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Khirbat al-Mafjar

Betsy Williams, Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, Department of Islamic Art

Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2012

Khirbat al-Mafjar

Columns from the courtyard at Khirbat al-Mafjar. Image: © Wikimedia Commons user Abraham at pl.wikipedia

«Few surviving Umayyad palaces present as much evidence for the types of decoration popular among the period's elite as does Khirbat al-Mafjar, a desert qusur, or fortified palace complex.» The site features a palace, a mosque, a bath, and an audience hall, all of which are elaborately ornamented.1 The building is traditionally considered to have been constructed by Walid II (r. 743–744) prior to his short-lived ascension to the throne, though this dating and patronage has been contested.2

The most striking interior decoration at the site is undoubtedly the stucco sculptures of partially nude women. These figures are depicted wearing skirts with twisted belts and with elaborate hairstyles; some are shown wearing intricately designed jewelry and carrying baskets or rattles. Parallels in other media, including Sasanian and early Islamic-period metalwork, suggest that these figures represent dancers or entertainers, evoked here to memorialize the pleasures enjoyed at the palace.3

statue of a woman      detail from a brazier

Left: Statue of a Woman, from Khirbat al-Mafjar, Jordan, mid-8th century A.D. The Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem (M. Hattstein and P. Delius, Islam: Art and Architecture, p. 83). Right: Detail from a Brazier, 8th century (modern reproduction). Jordan. Copper alloy, cast and openwork; iron frame and rods. Jordan Archaeological Museum, Amman (J.15700–J.15707).

Another sculpture from the entrance portal of the bathhouse depicts a male figure with a beard, sword, and sweeping robe triumphantly standing atop adossed (back-to-back) lions, likely a representation of the caliph himself.

statue of a man

Standing caliph from the entrance portal of the bathhouse at Khirbat al-Mafjar, Palestinian Territories. Molded plaster around bricks, 724–43 or 743–46. The Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem. Courtsey of the Israel Antiquities Authority

A mosaic of a lion attacking a gazelle underneath a blooming tree shows the continuing high-quality mosaics produced in the region into the early Islamic period.4


Mosaic pavement with a lion and gazelle, 724–43 or 743–46. Reception hall, Khirbat al-Mafjar, Palestinian Territories. Scala / Art Resource, NY

Khirbat al-Mafjar's decoration neatly summarizes the crosscultural currents of Umayyad elite patronage. It displays at once a visual language familiar to the Byzantine realm in its mosaic floor, and from the Sasanian one in its decoration in the stucco technique practiced in those lands. Scholars have posited a connection with Egypt as well, since the building unit employed here suggests the involvement of workmen familiar with measurements used in Coptic constructions. The specialization necessary to achieve the site's architecture and its decoration suggests the movement of craftspeople to specific sites and construction on command.5

[1] R. W. Hamilton, Khirbat al-Mafjar: An Arabian Mansion in the Jordan Valley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959). For a discussion of the meaning of the bathhouse within the context of emerging ideas about kingship, see Priscilla Soucek, "Solomon's Bath/Solomon's Throne: Model or Metaphor?" in Ars Orientalis (vol. 23, 1993), p. 109–134.

[2] The palace is sometimes called, "Qasr Hisham," because it was constructed during his reign between the years 724–43. Recent archaeological work in Mahmoud Hawari, "Archaeological Landscape Survey at Khirbat al-Mafjar–2009 and 2010," Bulletin of the Council for British Research in the Levant (vol. 5, no. 1, November 2010), 21–32.

[3] For a discussion of courtly life, see Anna Ballian, "Country Estates, Material Culture, and the Celebration of Princely Life: Islamic Art and the Secular Domain," in Helen Evans and Brandie Ratliff, ed., Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, (2012) p. 200–208.

[4] Doris Behrens-Abouseif, "The Lion-Gazelle Mosaic at Khirbat al-Mafjar," Muqarnas, Vol. 14, (1997), pp. 11–18.

[5] ArchNet Digital Library: http://archnet.org/library/sites/one-site.jsp?site_id=7363


  • Michael Jennings says:

    An interesting introduction to the artistic elements that make Mafjar so famous. I was unaware of the contemporary metalwork parallels for the women. For information on new excavations at the site, we invite you to check out: http://jerichomafjarproject.org/


    Posted: May 1, 2012, 4:53 p.m.

  • Betsy Williams says:

    Thanks for this comment, Michael -- and particularly for passing along the website! I am particularly interested in the sculpture of a woman wearing a lovely pendant, which seems to my eye an attempt at showing openwork. There is much information to be gleaned from the various dress traditions depicted in the stucco sculptures here.

    Posted: May 27, 2012, 1:11 p.m.

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About the Author

Betsy Williams is a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and was the 2012 Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow in the Museum's Department of Islamic Art. Her dissertation is on precious-metal jewelry and notions of adornment in the Byzantine and early Islamic periods.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, on view March 14–July 8, 2012.