«Umayyad qusur, or desert "palaces," are known for their variety of architectural styles and decoration. One example, Qusayr 'Amra, is well known on both counts.»
Qusayr ‘Amra. Image: © Wikimedia Commons user GregAsche
In 1898, during his travels through the Jordanian desert, the Czech explorer Alois Musil discovered the architectural remains of several structures. The vestiges suggested an original complex consisting of a bathhouse and a throne room. Related structures irrigated the surrounding landscape and provided bathing water for this palace in the middle of the desert sands.
Perhaps more impressive than the architecture, however, were the extensive frescoes that Musil found on the walls of the complex. The discovery of these paintings completely upended then-current scholarly understanding about figural representation in the early Islamic period. The paintings are uniquely Umayyad in subject matter and style, as no parallels are known from the Sasanian or Byzantine realms. One scene, for instance, depicts a pen of animals hunted by regal figures on horseback, while another shows nude women at the bath while men peep from above.
Bathing women. Fresco, 705–15. South wall, tepidarium, bathhouse, Qusayr ‘Amra, Jordan. Image courtesy of the Department of Antiquities, Amman
A particularly dramatic scene depicts six kings in elaborate headgear, four of which feature bilingual inscriptions in Arabic and Greek listing: "Kaisar," or Byzantine emperor (caesar), the Sasanian shah "Kisra" (Khusro), "Negus" or King of Ethiopia, and "Roderick," the Visigothic king. It has been posited that the two kings that are not identified in the inscription were the ruler of China and a Turkic leader. All six figures gesture in supplication toward the spot in the hall where the caliph would presumably have been seated. The intricate arrangement of this and other scenes hint at narrative, suggesting now-lost associations drawn from epic poetry or song.
Drawing of six kings. Fresco, 705–15. West wall, hall, Qusayr ‘Amra, Jordan. Reproduced from Alois Musil. Kusejr ‘Amra und Schlösser östlich von Moab. Vol. 2, pl. XXVI. Vienna, 1907
Although debates about the meaning of the fresco cycles continue, the overall message is one of the caliph's might, as expressed through courtly luxury. Visitors to Qusayr ‘Amra must have been impressed by the complex's colorful murals and indulgent use of water, especially in the context of the surrounding desert. The palace complex evoked the caliph's power through his indulgent fineries and his mastery over the environment.
World Monuments Fund: http://www.wmf.org/project/qusayr-amra
ArchNet Digital Library: http://archnet.org/library/sites/one-site.jsp?site_id=4667
Czech Radio feature (in English) on Alois Musil: http://www.radio.cz/en/section/czechs/alois-musil-the-czech-lawrence-of-arabia
For Further Reading
Quṣayr 'Amra: Art and the Umayyad Elite in Late Antique Syria by Garth Fowden
"Les peintures de Qusayr 'Amra, un bain omeyyade dans la bâdiya jordanienne" by Cl. Vibert-Guigue et Gh. Bisheh