Sparkling on the desert mist, they ascend like the distant illusion to mock, ethereal buildings, challenging someone to look at them again. Is that a four square palace, towered and equipped, rising from the desert? Why is a brick building amid the desert? And why does it have decorated baths? The buildings are not an illusion. The castles and the baths together referred to as Umayyad desert palaces are real. Their construction took place around the eighth century and the Muslims specifically the Umayyad rulers were responsible for the architecture and designs.
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However, recent research has revised the way the historians understand these palaces thus invigorating appreciation of Umayyad arts and skills that enabled the architectures to exploit the desert water sources. There are approximately twelve Umayyad sites today, most are reachable from Amman. The Umayyad sites with widespread residue are the baths of Qasr Amra (Jordan) that are filled with frescos, the fragmentary brick palace found at Mshatta, the Khirbat al-Mafjar (Palestine) palace, fortress-like Qasr al-Hayr East and West (Syria) palace, and widespread agricultural activities at Anjar ( Lebanon). Although the Umayyad desert palaces have some differences, they also have architectural similarities in terms of the layout plan, watchtowers, main entrances, house system inside the palace, semi-circular towers, baths, courtyards, multi-story and mosques.
Layout plans (squared)
The Umayyad desert palaces were square with round towers at each corner (Hillenbrand 34). They conformed to distinct types and they had central features that enclosed approximately seventy meters. Additionally, each Umayyad unit had multiple Roman feet fortified with bastions arranged at intervals with an entrance gateway that was projecting at the center of one of the sides (Allen 23). This entrance led into a hall that opened into a courtyard that had arcades. Furthermore, the arcades were on double tiers and other tiers surrounded the arcades. Besides, behind the arcades, there were diminutive, dark rooms that were for storing food and raw materials for artwork (Talgam 125).
Qasr Amra and Mshatta had small square enclosures that were fortified with arrow slits as well as towers with round corners (Kassem 37). The square enclosures had gates with monuments and shallow arches. The walls of the square enclosures were made of bricks and stones with a variety of vaulting techniques (Lewis 364). On the other hand, Khirbat al-Mafjar, Qasr al-Hayr East and West, and Anjar had large squares enclosures with corners and half-round towers (Kassem, 38). Additionally, they had streets that divided the square enclosure into four. Each quarter of the square enclosure had a palace, bath, and mosque (Michelle 46).
Qasr al-Hayr East and West was a square of sides measuring approximately fifty-five meters long (Talgam 158). Furthermore, the walls were made of mud bricks while the floor was composed of a masonry base. Moreover, the Hamman was on the west and had two sections that were frigidarium that had four rooms and a calidarium that had three chambers and was over the furnace. The palace had an exterior frontage that was entirely decorative (Allen 15). The frontage was square with sides of around seventy meters long and had limestone arranged up to a height of approximately two meters followed by unfired bricks.
Khirbat al-Mafjar was in form of a square fountain and it had a square pavilion on the two levels (Lewisind 350). Additionally, a domed-shaped building with an octagonal epistyle surrounded the square enclosure. Besides, the doom-shaped building was similar to Byzantine architecture. Moreover, the square enclosure had an entrance that was broad on the south leading through the vestibule endowed with stones to the desert palace which was a square edifice arranged around the colonnaded courtyard surrounded by a pair of the story (Tour 674).
Anjar, Mshatta, and Qasr Amra palace were square enclosures surrounded byflanked walls with inscriptions of the Romans and Islam still in situ. Moreover, the walls were rectangles with the sides measuring four hundred meters by three-fifty meters (Tour 432). Besides, the walls were two meters thick and constructed from mud with the exterior faces of bigger blocks and interior faces of smaller blocks
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Every Umayyad desert palaces had at least four watchtowers, which were at each corner of the square enclosures (Ettinghausen 99). The palaces of Khirbat al-Mafjar and Qasr Amra had square watchtowers. The watchtowers were closely spaced so that the entrances were broader. Anjar and Mshatta had watchtowers that were around the walls of the palaces that were punctuated (Ruggles 234). Additionally, the watchtowers were arranged at an interval of approximately three hundred meters. Finally, Qasr al-Hayr East and West had forty watchtowers with inscriptions of the Romans and Islam still in situ.
