The beautiful mosaics of Hisham’s palace
I visited this Umayyad palace with my children recently and my daughter and I made a five minutes informative YouTube video of our visit. I decided to produce an episode about this beautifully renovated archaeological site. Often the tourism focuses only on the sites that are related to the Biblical history but there are other really beautiful places from other eras that are overlooked, underrated. Hisham’s palace is absolutely worth visiting, especially if you love history and archaeology. And with this week’s podcast story, you will have all the important background knowledge. Check out the YouTube video so you can see what I am talking about!
This is the transcript of the podcast episode so you can read along:
Hisham’s Palace and the mosaics were very recently renovated and the mosaics are now covered and protected by a special shield and that’s why there has been quite a lot of attention for the place, even from the world media, because the mosaics are one of the largest mosaic carpets in such a good shape, in the world. The mosaics cover an area of about 900 square meters.
The Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry was supported financially by Japan, not only to renovate the palace and mosaics but also to protect it from the sun and the rain, although rain is sporadic in the Jordan Valley, but when it rains it can come down in flash floods, like we saw this week!
But before we dive into the mosaics, let’s talk about the palace itself. Who built it, when was it built and why was it built in the middle of the desert?
Let’s start with when it was discovered! It was rediscovered in the late 19th century. They discovered the ruins about 2 kilometers north of Jericho.
The first excavations were carried out between 1935 and 1948 and they were done by the Palestinian Department of Antiquities under the direction of Palestinian archaeologist Dimitri Baramki and the British archaeologist called Robert Hamilton.
Dimitri Baramki found an inscription with the name of Hisham. And Hisham was the son of Abdel Malik ibn Marwan, the one who built the Dome of the Rock.
So after this finding the palace was attributed to Hisham ibn Abdel Malik and dated to the period of his reign as a caliph which was between 724 to 743 AD. And the ruins of the palace were named Hisham’s Palace after him.
After more and more excavations and research was done, there are scholars who believe that Hisham was too modest and too religious to have built such a big and highly decorated palace and their theory is that Hisham started building it but his nephew who was his heir and became the caliph after his death, that he was the one who embellished the palace and made it to be such a magnificent building.
These caliphs, Hisham and his father Abdel Malik and his nephew El Walid and several others of the time frame between 661 and 750 AD were called the Umayyads, they formed the Umayyad dynasty.
And just a few words about the Umayyads:
In the pre-Islamic period, they were a prominent clan of the Quraysh tribe of Mecca. They are named after the foudner of the clan whose name was Umayya ibn Abd Shams.
Originally this clan opposed the message of prophet Muhamad but eventually they embraced Islam before the death of prophet Mohamed in 632.
After the death of prophet Mohamad there were four caliphs who are called the rightly guided caliphs, in Arabic that is the Rashidun. The Rashidun were Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali
From the Ummaya clan there was a governor called Mu’awiya who fought the first muslim civil war in 661 and he established the Umayyad caliphate. The capital was in Damascus. He ruled over the entire Islamic world at that time. And this was the first time in the history of islam that there was a dynasty. Giving the rights to be caliph from father to son.
So this is in very short about the Umayyads. And the Umayyads were famous builders. The Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa mosque are great examples of that.
What they also built in that era and Hisham’s Palace is the best example of that in Palestine, is that they built the famous ‘desert palaces’.
Desert palaces have also been found in today’s Syria and Jordan
But we will focus on the palace in Jericho.
The desert palaces, what were they used for? Why did they build in the desert?
Well, first of all, the palaces all have a big central court yard with rooms around them where not only the caliph and his family could stay but where they could also host guests. There was a big reception hall where they could receive people, guests. A bath house with the same system as we know from Roman time, the cold room, the warm room and the hot room, with an underground heating system called hypocaust. And the palaces also had a mosque or prayer hall to carry out the religious prayers.
We can consider these palaces as retreats. As a winter palace where they would escape to in winter time, where they could escape the busy city life and where they could enjoy some luxury in peace and quiet.
But that was not the only reason why these palaces were built. The excavators found that the palaces also served as agricultural estates. They had water systems that brought in water from springs to irrigate the estate and to grow crops. At Hisham’s palace they brought the water from Wadi Nueima from the two springs Ain Deuk and Ain Nueima. These are springs at the foot of Jabal Quruntul or better known now as the Mount of Temptation. I explained in a previous podcast about Jericho that the Arabic name Quruntul comes from the Latin name Quaranta, that the Crusaders gave to this mountain because they believed this was the mountain where Jesus spent 40 days in the desert when he was tempted by the devil.
