Qusayr ‘Amra, “The Little
Palace of ‘Amra,” is a residential and agricultural complex known especially
for its large bath house decorated with a fabulous array of fresco paintings. The complex is located in the heart of
the Jordanian steppe in an arid, rocky region known as al-Balqa’ (the
piebald), approximately 85 kilometers east of Amman. It is situated along the Wadi al-Butum,
which eventually flows into the Jordan valley. The complex’s precise date of
construction is not known but it is clear that it was built under the Umayyad caliphs of Syria (r. 660-750/39-132 AH), not before 711/92 AH and no later than 750/132
The once popular attribution
of the bath house to the reign of the sixth Umayyad caliph Walid I (r. 705-715/89-96 AH) is based on the presence in the
building of a mural depicting six vanquished rulers of late antiquity,
including the Visigoth king Roderick, who died in a battle against the Umayyads
in 711/92 AH. This interpretation was favored by the
philologists who first interpreted the mural’s Greek and Arabic inscriptions.1 Other scholars have questioned the attribution to Walid I. The prevalence of
imagery related to the hunt, dancing and other festive pastimes suggested
instead to others Walid II (r. 743-744/126-127 AH), who is described as a hedonist by the
Arabic sources and, more importantly, is known to have spent considerable time
in the countryside in which the bath house was constructed.2 Another
compelling reason to reject the attribution to Walid I comes after a reading of
the Arabic inscriptions that refer to a prince (amir) or heir apparent (wali
al-‘ahd) rather than a caliph (amir al-mu’minin). This evidence
suggests a successor to Walid I who would have been alive after the defeat of Roderick
but not yet caliph.3
Like many other rural compounds constructed
by the Umayyads in the steppes,
Qusayr ‘Amra had multiple components including recreational, residential,
agricultural and religious.
The various structures are situated along the northern flank of the wadi, and include remnants of walls used to control its temporary floods and irrigate the surrounding landscape, which may have included gardens or agricultural plots. The bath house complex is located
toward the eastern side of the site, and consists of three components: the bath
house itself, a hydraulic operation including a well, water wheel and cistern
immediately to its north, and an enclosure wall that forms a roughly triangular
yard to the northwest of the bath house.
Some 600 meters north of the
bath complex lie the remnants of a residential structure centered on a
courtyard whose front gate faces south toward the wadi. Near this structure
were the remnants of a mosque dated to the Umayyad period.
The bath house is the best
preserved structure on site. Its plan is dominated by a large, rectangular audience hall covered by a triple barrel vault dividing the space into three
bays running north to south (the east, central and west bays). The main
entrance is a doorway on the north side under the central bay. Light enters the
hall through clerestory windows. On the southern side of the hall and directly
opposite the entryway is a recessed alcove (the central alcove). Two apsidal
side chambers flank this alcove (the east and west side chambers), and are
entered through doors in the alcove itself. These spaces rise only half the
height of the hall and their forms are clearly visible from the exterior of the building, as they project from the large block toward the south.
Adjoining the audience hall
to the east is the bath itself, consisting of three sequential rooms, which
presumably served as an apodyterium (changing room), tepidarium (warm room),
and caldarium (hot room). The apodyterium is tunnel vaulted, the tepidarium is cross-vaulted
and the caldarium is domed with two apses on the north and south sides.
Qusayr 'Amra is celebrated for the fresco paintings
that decorate most architectural surfaces in the bath house. These paintings
depict a variety of subjects including hunting scenes, athletic activity,
mythological images, and astronomical representations.
The images in the audience
hall include royal themes: on the west wall of the west bay is the famous fresco of “Six Kings,” which depicts Roderick the Visigoth, the Byzantine Emperor
(Caesar), the Sasanian Emperor (Khusraw), the Ethiopian Emperor (Negus) and two
unidentified figures thought to represent a Turkic and Chinese ruler.
The six rulers depicted on the west wall of the west
bay gesture with outstretched hands toward a second the image of a seated figure on the south
wall of the central alcove of the audience hall. This figure sits on a throne or baldachin and is depicted
frontally and with a halo, all consistent with the representation of rulers in
the Sasanian tradition. It is thought to represent the patron of the monument
who was a prince at the time of construction.
Another important image is
preserved on the barrel vault of the east bay: it depicts a series of artisans
at work along with several animals. The artisans depicted include blacksmiths,
stone-cutters, and woodworkers.
Equally celebrated is the domed vault of the caldarium, which features an astronomical projection where signs of the zodiac appear 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
Creswell, Short Account, 112-113.
Rashdan, al-Qusur al-Umawi, 81, and Fowden, Qusayr ‘Amra, 142-174.
Note by F. Imbert in Vibert-Guigue and
Bisheh, Qusayr ‘Amra, 45-6.
Vibert-Guigue, Claude, and Ghazi Bisheh. Les Peintures de
Qusayr ‘Amra: un bain omeyyade dans la dâdiya jordanienne. Beirut: Institut
français du Proche-Orient/Department of Antiquities of Jordan, 2007.
14 x 10.5 m (area of bath house audience hall, alcove and side chambers); 2.83 x 2.3 m (area of bath house apodyterium); 2.83 x 2.83 m (area of bath house tepidarium); 32 x 33 m (area of courtyard building at north end of site)