Between 661 and 750AD, the Umayyad Caliphate ruled the Muslim world. During their reigns, Umayyad Caliphs would often build themselves lavish ‘desert palaces’, several of which are still standing today. The uses of the palaces varied, and some believe the Umayyads built them to get away from the new urban central lifestyle set about by the Byzantine Empire (Hoag, 1979: 17). The Umayyad style of architecture is an interesting and luxurious one, as it takes its key styles directly from several other cultures, for example several Roman, Byzantine and Sassanian elements are often seen (Hoag, 1975: 20). Two important buildings when looking at Umayyad architecture are Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi and Khirbat al-Mafjar. These so-called ‘desert palaces’ of the Umayyads help us to gain an understanding of what secular Muslim architecture was like at the time.
Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi was built around 726AD by the Caliph Hisham, and was built on what is thought to be the site of a Ghassanid monastery, parts of which still remain within the newer structure. The location is in a very fertile land, and the Ghassanid would have been able to farm here to sustain themselves. Though the palace lies on a key caravan route between Palmyra and Damascus, it is still thought to have been built very much for the Caliph’s pleasure (remains have been found of a mosque, caravanserai, and small bath house) rather than for trade links, and is exquisitely decorated (Ball, 1994: 229). Despite having a rather fortress-like appearance, the fact that it is only made from mud-brick and the decorative plasterwork show that it was in fact just a palace. This decoration is in fact the first example found of decorative plasterwork in Islamic architecture.
Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi is a fine example of the important use of styles from other cultures in Umayyad architecture, having been built with purely Sassanian techniques, but with the appearance of a Roman or Byzantine building. The most popular suggestion for why Umayyad architecture features such an array of different building techniques is that the Umayyads adopted the styles from the lands and cultures they had conquered, and conscripted their labour from outside of Syria to realise their plans (Hillenbrand, 1999: 35).
An important feature showing this collection of styles in Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi are its floor paintings, which bring together both Mediterranean and Sassanian influences (Jameson, Shaw, 1998: 486-487). Depicted in one of these paintings is the Greek goddess Gea which appears very classical and is also figurative, and another shows a hunting scene, which looks very Sassanian, but with central Asian style figures. There is very little evidence for there being a tradition of floor painting in pre-Islamic Syria, so we cannot tell where from, or even when, floor painting would have arrived here.
Khirbat al-Mafjar is another Umayyad ‘desert palace’, and is dated as being built before 743AD. Either Caliph Hisham, or his nephew, who became al-Walid II upon Hisham’s death, built the palace, and several historians are in disagreement over which of the two did in fact build it. The palace was never actually finished, and some historians such as Creswell believe that this interruption was due to the death of Caliph Hisham, its patron (Hoag, 1979: 20). An earthquake ruined the parts of the palace that were finished fairly soon after they were built (believed to be 747AD), however, the extravagant bath house, one of the only finished rooms in the palace, shows signs of use before its destruction.
The palace of Khirbat al-Mafjar is located in the Valley of Jericho and, like Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, is built on extremely fertile land. The name Khirbat al-Mafjar literally means ‘place of flowing water’. This ‘desert palace’ has several key features, and these too display the Umayyad characteristic of using ideas from other cultures. The main room of the palace is the lavish bath hall, or audience hall, with the Caliph’s divan located off one side of it. This room is clearly intended for entertainment, with its nine-domed roof creating brilliant acoustics; it would have made an excellent venue for music and poetry performances (Hillenbrand, 1999: 21). The bath hall is extensively covered with tessellating mosaics with a rug-like quality (Ettinghausen, Grabar, 1987: 54-55), and would have been very impressive and luxurious. In the divan, leading off of the bath hall, is the largest single floor mosaic to survive from the ancient or medieval world (Hillenbrand, 1999: 32).
This mosaic depicts an animal hunting scene around a tree, with a lion attacking a gazelle on one side, whilst the other side two more gazelles graze peacefully. This is believed by many to be a visual metaphor for the relationship between Islam and its infidels; the lion devouring the gazelle being representative of the emperor being able to destroy his enemies, (Rice, 1971: 19-20), and the gazelles on the other side of the tree being the peace of Islam. This theme and these particular animals are purely Persian and Mediterranean, and it is an imitation textile mosaic, with tassels at the edge to make it appear like a rug (Ettinghausen, Grabar, 1987: 57). The Caliph would have sat in this private room and possibly have to dispense his judgment on matters, with the two opposing sides of the mosaic either side of him.
When comparing these two ‘desert palaces’, one can see that they are very similar in many ways, but also rather different in others. It is clear that both the palaces use the Umayyad technique of bringing together several different styles, and since the same Caliph may have even built them, are similar in their intended uses and functions. Both palaces were built in very fertile areas of the desert and so would have been relatively easy to sustain.
Since Khirbat al-Mafjar was never actually finished, the main ideas one can gather about its intended style lie in the decoration of the completed bath hall. This decoration mainly consists of plasterwork and floor mosaics, the latter of which are not present in Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, which has floor paintings instead. This could suggest that they were built by different Caliphs, or could just represent a change in style or a lack of available resources and workers to both be able to have the same. The similarity in these floor decorations is that they all take Sassanian and Mediterranean influences, be it from their technique or from the images depicted.
The two palaces are akin in their apparent uses of pleasure and extravagance, something the Umayyads seem to have indulged in rather a lot. Both had bath houses, Khirbat al-Mafjar’s being especially exquisite, and were clearly intended for the Caliph to entertain himself and guests. Despite both being examples of secular Islamic architecture, the palaces had mosques, in and around which figurative art and sculpture would not have been allowed. The mosque at Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi is no longer standing, and at Khirbat al-Mafjar it was probably never even finished, but despite the Umayyads often being classed as godless by many Muslims, they clearly cared for their religion.
Whether the extravagant story of the Umayyads building these ‘desert palaces’ to escape the new urban lifestyle set about by the Byzantine Empire for their deep-rooted home of the desert (Hoag, 1979: 17) is true or not, it is clear that the Caliphs used these palaces often, and got great pleasure from doing so. The palaces would have been the height of luxury, style and wealth at the time, and the Umayyads are notorious for building unnecessary constructions, which is believed to have partially influenced their downfall by angering their people.
In conclusion, both of these examples of ‘desert palaces’ display clearly the ideas behind Umayyad secular architecture, those being the use of other cultures’ influences, and the idea of luxury. Their architectural styles were developed further by the Abbasids who followed them, and eventually reached as far as Islamic Spain, showing great influence on all Islamic architecture to follow.
W. Ball, Syria: A Historical and Architectural Guide, Massachusetts (1994, 2007)
R. Ettinghausen and O. Grabar, The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250, London (1987)
R. Hillenbrand, Islamic Art and Architecture, London (1999, 2005)
J. D. Hoag, Islamic Architecture, London (English edition) (1979, 1987)
R. Jameson and I. Shaw, A Dictionary of Archaeology, London (1998)
T. Rice, Islamic Painting, Edinburgh (1971)