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From the World Heritage inscription for Quseir Amra:
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 to 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. Quseir 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 Quseir 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.
Quseir Amra is approximately a one hour drive from Amman. Most visitors will not be visiting Quseir Amra as the primary destination, but rather as part of a day-long trip to several desert castles between Amman and Azraq. Quseir Amra is small enough that it can probably be experienced in 30 minutes, including the small visitor center.
Quseir Amra is a cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site in Jordan. It was inscribed in 1985 and is located in the Zarqa Governorate. The site is a desert castle that was built in 743 AD by Walid Ibn Yazid. This desert castle was built at the time when the dominance of the region was on the rise. This desert castle is recognized as one of the best examples of early Islamic architecture and art. Hence, it was added to the UNESCO list in order to preserve it as a cultural and historic emblem.
There were inscriptions that were discovered on the castle in 2012. This has facilitated in a more accurate dating of this structure to help researchers understand exactly how long this structure has existed.
About Quseir Amra
Quseir Amra is an early 8th century Umayyad structure or desert castle. It is best known for the well-preserved paintings and frescoes on its walls. The desert castle is located at a remarkably remote location in Amman, Jordan. This has therefore somewhat contributed to the excellent state of preservation of this structure. Aside from the structure itself, the frescoes are prized as it provides a glimpse into how the Byzantine and Islamic cultures combine to form unique art and architecture.
The Quseir Amra consists of triple arches and small domes that serve as some of the structure’s most compelling features. It also consists of triple-vaulted ceiling. These ornamentations of the structure serve to stand out in a rocky desert. Even though Quseir Amra seems isolated, it is not the only structure of its kind in the area. In fact, there are many other desert castles along the caravan route from Damascus and Mecca, which is the Islamic holy city.
The term Quseir Amra literally means ‘small palace of Amra’. It was built from 723 to 743. It served as the pleasure palace for Walid ibn Yazid who had commissioned for this palace to be built – an escape from the city life. Aside from Yazid, it was also used as retreat for the caliph or the princes. The interior frescoes at the desert castle provide a glimpse into the life of the earlier times in the region. These frescoes depict hunting scenes, portraits of rulers, map by the northern hemisphere sky, zodiac signs, fruits, musicians, bathing nude women, and more.
How to Get Here
To get to Quseir Amra, you can travel to Amman, Jordan. There are several international and domestic flights that fly to Amman, Jordan. From this city, you must drive for one hour east via Highway 40.
There are half-day or single-day trips available at this UNESCO site. These trips come with English-speaking tour guides. The site is open from 8 AM to 5 PM.
View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Jordan.
View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.