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UNESCO World Heritage Site #238: Quseir Amra

UNESCO World Heritage Site #238: Quseir Amra

UNESCO World Heritage Site #238: Quseir Amra

From the World Heritage inscription:

Quseir Amra bears exceptional testimony to the Omayyad civilization which was imbued with a pre-Islamic secular culture whose austere religious environment only left behind insignificant traces in the visual arts. It is the best conserved architectural ensemble, if not the most complete, of all the Omayyad palaces and castles in Jordan and Syria.

Built in the early 8th century AD, this exceptionally well-preserved desert castle was both a fortress with a garrison and a residence of the Umayyad caliphs. The most outstanding features of this small pleasure palace are the reception hall and the hammam, both richly decorated with figurative murals that reflect the secular art of the time.

Approximately 85 km east of Amman and not far from the caravan trail which passes through Azrak, Kharaneh and Tubah, Quseir Amra is one of the many residences which the Omayyad caliphs built in the desert of present-day Syria and Jordan. These ‘castles of the desert’ had various roles. They were fortresses where garrisons could be lodged, on at least an occasional basis; they were places of relaxation where the caliphs could come back into contact with the traditional existence of Bedouin nomads. The fortress of Quseir Amra, square in shape, is in ruins with no thing more than the foundations remaining. But the small country house with its three-nave reception hall and hammam still exists with its extraordinary mural decorations. These murals, which were discovered by the Austrian, Alois Musil, in 1898 and made known in 1907, were restored by a team of Spanish specialist headed by the archaeologist, Martin Almagro.

Quseir Amra, which was probably built under Walled I (705-15), although a more recent theory suggests the reign of Walled II (743-44), is interesting first of all because of the remarkable architectural structure of the reception hall and also due the existence of a very extensive bath complex. Supplied by a noria and an aqueduct, it resembles Roman baths with its three rooms: the changing-room (apodyterium), the warm bath (tepidarium) and the hot bath (caldarium), in addition to the service room.

What gives Quseir Amra its uniqueness, however, is the figurative painting on the walls and vaults of the reception hall and hammam. There are historical themes (royal figures who were defeated by the Omayyad caliph) and mythological representations as well (the muses of Poetry, Philosophy and History, with their names in Greek), a zodiac, hunting scenes and hammam scenes as well as some imaginary themes (animal musicians, a hunter being chased by a lion), etc.

Quseir Amra is not large. In fact when we pulled up to it and I had no idea we were there. Quesir is Arabic for “castle” so I was expecting something…..bigger.

What is there is actually the bath of what was believed to be the summer palace of Walid II, the Umayyad caliph. The original structure was believed to be much larger and the remains of which may still be unexcavated in the surrounding area.

The building itself is not why it was listed as a World Heritage Site. What makes Quesir Amra special are the well preserved frescos inside. Unlike most Islamic buildings, the fresco designs are not simply geometric shapes. They show scenes of people and animals. The painter was mostly likely a Byzantine Christian who lived in the region.

Quesir Amra is approximately a one hour drive from Amman. Most visitors will not be visiting Quesir Amra as the primary destination, but rather as part of a day long trip to several desert castles between Amman and Azraq. Quesir Amra is small enough that it can probably be experienced in 30 minutes, including the small visitor center.

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