Monthly Archives: May 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #238: Quseir Amra

Posted by on May 6, 2013

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.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #237: Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor

Posted by on May 5, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #237: Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor

UNESCO World Heritage Site #237: Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor

From the World Heritage inscription:

The culturo-historical region of Kotor has exerted considerable influence, over a span of time and within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture and human settlement. Kotor and its neighbours were main bridgeheads of Venice on the southern Adriatic coast. Its art, goldsmithing and architecture schools had a profound and durable influence on the arts of the coast. It is among the most characteristic examples of a type of structure representing important cultural, social and artistic values. It is considered to possess outstanding universal value by the quality of its architecture, the successful integration of its cities to the Gulf of Kotor and by its unique testimony to the exceptionally important role that it played in the diffusion of Mediterranean culture in the Balkan lands.

Founded by the Romans on the Adriatic coast in Montenegro, Kotor developed in the Middle Ages into an important commercial and artistic centre with its own famous schools of masonry and iconography. Throughout the centuries, many empires battled for control of the city. In the 10th century, it was an autonomous city of the Byzantine Empire. From 1186 to 1371, it was a free city of medieval Serbia. It was under Venetian and Hungarian control for brief periods, an independent republic from 1395 to 1420, and then returned to Venetian control once again. French occupation from 1807 to 1914 was followed by Austrian rule until 1918, when Kotor finally became part of Yugoslavia. Throughout its turbulent history, a variety of buildings have been erected. The largest and most impressive of these is the St Tryphon Cathedral. The original church was constructed in the 8th century, according to the annals of the Byzantine Emperor. A new church, built in 1166, was subsequently damaged during the 1667 earthquake and then restored.

The limits of the World Heritage site coincide approximately with the crests of the natural sinkhole formation. At both ends, the site is bordered by the national parks of Orten and Lovcen, making a vast protected natural area. The Gulf of Tivat (formerly part of the approaches to Kotor) is omitted because of the authenticity of its settlements, which has been downgraded by recent industrialization (shipyards, harbour equipment).

Most of Kotor’s palaces and houses, many Romanesque churches, all of Dobrota’s palaces, and Perast’s main buildings have all suffered from earthquakes, and some have been partly destroyed. The city was evacuated by all its inhabitants after the most recent, on 15 April 1979. An intensive restoration and reconstruction programme has now been completed and the city is flourishing again.

Kotor is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful areas along the Adriatic, if not the entire Mediterranean. The Bay of Kotor is one of the most picturesque I’ve seen and it is surprising that Kotor isn’t listed as a mixed property (natural and cultural). It is only listed as a cultural site.

While a settlement existed in Kotar for thousands of years, the current walled city dates back to the Venetian Republic in the 15th Century. Kotor was passed back and forth between the Venetians, Ottomans, Italians, Austro-Hungarians, Yugoslavians and Serbians before coming part of an independent Montenegro in 2006.

Visiting Kotor is an easy day trip from Dubrovnik and there are many organized tours which leave daily. When visiting, leave plenty of time to climb the mountain behind the city which is the location of many churches and monasteries. Budget at least 2 hours to go up and mountain and back.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #236: Old Bridge Area of the Old City of Mostar

Posted by on May 4, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #236: Old Bridge Area of the Old City of Mostar

UNESCO World Heritage Site #236: Old Bridge Area of the Old City of Mostar

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Old Bridge area of the Old City of Mostar, with its exceptional multicultural (pre-Ottoman, eastern Ottoman, Mediterranean and western European) architectural features, and satisfactory interrelationship with the landscape, is an outstanding example of a multicultural urban settlement. The qualities of the site’s construction, after the extremely ravaging war damage and the subsequent works of renewal, have been confirmed by detailed scientific investigations. These have provided proof of exceptionally high technical refinement in the skill and quality of the ancient constructions, particularly of the Old Bridge. Of special significance is the Radoboija stream, which enters the Neretva on its right bank. This provided a source of water for the growing settlement, and from it springs a number of small canals used for irrigation and for driving the wheels of water-mills.

There has been human settlement on the Neretva between the Hum Hill and the Velez Mountain since prehistory, as witnessed by discoveries of fortified enceintes and cemeteries. Evidence of Roman occupation comes from beneath the present town.

Little is known of Mostar in the medieval period, although the Christian basilicas of late antiquity continued in use. The name of Mostar is first mentioned in a document of 1474, taking its name from the bridge-keepers (mostari ); this refers to the existence of a wooden bridge from the market town on the left bank of the river which was used by soldiers, traders, and other travellers. At this time it was the seat of a kadiluk (district with a regional judge). Because it was on the trade route between the Adriatic and the mineral-rich regions of central Bosnia, the settlement spread to the right bank of the river. It became the leading town in the Sanjak of Herzegovina and, with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks from the east, the centre of Turkish rule.

The town was fortified between 1520 and 1566, and the bridge was rebuilt in stone. The second half of the 16th century and the early decades of the 17th century were the most important period in the development of Mostar. Religious and public buildings were constructed, concentrated on the left bank of the river, in a religious complex. At the same time many private and commercial buildings, organized in distinct quarters, known as mahalas (residential) and the bazaar, were erected.

The old bridge in Mostar is actually not that old. At least the current incarnation of it is not. Originally built in 1557 under the administration of the Ottoman Empire, it was destroyed by Bosnian Croat forces in November 1993 during shelling of the town. The Bosnian Croat forces later admitted that they purposely targeted the bridge for destruction because they felt it was of strategic importance. (After the way, experts testified that the bridge wasn’t strategically important. The bridge was attacked because of its cultural significance.)

In 1998 UNESCO helped in the recreation of bridge which was completed in 2004, with the bridge being listed as a World Heritage Site in 2005.

The scars from the Bosnian War can still be seen in Mostar. Bullet holes can be seen in many buildings and a few still remain gutted. Although there is peace, the city is still divided between Croats and Muslims, a situation which is unlikely to change anytime soon.

I visited Mostar on a day trip from Dubrovnik, which is probably the easiest way to visit the city. There are tours leaving Dubrovnik daily.