Kusair Amra is 100 km east of Amman. The architectural gem in the middle of the Jordanian desert was built in the 8th century as a small residence for Umayyad caliphs. The interior was lavishly decorated with figural frescoes and arcades.
Kusair Amra desert castle: facts
|Kusair Amra desert castle
|Desert castle with a three-aisled audience hall and attached bath wing with caldarium and tepidarium and fountain house; in the audience hall frescoes such as that of the Great Bathers, a beauty adorned with a diadem, bracelets and a necklace and posing in front of a columnar arcade architecture; also a fresco depicting Roderich, the last Visigoth king, Caesar, the Byzantine emperor, Kisra, the Sassanid ruler in Persia, and the Negus of Ethiopia; on the arch and canopy edge above the throne place the inscription “Oh God, bless the prince, just as you blessed David and Abraham” as a reference to the resident of the palace, an Omajad aristocrat or a crown prince
|Kusair Amra, east of Amman
|a “pleasure palace” as the residence of the Umayyad caliphs with late antique, Islamic imagery
Desert castle Kusair Amra: history
|Reign of Walid I with the destruction of the Visigoth army under Roderich
|Reign of Yazid II.
|Reign of Walid II.
|Caliphate of Yazid III.
|Discovery by the explorer and Arabist Alois Musil
|During renovation work, a Kufic inscription is discovered, which Walid II mentions without a caliphate
Beautiful women in the desert
In 1896 the Moravian priest and Orient traveler Alois Musil heard about old palaces east of the Muslim pilgrimage route to Mecca. They are haunted by ghosts, but “adorned with beautiful columns, paintings and inscriptions”. Two years later, the Arabist discovered Kusair Amra.
In the flat desert there is an outwardly unadorned building next to a well house, divided into a three-aisled hall with barrel vaults and a bathing wing. But as inconspicuous as the exterior is, the interior of the building, the walls of which were originally covered over and over with paintings, is lavish.
When Musil and his band of horsemen arrived at the “Lustschlösschen” in the middle of the desert, he could hardly hide his amazement. Paintings in shades of blue, brown and yellow ocher were applied to a layer of plaster about three centimeters thick, which one would have suspected everywhere but not in the desert. The west wall of the three-aisled hall, evidently an audience hall, showed the representation of a richly decorated bathing woman. On the fresco adjoining the bathing scene to the left, Greek and Arabic inscriptions denote six historical rulers, including the Byzantine emperor, the Visigoth king, the ruler of the Persian Sassanid family and the Negus, i.e. the emperor of Ethiopia. On other wall surfaces are young men doing gymnastic exercises, hunters with greyhounds,
In contrast, in the paintings in the bath rooms that adjoin the audience hall to the east, motifs from ancient mythology dominate, for example the Greek god Dionysus in the arched area of the undressing room; at his side a winged Cupid. According to estatelearning, the dome of the sweat room is decorated with a fresco of the starry sky.
The question of the originators and the purpose of this representational art in the middle of the desert occupied Alois Musil and other researchers who visited Kusair Amra after him. Although two Arabic inscriptions name a prince as the lord of the palace, they pose a problem: Apparently the building was built in the eighth century AD, after the victory of Islam, among Muslim clients. Previously, research had always assumed that there was an image hostility anchored in the Koran, but also based on the pious rejection of the founder of religion, Mohammed, against any form of artistic representation. In Kusair Amra, but soon also in other desert palaces, it turned out that early Islam did not avoid the image, at least in its private living culture, rather sought to tie in with the legacy of late antique art. Many details in the paintings show that this legacy was no longer properly understood, but that it was retained for reasons of prestige.
We do not know who built Kusair Amra. Yazid III. it could have been who lived in the desert for a while after his ascent to caliph, or it could have been the eccentric Walid II. They both belonged to the Umayyad rulers, the first dynasty produced by victorious Islam. After their historic victory against the Byzantines in the Middle East, the Muslim aristocrats found a largely Christian urban culture, which they tried to evade by retreating into the desert. At the same time, however, the new masters recognized the cultural greatness of the old world. Byzantine or Coptic artists built the first large mosques for the Umayyads, for example in Jerusalem and Damascus, and Byzantine artists were also responsible for the lavish interior decoration of Kusair Amra. In the midst of pictorial motifs from an older, different world, one can assume that the Omayyad prince met with those tribal leaders in whom the dynasty had its political backing. Feasts and orgies seem to have been part of everyday festive life, contrary to the accepted moralistic view of Islam.