So the water was brought to Hisham’s Palace through an irrigation system, through channels and stored in a large plastered reservoir.
They also found a very large grape press. I am not sure if they drank only grape juice and made dibis with the grapes or if the Umayyads did wine production, which doesn’t seem likely if they were religious Muslims.
But they also used the palace to receive the leaders of the local nomadic tribes in the area. There were many Bedouin tribes that had their own flock and their own lifestyle and territory and they were known to regularly attack and rob towns and villages and travelers. So in order to appease the tribal leaders and make deals with them, they would invite them to these palaces and create friendly relationships.
When you want to visit Hisham’s Palace you have to realize that it is quite a bit out of the town center. If you love walking then I think you can walk there in less than half an hour, but it’s often very hot in Jericho, at least 10 degrees warmer than in Jerusalem, so make sure you don’t want to do that on a hot summer day. You can get a taxi from the city center.
The entrance fee to the park is about 10 shekels and then you can watch a very informative video in the information center and I advice you to do that, it is about 10 minutes and it shows you a virtual reconstruction of the palace so that you will much better understand what the palace probably looked like when you walk between the ruins.
We started, after the video, by entering into the courtyard area. This open area was surrounded by four arcaded galleries , probably the ground floor had stables for horses, storage and room for servants, while the second floor was for the guests. When you walk in the courtyard the main eye catcher is the rosette or star that is now exhibited in the middle of the courtyard. But once upon a time it was part of an upper window of the palace.
It fell down in the big earthquake of 749 which is called the Galilee earthquake, it destroyed many of the Umayyad buildings in the country, including the first Aqsa mosque, which was then rebuilt, but it seems that Hisham’s palace was not reconstructed. And that is most likely because a year later the Umayyad dynasty lost its power to the Abassid dynasty.
The Abassids DID keep on using the agricultural estate when they came to power and it was in use until around 950 AD.
The stone rosette that used to be part of a decorative window, was repaired by Palestinian masons and it has become one of the famous symbols of the city of Jericho.
From the central courtyard there is a stairs that goes down into a small room of about 30m2 that was used in the hot times of the day to find a cool room. It was called the sirdab and it has benches on the sides and a waterspout with fresh water so that the visitors could relax and cool down. The floor has beautifully renovated mosaics.
On the way to the big reception hall with the big mosaic carpets we pass by part of an old mosque. You can clearly recognize the mihrab, the prayer niche, that shows the direction towards Mecca, the direction towards which the Muslims have to pray. The prayer direction is called the qibla in Arabic.
And then you enter into the main hall, which is now covered for protection of the mosaics and you walk over ramps that lead you all around the hall at a height of about 2 to 3 meters above the mosaic floor. So you dont walk on the floor itself but you have full view of the mosaics.
The room itself is about 30 x 30 meters and it used to have a roof with vaults and domes of brick. These domes were supported by 16 big stone piers. They are 4 rows of 4 piers and they are renovated and standing upstraight to about 4 of 5 meters high I estimate. These would carry the ceiling or the roof.
The hall used to be decorated with very impressive stucco work, with stone reliefs and statues. Many of these can now be seen in the Rockefeller museum in East Jerusalem. The Rockefeller Museum was the first Palestinian Archaeological Museum in Palestine. It originates from the late Ottoman time and became more organized in the British Mandate period and was then named after the philanthropist Rockefeller who gave a lot of money towards the museum.
The great audience hall also had painted frescoes and a long pool on its southern side.
It is interesting to see that the influence for the decoration program in the palace seems to have been a mixture of influence from the Sassanians / Persians on the one hand and typical Byzantine decorative motifs on the other hand. Another interesting aspect is that there was a great use of floral and animal figures but also human figures. This is something we don’t usually see in Islamic art that usually consists of non figurative art.
The floor mosaics in the audience hall are actually all non figurative.
So now let’s talk about the mosaics. What are mosaics? Here is the definition of mosaics: a picture or pattern that is produced by arranging together small colored pieces of hard material, such as stone, tile or glass.
In Palestine they found mosaics dating back as early as the Hellenistic period, which is the 3rd and 2nd century before Christ. Most famous are the Byzantine time mosaics. They are found all over Palestine in excavations especially in houses that belonged to rich people, villas, in synagogues, in churches and also in public buildings. They were still used in early Islamic period especially during the time of the Umayyads but also after the Abassids and Fatimids used mosaics, for floors but also for wall decoration. Beautiful examples of that have been found in Ramla, the only city that was created under the early Islamic Arab rule. I spoke about that in a previous episode, the guided tour from Jerusalem to Jaffa. It was actually the brother of Hisham, Suleiman, who built Ramla city. And there is another ruin of an Umayyad palace that is now nominated to be on UNESCO’s world heritage list which is Khirbet el Minya in the Galilee. It is on the north west side of the Lake of Galilee, before you reach Tabgha you will pass it, it is inside a National Park and it is not well preserved. It is one of the strong examples where the Israeli authorities do not care about archaeological sites when they do not have a direct link with the Jewish history.