Moreover, the walls of the watchtowers were rectangles with the sides measuring four hundred meters by three-fifty meters (Tour 432). Besides, the walls of the watchtowers were two meters thick and constructed from mud with the exterior faces of bigger blocks and interior faces of smaller blocks. Moreover, the interior had three stairways leading to the wall top where the guards whose function was to protect the town resided. Additionally, the watchtowers had a north and a west axis that flanked with porticos.
The Umayyad desert palaces’ entrances presented problems with palatial architecture because their degrees of elaboration varied significantly. For instance, the gateways of the later palaces were more elaborate than the earlier palaces (Hillenbrand 30). Additionally, the gates of the Khirbat al-Mafjar, Qasr Amra, and Qasr al-Hayr East and West were elaborate whiles the other desert palaces like Anjar and Mshatta were not (Ruggles 800). Besides, the sitting was also a contributing factor to the controversy because the residences that were official in the palaces of Anjar and Qasr al-Hayr East were conspicuously modest than palaces in the open countries. On the other hand, Khirbat al-Mafjar had more than three gates but the ones on the bath were mainly elaborate because of the ceremonies that usually took place in that establishment.
Additionally, the type of decorations at the Umayyad desert palaces gates presented a problem because they were strangely non-classical in the view of the architectural decorations of the Umayyad. For example, the triumphal arch of the Romans influenced these palaces because of their iconographic selection (Tour 562). On the contrary, themes of religion, military display, and victory were absent.
Furthermore, It was easier to isolate foreign motifs in the Umayyad palaces but difficult to determine if the threads running through the assorted iconography (Ruggles 234). Additionally, the Umayyad gateways were intended to glorify the caliphs who erected them and for that reason, their constructions were under the traditional art of Byzantium and Sasanian Persia. Finally, the desert palaces of Qasr al-Hayr and Qasr Amra had their gates ape most of their decorations from the Romans. On the other hand, the Umayyad desert palaces of Mshatta, Anjar, and Khirbat al-Mafjar had decorations on their gates that had some influence from the Byzantium and Sasanian Persia.
Although the Umayyad palaces gateways had the same features, typical gateways that had all the characteristics of Umayyad palaces gateways were found at Qasr al-Hayr West and Khirbat al-Major. These gates had ornaments that were crammed with monumental ensembles and extravagantly sham fortifications that were built on the Ludwig II of Bavaria (Lewis 384). Additionally, they had integrated various visual images that were thematically unrelated. For instance, the caliphs that were above the door were straightforward images yet the façades had figurative figures like a goddess bearing doves on one hand.
However, the closed baths entrances at Qasr Amra and Mshatta appeared as if they were cautiously organized and they resembled the triumphal arch when one looked at them from a distance. On the contrary, that appearance was varnished on a nearer inspection because the area had dense plant ornaments (Ruggles 1563).
The house system inside the palace
The size of the desert palaces varied from small and well-decorated baths of Qasr Amra and Anjar to the fortified palaces of Qasr al-Hayr East and West and Manhattan. Furthermore, the inside of the Umayyad desert palaces resembled fortresses. For example, in some palaces, decorative friezes softened the impact of fortification (Lewis 250). Such palaces included Anjar, Qasr al-Hayr East and West, Manhattan, and Khirbat al-Major. Furthermore, most of the palaces had bathhouses, mosques, and living accommodations that were set according to the size of the palace. Finally, each palace had a visitors’ area that was used to house visitors as well as a tribal unit.
