The Palace in the Desert

Last year, the restored mosaics of the lavish audience hall and bathhouse of Hisham’s Palace near Jericho were opened to the public. Marie-Louise Winbladh explores the early Islamic art that embellished this Umayyad winter resort, built not by Hisham, but by his nephew al-Walid.


Like a mirage, the ruins of a palace adorned with one of the largest mosaic panels in the world emerge in the middle of the desert. Known as Hisham’s Palace, the site at Khirbat al-Mafjar, about 5km north of the West Bank city of Jericho, is one of more than 20 remaining so-called ‘desert castles’ in the Middle East, and an important example of early Islamic art and architecture. On the floors of the vast audience hall and bathing facility, mosaics shimmer in the brightest colours, seemingly intact after almost 1,500 years.

First discovered in 1894, the building complex had been attributed to Caliph Hisham bin Abed al-Malik (r. AD 724-743), based on epigraphic materials, but today it is believed that his heir and nephew al-Walid II (r. AD 743-744) constructed the palace, about a century after the prophet Muhammad’s death. Hisham and al-Walid were members of the Umayyad dynasty, which was founded in 661 and ruled a major caliphate until it was overthrown by the Abbasids in 750. Khirbat al-Mafjar served as a winter residence for the caliph, and was just one of several palaces (qusur) throughout Syria, Jordan, and Palestine, where they also constituted trading posts and security outposts of the great Umayyad empire.

The ‘Tree of Life’ mosaic in the Umayyad diwan at Khirbat al-Mafjar near Jericho, also known as Hisham’s Palace. It is the only figurative mosaic at the desert castle site. IMAGE: Dreamstime.

The building complex, constructed of sandstone and brick, is composed of a palace, a thermal bath and reception hall, a mosque, and a monumental fountain, all enclosed by a surrounding wall. A two-storey square building with round towers at the corners constituted the palace proper. People entered through a vaulted passage, lined with benches on both sides. It was planned around a central courtyard that was enclosed by four arcaded galleries. Outside, archaeologists found a large Umayyad grape press, which suggests that the palace also served as an agricultural estate. Altogether, the site forms a spectacular example of early Arab architecture, with its rich mosaics (including the largest and most accomplished mosaic floor of early Islamic design), stucco decoration, and high-quality sculpture. Yet except for the bathhouse, the complex was never completed. A severe earthquake destroyed the impressive audience hall and baths around AD 749. In the Abbasid period (AD 750-950), though, the site was reoccupied with the construction of an elite house in the northern area.

The Palestinian Department of Antiquities excavated at Khirbat al-Mafjar between 1935 and 1948 under the direction of Dimitri Baramki and Robert Hamilton. After Jericho was transferred to the Palestinian Authority in 1994, a large restoration programme was then carried out by the Palestinian Department of Antiquities on the site, in cooperation with UNESCO, Italian Cooperation, the American Near East Refugee Aid, and the United States Agency for International Development. A new site museum opened in May 2014, designed to display the history and archaeology of the Umayyad palace and its associated agricultural estate. The archaeological park includes a mosaic laboratory, too. In its latest phase of life, following restoration work carried out with funding from Japan, the palace area was opened to the public in October 2021, with a new canopy built over the mosaics to provide protection from the elements.

A vibrant panel of the audience hall with a complicated design of interlocking shapes. IMAGE: courtesy of the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage of Palestine.

Mosaics have existed in Palestine for over 2,000 years. Examples have been found from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the Byzantine period, and the early Islamic period, but also from the era of Crusaders and Mamluks later on. Though there was a long-standing mosaic tradition, at Hisham’s Palace artisans created a new aesthetic with intricate geometric motifs as well as plant designs. The patterns are abstract, most probably based on textile art and fresco painting. This is in keeping with other Islamic architecture and art, which is characterised by abstract features and some elements built on Persian and Greek traditions. Artists used tiles of coloured limestone brought in from around the region – black stone from the area south of Jericho, red from Jerusalem, white from Hebron, and pink from Bethlehem.

These beautiful mosaics – the most famous part of Khirbat al-Mafjar – embellish the floors of a large bath or hammam in the northern part of the palace complex. The building consisted of a domed porch on the east, a domed reception hall (also known as the frigidarium, as it was initially interpreted by Hamilton), a series of small bathing rooms, the diwan (a small guest room) and the sirdab (underground vaulted room), and a latrine. The bathhouse has Roman models, and similarly made use of hot air from small furnaces transported via underfloor hypocausts to provide the bath-loving visitors with hot water and sauna heating. Water was brought in from two springs at the foot of a mountain, 8km to the west, through an open channel, which fed a large reservoir some distance from the palace.

To enter the reception hall, the main feature of this building, 8th-century visitors would step through a projecting porch, which was richly adorned with stucco floral motifs and representations of athletes, half-naked women, gazelles, and sheep. The elaborate stucco ornamentation draws from Sasanian (Persian) motifs. Underfoot, just past the doorway, was an ornamented lozenge shape rendered in mosaic, which has been interpreted as a symbol of welcome. A central niche was intended for a stucco statue of Caliph al-Walid, who is depicted with black eyes, covered with golden brown hair, and standing above a pair of lions. Brick vaulting resting on 16 massive stone piers covered the building. A massive stone star in a window that has become the symbol of the city of Jericho was found in the hall.

