In the dusty Balqa region of eastern Jordan there sits a modest structure of roughly hewn stone, set until the early part of the 20th century amidst a charming grove of terebinth and pistachio trees. Now starkly surrounded by gravel, dust, and a visitor’s center, the building appears unusual unless you are familiar with the type (Figures 1 & 2). It consists of a large hall, some fourteen by ten and a half meters, capped by three longitudinal barrel vaults (Figure 3 & 4). Directly off this hall at a right angle are three more, significantly smaller rooms, with an additional room beyond the last, only accessible from the outside. The second and third rooms beyond the hall have deep depressions in their floors. Beyond its construction, which is clearly designed for a specific purpose, the feature of this building that has attracted the attention of scholars, from its first discovery for the West by the colorful adventurer/academic Alois Musil in 1896, is its vibrant wall paintings, 450 m2 of dancers, entertainers, mythological scenes, hunters, builders, naked women, and kings (Figures 5, 6, & 7).
This main building, and a modest courtyard constrution located nearby, as well as a series of smaller, hazily identified structures, is known as Quasyr ‘Amra. A ‘desert castle’ of the Umayyad Caliphs, the whole complex was thought to have been constructed sometime in the early 8th century CE for Walid II, who reigned for a single year (743-4), or possibly his father, Yazid II. The main building is a bathhouse, or hammam, and its architecture reflects the uses these structures would have had, and in some places still have, in the Islamic world. The main hall of the building is the central focus, and what functions as the primary undressing room in hammams today, in this example would have functioned as a sort of audience chamber. Entering to escape the heat of the day, visitors would have been able to greet the Caliph, sitting on a chair immediately opposite the entrance. A shallow depression in the floor was likely for a small reflecting pool, and directly opposite the entrance, above where the Caliph likely sat, is an image of the ruler himself. This main hall was also a place of relaxation and entertainment, and the riotous decoration reflects this, with personifications of Poetry and History, dancers, and other entertainers adorning the walls. Walid II was fond of poetry, and it is not too far a stretch to imagine him sitting with his entourage in this room and enjoying, or even partaking in, recitations.
The rooms directly off this main hall, at a right angle to provide privacy from the main entrance, are where the bathing took place. Bathhouses were originally borrowed from the Romans and Byzantines, but altered for Islamic practice. The Roman balnea, the small, private bathhouse, was chosen for adoption rather than the large, public thermae, with their gymnasiums, libraries, and other structures attached. The primary alteration made by the Muslims was the removal of the cold plunge pool, to be replaced with large tanks from which water was poured over the bather. This reflected the religious practices of wudu, or the minor ablutions performed before prayer. Ranging in size throughout the Islamic world, these public baths would have been distributed throughout cities in the Middle East and Africa, close to water works and within generally easy walking distance. Larger versions would have been available closer to Friday mosques. The main hall of these buildings functioned as important meeting place for business, social arrangements, and political discussions, and where they survive, still do.
At Quasyr ‘Amra as you leave the main hall you enter a small undressing room and the heat begins to intensify. The next room is a warm room, with a small plunge pool. Roman style hypocausts direct the warmth and steam under the floors of the rooms, drawn or directed by bellows from the large room at the end of the complex accessible only from the outside: the furnace. The last room accessible from within is the hot room, and here the heat and steam would have been stifling indeed. Two small apses are located at either end of the room, and these contained two small plunging pools for bathing and relaxation. Throughout these rooms colorful figural paintings stare down from eye level and above, with abstract decorations below.
Clearly at odds with what are generally perceived today to be blanket Islamic prohibitions against portraying human figures, these paintings display that the early rulers of the Muslim world took a somewhat more flexible approach. Reflecting Hellenistic styles and motifs, there is also a distinct Iranian element, and the overall program reflects the cultural milieu within which Early Islam developed and grew. Two paintings in particular have attracted scholarly attention: one an image of Dionysios discovering Ariadne asleep just over the doorway from the undressing room back into the main hall (sadly in poor shape today), and an image of six kings in a stance of supplication just to the right of the image of the Caliph (Figure 8, reconstructed). The first has been connected by Garth Fowden with a tragic personal event in the life of Walid II: the death of a lover, their union long frustrated by his uncle, the previous Caliph. In the image Dionysios takes on a grief stricken appearance, and Ariadne appears dead, rather than asleep, wrapped in a shroud and with a water jug nearby for washing the corpse. This is a sobering image for one traversing the privacy of the bath to the more public space of the reception hall. The other painting displays the Roman Emperor, the Sassanid King, the King of the Visigoths, and the King of Axum, as well as two unknown rulers, all approaching the Caliph with arms outstretched in supplication. In its ability to encapsulate the power that had come to the early Caliphate few images are better, and the painting draws the viewer, and the supplicant, into the gaze of the Caliph seated before you.
The complex is a pleasant retreat, and the tents of the Caliph and his retinue would have been pitched from time to time around this structure, with the courtyard allowing for meetings with local tribal leaders, and the nearby groves excellent hunting in the right seasons. Walid II was murdered in 744, and the complex was abandoned soon after, leading to the excellent preservation of the paintings and bathhouse in general. Only tourists and the desert wind visit the bathhouse these days, but it remains an important symbol of both the public and private lives of the Umayyad Caliphs, and the stunning cultural richness of early Islam and the Levant in the mid 8th century.
Fowden, G. (2004). Qusayr’Amra: Art and the Umayyad Elite in Late Antique Syria (Vol. 36). Berkeley, Univ of California Press.
-(2007) Greek Myth and Arabic Poetry at Qusayr ‘Amra. In Islamic Crosspollinations: Interactions in the Medieval Middle East, Edited by Anna Akasoy, James E. Montgomery and Peter E. Pormann. Exeter, EJW. Gibb Memorial Trust.
Sibley, M., & Jackson, I. (2012). The architecture of Islamic public baths of North Africa and the Middle East: an analysis of their internal spatial configurations. Architectural Research Quarterly, 16(02), 155-170.