Most of the palaces had window grills that had decorations to enhance the appearance of the palace. For example, the stucco grills were all-embracing on the Qasr al-Hayr and Mshatta (Hillenbrand 7). On the other hand, the unfinished works of the Khirbat al-Mafjar suggested the use of the stucco works. Additionally, the grills at Anjar and Qasr Amra were for arched aperture while at Qasr al-Hayr the arched screens had some few rectangular openings (Michelle 68). However, all the palaces had window grills with geometric shapes composed of thin strips that crossed each other. Although the patterns of the grills were not identical, the linear strips were conspicuous. Moreover, the architecture incorporated some flowers and leaves into the window grills giving the windows distinct patterns (Allen 12).
The Umayyad palaces had numerous arrangements for receiving visitors and caring for them. For instance, Manhattan and Khirbat al-Mafjar had entrances vestibules particularly designed for people waiting to go inside the palaces. On the other hand, Anjar and Qasr Amra had halls with curtains opposite the entrances where visitors waited. Moreover, the servants opened or closed the curtains periodically, and behind the curtains were caliphs sitting (Talgam 28).
These layouts suggested that Khirbat al-Mafjar, Qasr al-Hayr East and West, Anjar and Qasr Amra had special rooms where the caliph on the throne was in a deep niche that was opposite the palaces entrance. Additionally, Khirbat al-Mafjar and Mshatta had rooms that were reserved for princes and their entrances had curtains (Kassem 27). Besides, the visitors’ room of Qasr Amra was tiny because the palace did not have enough space.
The Umayyad desert palaces had projecting entrances with two semi-circular towers and other small ones arranged around the four square walls (Talgam 367). Anjar and Qasr Amra had semi-circular towers with guarded walls. The semicircular towers that were near the mosque were constructed on a square base and they had spiral staircases (Ruggles 96). The semi-circular towers of Mshatta were oblong enclosures measuring approximately two hundred meters by eighty meters (Aldershot 35). The walls of the semi-circular towers were made of baked bricks and the entrances had square rooms. Khirbat al-Mafjar and Qasr al-Hayr had twelve semi-circular towers (Talgam 453). These semicircular towers had fortified walls with mosaic decorations.
The type of the bath presented the most complicated problem and as a result, the classification of the baths was based on their location at the Umayyad site (Ruggles 349). For instance, the ones at Anjar and Qasr al-Hayr west and east were tremendously large but plain. Consequently, they did not qualify for royal functions exercises because they did not have the required decorations. On the other hand, Khirbat al-Mafjar and Anjar had smaller underground baths that were not good enough for royal festivals. Moreover, Qasr Amra had two baths, which had varieties of use like bathing, hunting, banqueting, and holding ceremonial functions (Aldershot 27).
Additionally, the bath at Khirbat al-Mafjar and Mshatta were multipurpose although their construction was with consummately greater care. For instance, they had lavish sittings, extensive latrines, entrances that were both public and private, and mosaic floors. On the other hand, the floors at Anjar, Qasr Amra, and Khirbat al-Mafjar were also mosaic but those palaces were not multifunctional (Ettinghausen 78).
Additionally, the layouts of the baths were in such a way that they determined their functions. To begin with, the baths at Khirbat al-Mafjar and Qasr al-Hayr east functioned as places for formal meetings because they were spacious and as a result, al-Wald I gave consultations there. On the contrary, the baths at Mshatta, Qasr Amra, and Khirbat al-Mafjar were associated with al-Wald II who also gave consultations there (Aldershot 29). Additionally, both the baths at Mshatta and Qasr al-Hayr East and West were outside the palaces. Nevertheless, the monarch opted to stay in Qasr al-Hayr East and West and was the patron of the building.
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On the other hand, the patrons of Mshatta and Qasr al-Hayr East and West were the ones who proposed the location of the baths outside the palaces. This was because they thought it was imperative to emphasize the chamber of their audiences through processional tracts that were formal and incorporated empty spaces rather than jeopardizing the effectiveness of the entire layout via stuffing other utilities into the space (Ruggles 1642).