A rich patchwork of 38 rectangular and circular mosaic panels in a large variety of geometric patterns, floral motifs, and interlacing designs still adorns the hall’s roughly 30m by 30m floor. Mosaics in bright reds and pinks radiate outward from the central mosaic in a basket-like design of interlocking triangles encircled by a ribbon. This central mosaic ‘carpet’ is circular, corresponding to the shape of the central dome that once surmounted it. Other circular panels were possibly covered by domes as well.

Stucco sculpture of a female figure that once decorated the palace. IMAGE: courtesy of the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage of Palestine.

Apses surround the main area – three on each side, apart from the eastern wall where there are two flanking the entranceway. Each is carpeted in mosaic. The apse directly opposite the entrance, in the centre of the west wall, features a basket design similar to the central circular panel that people would pass over to reach it. There is also an interesting, small composition containing a knife, yellow etrog (also known as citron, a lemon-like citrus fruit), and a sprout. This motif, found in churches and synagogues of the same period, is a symbol of fertility.

Beside the reception hall, four small rooms were found. Two were unheated, while two furnaces, whose pipes were concealed in the thick walls, heated the other rooms. At the north-west corner of the hall is the diwan, a small guest room with a ceremonial function. It was furnished with an apsidal raised platform at the northern end of the chamber and intricate stucco decoration. Benches built into the walls on both sides were covered with mosaics featuring diamonds. The space probably served as a reception room (majlis) for guests or businessmen, as well as for musical events. There the caliph was able to meet his advisors in a more secluded atmosphere, where they rested on soft pillows with a glass of tea. Researchers believe that the luxurious bath with its opulent embellishments is an expression of Caliph al-Walid’s taste for abundance. Some even suggest that he surrounded himself with ladies in the alcove, intoxicated by alcohol and poetry.

On the raised floor of the semi-circular apse lay the renowned ‘Tree of Life’ mosaic, the most famous of the Umayyads’ mosaics. The motif goes back to Roman and Byzantine models but has here been given an exceptional design, expertly executed with detailed colours and shading. Under a fruit tree bearing apples or quince, two gazelles graze peacefully, but on the right a lion attacks a fleeing gazelle. The foliage of the tree seems to grow on both sides from two vertical parallel trunks connected by a smaller branch. Knotted fringes all around the scene help give the impression that this is meant to be a carpet.

It is the only mosaic panel in the palace adorned with figures, hinting at its great symbolic significance. The lion can be read as a metaphor for the caliph. In Arabic and other literature, the animal is a symbol of strength and courage. It also symbolises royalty. Further, the theme of the ‘conquering lion’ is a very old one, seen in ancient Mesopotamia and Iran as early as the proto-Elamite art of north-western Iran around 3100-2700 BC. Intriguingly, the scene in this mosaic may suggest that the lion is not as dangerous as he first appears. Here, the pursued gazelle is accompanied by two others who do not seem at all disturbed by the lion’s presence. In all the earlier representations, the prey stands alone against the lion.

The ‘conquering lion’ could also represent the male, while the graceful gazelle stands for the female. The most striking feature of the animal is its delicate and elegant form, and, in Arabic culture, the gazelle or antelope is a symbol of female beauty. In one poem composed by al-Walid, the caliph pursues an antelope but stops short of killing it when it turns to look at him and reminds him of Salma, his beloved and wife. Because of this similarity, al-Walid lets his prey go.

An ornate stone star window found at the site. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons/Randa Fawzi [CC by SA 4.0].

So, who exactly was this poet and caliph al-Walid, the possible patron of the palace? At the time of Caliph Hisham’s death, al-Walid II took over the caliphate for only 11 months between AD 743 and 744. Caliph Hisham, however, had done everything to prevent al-Walid from reaching power at all, since he had become increasingly dissatisfied with his nephew’s passion for poetry and sex. Hisham rebuked al-Walid for his alcohol abuse, reduced his funds, and urged him to be more respectful of religious issues.

Al-Walid was very unpopular among the Umayyad elite, who criticised his degenerate living. He had many of his relatives imprisoned, and he was immediately met with resistance because he had the Umayyads who had been against his coronation executed. But al-Walid was immensely popular with his subjects and loved by the masses. His generosity had no limits. He emptied the public treasury and distributed large sums to those in need, further upsetting the elite.

Al-Walid was known for his extravagant lifestyle and is described as something of a playboy, more interested in the arts than in political issues. He spent his time mostly in the desert palaces, where he liked to surround himself with poets, musicians, and dancers. He was a poet of great talent himself, and had a significant impact on the style of Arab poetry. Poetry at that time was often sung, and al-Walid’s dedication to poetry was complemented by his passion for and skill in music. Marwan ibn Abi Hafsa – a famous Arabic poet at the court of the Abbasid Caliphate during the second half of the 8th century, and thus the only contemporary witness that we have – recounts that al-Walid was one of the most beautiful, powerful, and poetic of people.

