The Mosaics of Khirbat al-Mafjar
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.
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.
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Rabi` i 1437–rabi` ii
Above: This semicircular apse on the east end of the audience hall’s north wall measures about 4½ meters in diameter—the same as the hall’s 10 other apses, which together present one of the hall’s most distinctive architectural features. Each apse is tiled in a unique mosaic pattern: Here, a simple, flat floral pattern, bordered with multicolored diamonds, appears kin to Palestinian textile embroidery motifs that endure today. In front of the apse, the tightly interwoven, curvilinear “runner” uses multiple colors to give the elements in its pattern shape and depth. Along the partially restored back wall, six niches were likely filled with statuary; six of the 10 other apses show similar niches.
Rabi` ii–Jumada i
Above: Interaction among smooth curves, static squares, hub-like circles and lines that intertwine among them like thorny vines gives this detail of floor Panel 8, in the west-central part of the hall, an almost living tension. The intricacy of this and other patterns in the hall pushed the boundaries of the mosaic artist’s ability to render complex symmetry with precision; as a result, the slight deviations from mathematical perfection tend to reinforce the organic effect.
Jumada i–Jumada ii
Above: Facing east to what was once a grand entryway some 30 meters at the other end of the audience hall’s main axial nave, the design of what has been designated Apse v is the most complex and visually prominent of the 11 apse mosaics. It shows one of only two purely representational images in the hall’s mosaic floor: a central panel with a sprout, ethrog (citron) and knife—a motif common at the time also in Christian and Jewish structures. The radial, basket-like motif, shown here in the foreground, visually links the apse to the much larger, central basket motif under the main dome.
Above: The “basket-weave mosaic” at the center of the hall is one of the most complex and visually hypnotic pattern designs known from the period. Each of its tessera is the same size, and the artisans produced their effect by gradually increasing the number of tesserae in each design element. At the center is a circular marble drain cover.
Above: In this detail photo, Panel 15, located in the northeast quadrant of the hall, shows a vibrant, four-point pattern of squares, crosses and octagons whose hard lines are softened by thin, flower-like bands. The effect resembles embroidery and other textile patterns; its structure is a four-point pattern of tessellation that would in later centuries be developed in greater complexity in homes, palaces, mosques and madrassahs (schools) throughout the Islamic world.
Above: This pattern appears on both the east and the west sides of the hall’s center: a design of tessellated squares, each with 24 nearly semicircular petals, each petal inset with a small flower, which produces a bouquet effect. The precision of the geometry is such that the main diagonal lines, which originate at the outer corners and meet at the edge of the circular ribbon band, form a perfect isosceles triangle.
Above: Sunlight illuminates color that remains vivid in the tesserae that create this sharply zigzag pattern in Apse vii. Each mosaic piece, or tessera, measures between 13 and 16 millimeters, and most are cuboid in shape. Binding and setting the mosaic floor originally was an underlayer of compacted limestone mortar that itself lay on top of nearly a meter of three further foundation layers of ash, lime, pebbles, sand and earth mixed with rubble and shards.
Above: Three rings of tightly interwoven circles comprise the design of circular Panel 3, one of four such circular designs that lie at the centers of the four corner quadrants of the hall. Here, a set of large circles is inset with a ring of smaller circles of two alternating sizes; below it, an inner ring of circles surrounds and grows out of an eight-pointed star visible in the inset.
Dhu-al-Qa`dah – Dhu-al-Hijjah
Above: One of the best-preserved mosaics lies in the diwan, a small sitting room that was entered on the northwest corner of the hall. Its mosaic design is clearly intended to resemble, if not imitate, a carpet—it even has tassels on the corners. Its diamond-pattern field is bordered by inner and outer decorative bands, much as a carpet would be; the raised seats show a further mosaic band.
Above: A corner detail of the circular medallion in Panel 5, in the southeast corner, shows its best-preserved section. The scalloped shell pattern is unique among the hall’s designs, and unusual also for showing seven elements rather than four, six or a multiple of those numbers.
Above: One of the most visually striking of all the apse panels is the electrically high-contrast, four-point pattern of Apse viii . Its seemingly premature ending, at the edge of the interwoven pattern of the floor runner mosaic of Panel 29, which adjoins on its other side the textile-like pattern of Panel 27, highlights the eclecticism of the hall’s mosaic art.
Rabi` i–Rabi` ii
Above: Although the audience hall mosaics can be interpreted both as echoes of the past and harbingers of the geometric patterns that in later centuries became associated with the highest expressions of art in Islamic lands, one of the finest mosaics at Khirbat al-Mafjar is pictorial: The Tree of Life, which lies in an apse at the focus of the diwan. The motif harkens back to Roman and Byzantine examples, but was here executed with unique mastery. It shows a lushly fruited tree, under which two gazelles graze peacefully—a common motif in mosaics and frescoes throughout the region and southwest into Egypt—while on the right, a lion attacks a fleeing gazelle. “The composition and technical perfection of this mosaic, its range of coloring, and the intensity of its scene make this carpet the chief wonder of the arts at Khibat al-Mafjar,” wrote Taha and Whitcomb.