This red limestone palace is located on the edge of a desert oasis, approximately 50 miles east of Amman. It has been asserted that the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid built Qusayr 'Amra between 712 and 715 AD.
Small in scale yet extremely well preserved, it structurally contains two main components: an audience hall and a bath. One enters the building from the north into the rectangular audience hall. Across from the main entrance stands an alcove with two little windowless rooms to either side, admitting light strictly from their entryways and reflections from the floors cemented in glass mosaics. The three rooms that make up the bath -- presumably the apodyterium, tepidarium, and caldarium, respectively -- are situated to the east of the hall's main entrance: one of which is tunnel-vaulted; another that is cross-vaulted and the third contains a dome. (Please see the plan.) To the east of the caldarium, a tunnel-vaulted passageway extends into a rectangular enclosed space that remains uncovered. Architecturally, Qusayr 'Amra's most impressive characteristic is its vaulting system, specifically in its use of pointed transverse arches. The incidence of such features demonstrates a strong eastern influence, as there are no known western examples of these arches until at least the end of the eleventh century.
Qusayr 'Amra is celebrated for the richly painted frescoes that decorate each of its rooms. These paintings depict a variety of subjects including hunting scenes, athletic activity, mythological images, and astronomical representations. For example, painted on the dome in the caldarium are signs of the zodiac coupled with illustrations of the primary constellations found in the northern hemisphere. This portrayal is of monumental significance in that it is the earliest known example of stellar representation on a non-flat, semi-circular surface. Another equally important set of frescoes is located in the audience hall. In the apse-like throne chamber, one painting commemorates a haloed dignitary, possibly representing the caliph, who sits under a canopy of fabric encircled by birds and monsters. Communicating with this image, at the southern section of the west wall, another depiction renders six lavishly robed figures, three of which lie in the foreground with extended arms to their right and three others positioned behind them. The first four figures in the painting are the Byzantium emperor, the Persian Shah, the Ethiopian Negus, and the Visigothic king, Roderick, confirmed through Greek and Arabic inscriptions superscribed over each leader. It has been posited that the remaining two figures are the emperor of China and the Khan of the Turks, and that these two frescoes together symbolize the Islamic caliph's ascendancy over a powerful assembly of contemporaneous kings.
The main palace of Qusayr 'Amra is just one structure of a larger site. In the early 1970s, the Spanish Archaeological Mission excavated the area and discovered the remnants of a smaller courtyard castle almost 300 meters northwest. In addition, the Mission revealed the vestiges of a tower and a hydraulic complex composed of a well, waterwheel, and cistern. Behind the wadi they also found a succession of short wide walls used to prevent soil erosion, which indicates that users of the site engaged in agricultural pursuits.
"Quseir Amra." UNESCO World Heritage Website. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/327. [Accessed February 2, 2007]
Creswell, K. A. C.1989. A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture. Rev. ed. Allan, James W. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 105-117.
Warren, John. 1978. Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon. In Architecture of the Islamic World Its History and Social Meaning. Edited by Mitchell, George. London: Thames and Hudson, 235.
Yeomans, Richard. 1999. The Story of Islamic Architecture. Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing, 40-41.