The caliph was murdered at the age of 35, a consequence of his excessive lifestyle, according to some historians. The course of the event was described by Ibn Kathir, a Muslim theologian and historian from 14th-century Syria. He writes about the revolt when the Umayyad rebels, led by the more pious Yazid ibn al-Walid ibn ‘Abd al-Malik, reached al-Walid: ‘They accused him of disbelief and the one who was most aggressive in his accusations was Yazid ibn al-Walid ibn ‘Abd al-Malik to whom the people spoke because of his piety and humility, and he used to say, “We will never settle for al-Walid until we have killed him.”’

The ‘basket-weave’ mosaic at the centre of the hall is one of the most complex designs known from the period. At the centre is a circular marble drain cover. IMAGE: courtesy of the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage of Palestine.

Another Muslim historian who wrote about al-Walid was Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (AD 839–923), who also was a religious scholar and commentator on the Qur’an. His annals are considered the most important source for the early history of Islam. In volume 26, al-Tabari recounts that Caliph al-Walid shouted at his antagonist when Yazid’s army arrived: ‘Have I not increased your pensions? Haven’t I lowered onerous taxes for you? Have I not bestowed the poor with gifts?’

General ibn ‘Anbasa answered him: ‘We have nothing personal against you. We are only against you for violating God’s holy prohibition by drinking wine.’

Al-Tabari tells us that despite the caliph’s criticised lifestyle, spending the nights drinking wine and writing poetry, he still – according to one visitor – performed the five daily prayers in public and began his first cup of wine only after he had performed the night prayer.

According to his biographers, then, the luxurious bath hall seems to have been an appropriate stage for the exuberant life of al-Walid, which eventually led to his assassination. Despite this bleak legacy, however, he is regarded as a poet of some note, known for his innovative poems paying tribute to wine and love.

Although the mosaics at the Khirbat al-Mafjar are the most exquisite, other noteworthy mosaics of great beauty have been found in the wider area. Two mosaics in the western part of Roman Palestine, both dating from the end of the 3rd or very early 4th century AD, were discovered comparatively recently. One comes from a Roman home and the other from a Christian hall, but their proximity in place and time can help illustrate the diffusion of religious beliefs and symbols.

The apse directly opposite the entrance to the hall features a similar basket-weave design to the central circular panel, as well as a small composition with etrog and knife. IMAGE: courtesy of the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage of Palestine.

The so-called ‘Lod Mosaic’ was discovered in 1996 in a large Roman villa from the late 3rd to early 4th century. It was excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the city of Lod (ancient Lydda), south-east of Tel Aviv. The colourful mosaic depicts ships, many different fish, birds, and a selection of exotic land animals like elephants, giraffes, and lions (also including scenes of big cats attacking deer, goats, and antelopes). As some of the creatures depicted are found in North Africa, but not near Lod, it has been suggested that the mosaic was created by North African artists. The luxurious villa with its rich mosaics could signal that its owner was a wealthy merchant. A further mosaic at the Lod site found in 2009 and excavated in 2014 includes a representation of two doves perched on a krater, which may be a Christian symbol of peace.

The other mosaics were excavated at the site of a Christian hall dedicated to worship at Kfar ‘Othnay. Here, in the largest of the panels, two fish appear in a roundel, while at the side Greek text reveals that a Roman centurion paid for the mosaic from his private resources. Another panel has two Greek inscriptions: one asks that four Christian women be remembered; the other records that a God-loving woman by the name of Akeptous presented an altar to God Jesus Christ.

Elsewhere, the remains of a 6th-century AD synagogue have been disclosed at Shahwan House, located in Tell el-Jurn. The building consists of two rows of square pillars dividing its rectangular plan into a nave with two aisles. Its floor was decorated with a large floor mosaic featuring a stylised floral and geometric design.

Study of the technique of the mosaics at Hisham’s Palace shows that it differs from some other sites, including the Shahwan House synagogue, the Deuk synagogue near Jericho, and the Byzantine monastery of Deir Abu Ghanam. Instead of a stone-based foundation, the mosaic layer at Khirbat al-Mafjar topped four layers of limestone mortar, ashy mortar, and foundations consisting of ash mixed with pebbles and sand, and – about 30cm below the surface – of earth mixed with stones and sherds of pottery, all lending extra stability.

While al-Walid’s chance to enjoy his winter palace was short- lived, and the bathhouse and audience hall were soon destroyed by an earthquake, the floors that survive are a stunning showcase of early Islamic design and the rich tradition of mosaic art in the region. Now open to the public, they offer visitors a glimpse of the desert site’s brief former glory.

Further reading
Hamdan Taha and Donald Whitcomb (2015) The Mosaics of Khirbet el-Mafjar: Hisham’s Palace, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
Doris Behrens-Abouseif (1997) ‘The Lion-Gazelle Mosaic at Khirbat al-Mafjar’, Muqarnas 14: 11-18.