat al-Mafjar is the best-preserved and the most striking monument. The exterior walls have 11 semicircular mosaic-tiled apses (or exedra); these half-domed structures echo the interior’s larger and higher domes supported by 16 massive piers. This structure is unique for late Byzantine and early Islamic architecture. The walls and apses were richly covered with carved stone and stucco panels—the earliest known use of stucco in the region—and there may well have been panels of glass mosaics as well.
While the earliest examples of mosaics found in the Jericho region date to the Hellenistic, early Roman and Byzantine periods, the art of mosaic flourished particularly during the Umayyad period. Some of the finest Umayyad wall mosaics, sometimes made of glass tesserae, survive in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque in Damascus. Khirbat al-Mafjar shows that the mosaic tradition continued with white mosaic paving into the subsequent Abbasid and Fatimid periods.
The entire floor of the audience hall is paved with colored mosaics. The carpets—as the floor panels are called—divide the hall into circular and rectangular spaces that appear to reflect the architectural superstructure, especially the majestic circular carpet under the central dome. It is likely that the hall served several purposes, from an audience or reception area (majlis) to a room for social events, including musical performances, to an extravagant frigidarium, or cool room, attached to the smaller heated rooms of the bath along its north wall.
Although many Umayyad mosaics are now known in the region, none surpass the mastery of art and craft at Khirbat al-Mafjar. Here, brilliant colors were woven into common motifs to fuse into a new fashion, one that was complemented by no-less-intricate wall coverings of colored stone and stucco carvings in paneled surfaces, columns and other architectural elements; above, there is evidence of painted frescos on upper floors.
When photography, film and conservation studies of the floor were completed, the mosaics were covered with Geotextile and sand for conservation until a permanent, protective shelter can be built over them. Meanwhile, excavations and research continue at other places in the Khirbat al-Mafjar complex. It is hoped that with suitable protection and conservation, the mosaics may one day be uncovered for public viewing, making Khirbat al-Mafjar a prime destination for tourists and historians.