All the Umayyad desert palaces had courtyards with different characteristics. To begin with, Qasr Amra and Anjar had courtyards that were adjacent to the Islamic complex (Michelle 45). The courtyards had carved stucco that was decorated with Byzantine motifs. The courtyard of Khirbat al-Mafjar had a palatial complex (Lewisind 300). It contained a fountain structure and a rectangular mosque. The courtyards of Qasr al-Hayr East and West and Mshatta were divided into three longitudinal zones (Hillenbrand 22). The first zone had gateway blocks and throne halls blocks. The second zone had carved triangle bands as well as a rosette (Ettinghausen 100). The third zones had mosques.
Moreover, the Umayyad desert palaces had rooms that surrounded courtyards (Kassem 38). For example, Anjar and Qasr al-Hayr East palaces had corridors leading to a portico that surrounded a central courtyard. Additionally, the courtyards of the ummayad desert palaces were approximately ten meters wide and had cisterns with shafts that were around one meter in diameter (Michelle 56). The cistern was covered with stones.
Lastly, the center of the Umayyad desert palaces courtyards had buildings that were in form of a square fountain and it had square pavilions on the two levels (Lapidus 52). Additionally, a dome-shaped building with an octagonal epistyle surrounded the courtyard. Besides, the doom-shaped building was similar to Byzantine architecture. Moreover, the courtyard had an entrance that was broad on the south leading through the vestibule endowed with stones to the desert palace which was a square edifice arranged around the colonnaded courtyard surrounded by a pair of the story (Aldershot 31).
Umayyad desert palaces had a story with different functions. For example, Manhattan and Khirbat al-Mafraj had two-story and ground floors that served as the habitats of rulers together with their families (Tour 89). Anjar, Qasr al-Hayr East and West, and Qasr Amra had a single story with fewer divisions (Lewis 357). The layout of the ummayad desert palaces story was the same. The ground floor served as a place of agriculture, business, and domestic activities. Additionally, it had wells and drainage systems. For example, Anjar and Qasr al-Hayr’s east and west were complex palaces that contained underground water, dams, gardens, lakes, mills, and residences (Hillenbrand 33).
The Qasr al-Hayr East and West and Qasr Amra palaces and baths were supplied by a spring that was approximately eight kilometers away (Aldershot 25). On the other hand, the upper floor of the palaces was where the people lived. The upper floor of Mshatta and Khirbat al-Mafraj contained the bedroom, dining room, and a meeting place (Kassem 44). The staircases were made of wood and the opposite sides had unroofed enclosures where animals lived.
Each palace had a mosque where people gathered to worship (Hillenbrand 12). For instance, Khirbat al-Mafraj had two mosques while the other palaces had one. Besides, different activities took place in the mosque and they included, worshiping, praying, and holding debates about theology (Allen 5). On the other hand, the mosques were respected places and for that reason, the architectures constructed them with great care (Hillenbrand 356).
This respect was because the people believed that their creator dwelled in the mosque and since He was the giver of life He deserve respect. As a result, the mosques had decorations that were adapted from the culture of the islams. For instance, the mosques had an assortment of decorations and monuments that had sayings from the Quran (Ruggles 58). Additionally, the paintings on the walls were adapted from the Arabic culture that also influenced the Islamic religion. Finally, all the mosques of the Ummayad desert palaces had limestone floors with three sides that were flaked with arched arcades (Michelle 45). The other side of the mosque had a central section that was covered with a golden mosaic (Aldershot 36). This is because it was the center of prayers.
In conclusion, Umayyad desert palaces have architectural similarities in terms of the layout plan, watchtowers, main entrances, house system inside the palace, semi-circular towers, baths, courtyards, multi-story and mosques. The palaces had square enclosures with walls. All the Umayyad desert palaces had watchtowers, main entrances, mosques, semi-circular towers, and courtyards. Finally, some palaces had one story while others had two.
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