But coming back to the mosaics in Hishams palace. It is estimated that there are in total about 5 million pieces of tesserae, small pieces of stones, used in the mosaic carpets.
The floor has 38 different mosaic carpets. Each one is decorated with geometric shapes and in the middle of the hall is an incredible circle shaped mosaic that seems to be moving in circles.
The main colors that are used are red, brown, pink, grey and blueish and two distinct shades of white. The red stone was brought from near Jerusalem. The pink stone from Bethlehem. The white from Hebron and the darker black stone from near the Nabi Musa shrine.
It is believed by scholars that the 38 mosaic panels were reflecting the way the ceiling was constructed with circular mosaics under the domes and squared mosaic panels separating between them.
If you are really interested in a more detailed description and visuals of the mosaic then I would like to refer you to an article that was published by Dr Hamdan Taha and Donald Whitcomb (link in the shownotes)
The most beautiful mosaic, in my humble opinion, and the most famous, is the mosaic on the wall, not on the floor, of the diwan. The diwan was the special guestroom of the caliph, where he would receive visitors privately.
Here we see the tree of life in the middle with fruits that look like oranges. On its left there are two gazelles grazing peacefully. On the right side we see a lion attacking another gazelle.
This is often explained as the symbol of good and evil. Other scholars think that the caliph had a message for his visitors, if you are nice with me then you will live in peace, but don’t you dare to oppose me because then you know what will happen to you!!
But I read a very interesting article by Doris Behrens Abu Seif and I will include the link in the shownotes. In this article, in short, she has another and more romantic explanation of the mosaic.
She first emphasizes that it is the only mosaic in the palace that has a depiction of animals and a tree. This means that it was not a coincidence, there was a deeper meaning, a message. She reminds us that caliph Al Walid, who came after Hisham and was the one who embellished the palace and probably had this room and this mosaic made, was known as a playboy, an eccentric man. He was also an athlete and a hunter. And he used to write poetry. And in his poetry he would describe women as gazelles. In her interpretation the lion would represent him, Al Walid, hunting for gazelles, symbolizing his playboy character. She also draws our attention to the gazelle that is being attacked and she compares it to other depictions of similar scenes of the conquering lion that has been used since ancient times. In those known images the lion would be fighting with a more sizable animal, usually a bull or at least a deer of the same size as the lion, to make it appear that the combat was between two equal powers. And another big difference with other depictions of hunting scenes is that the attacked animal is alone and looks frightened and is trying to run for its life. In this image in the diwan we see two gazelles that don’t seem to be the least frightened by the lion. I would like to quote from her paper and read from a poem that El Walid wrote in which the hunter becomes the lover.
(QUOTE page 5 https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/388/1/Lion-Gazelle_mosaic.pdf)
I really enjoyed this interpretation and I LOVE the mosaic. If you are curious, just watch the video that Louisa and I made and you can see it for yourself!
Right next to the diwan you can see the remains of the bathhouse. Bath houses used to have different rooms to move between cold, warm and hot temperature and there was a space to get a good scrub or a massage. The rooms were heated by an underground heating system. It began with an entrance called a frigidarium ( I think you can recognize the word fridge in there!) The warm rooms were called tepidaria, there were two warm rooms and the hot rooms with steam heating were the caldaria. There were two furnaces for heating and a communal latrine.
After passing this section you leave the covered, protected area and you are back outside to the northern side of the palace. This was where the Umayyads first built an agricultural estate with a very large grape press. After the earthquake the Abassids did not rebuilt the palace but they added a new elite residence on the northern side and there was a small mosque, houses for the servants and farmers and stables for the horses. You can walk around the area and see the wine press and the excavated houses.
The water for the palace and agricultural estate came from five kilometers to the West and the channel crosses the valley, the wadi in Arabic, at two different points over arched bridges and then were led to a large reservoir. The abundance of water perhaps gave the name to the site: Mafjar, in Arabic it is called the ruins of Mafjar, Khirbet Mafjar, meaning the flowing water.
And with that said, we finished the tour around Khirbet Mafjar or Hisham’s palace in Jericho. I invite you to go to the YouTube channel and watch our five minutes video! You will enjoy it after listening to this episode. You can find the link in the shownotes.