South (rear) view, from highway

Qasr Amra

 The best-known of the desert castles located in present-day eastern Jordan

It was built early in the 8th century, sometime between 723 and 743, by Walid Ibn Yazid, the future Umayyad caliph Walid II, whose dominance of the region was rising at the time.

It is considered one of the most important examples of early Islamic art and architecture. The discovery of an inscription during work in 2012 has allowed for more accurate dating of the structure.

 East (front) elevation and portion of south side of Qusayr Amra, Jordan

East (front) elevation and portion of south side of Qusayr Amra, Jordan

The building is actually the remnant of a larger complex that included an actual castle, of which only the foundation remains.

What stands today is a small country cabin, meant as a royal retreat, without any military function.

It is most notable for the frescoes that remain on the ceilings inside, which depict hunting, naked women and, above one bath chamber, an accurate representation of the zodiac.

Naked woman

Naked woman

These have led to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of four in the country.

That status, and its location along Jordan’s major east-west highway, relatively close to Amman, have made it a frequent tourist destination.

Building

It is a low building made from limestone and basalt. The northern block, two stories high, features a triple-vaulted ceiling over the main entrance on the east facade. The western wings feature smaller vaults or domes.

Apodyterium fresco

Apodyterium fresco

Traces of stone walls used to enclose the site suggest it was part of a 25-hectare (62-acre) complex; there are remains of a castle which could have temporarily housed a garrison of soldiers. Just to the southeast of the building is a well 40 metres (130 ft) deep, and traces of the animal-driven lifting mechanism and a dam have been found as well.

Today, Qasr Amra is in a poorer condition than the other desert castles such as Qasr Kharana, with graffiti damaging some frescoes. However, conservation work is underway supported by World Monuments Fund, the Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro, and Jordan’s Department of Antiquities.

History

One of the six kings depicted is King Roderick of Spain, whose short reign dates the image, and possibly the building, to around 710. For a long time archaeologists believed that sitting caliph Walid I was the builder and primary user of Qusayr Amra, but recently doubts have been cast. Now it is believed more likely that one of two princes who later became caliph themselves, Walid II or Yazid III, are more likely candidates for that role.

South (rear) view, from highway

South (rear) view, from highway

Both spent long periods of time away from Damascus, the Umayyad seat, before assuming the throne. Walid was known to indulge in the sort of sybaritic activities depicted on the frescoes, particularly sitting on the edge of pools listening to music or poetry. One time he was entertained by performers dressed as stars and constellations, suggesting a connection to the sky painting in the caldarium. Yazid’s mother was a Persian princess, suggesting a familiarity with that culture, and he too was known for similar pleasure-seeking.

The abandoned structure was re-discovered by Alois Musil in 1898, with the frescoes made famous in drawings by an Austrian artist named Mielich for Musil’s book. In the late 1970s a Spanish team restored the frescoes. The castle was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 under criteria i), iii), and iv) (“masterpiece of human creative genius”, “unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition” and “an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history”).

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Photos

Zodiac painting on caldarium dome

Useful Information

Qasr Amra
Arabic: قصر عمرة‎
Translit: Qaṣr ‘Amrah
often Quseir Amra or Qusayr Amra

Status

UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Location

Qasr Amra is located on the north side of Jordan's Highway 40, roughly 85 kilometres (53 mi) from Amman and 21 kilometres (13 mi) southwest of Al-Azraq. It is currently within a large area fenced off in barbed wire.

An unpaved parking lot is located at the southeast corner, just off the road. A small visitor's center collects admission fees. The castle is located in the west of the enclosed area, below a small rise.

Frescoes

Qusayr Amra is most notable for the frescoes on the inside walls. The main entry vault has scenes of hunting, fruit and wine consumption, and naked women. Some of the animals shown are not abundant in the region but were more commonly found in Persia, suggesting some influence from that area. One surface depicts the construction of the building. Near the base of one wall a haloed king is shown on a throne. An adjoining section, now in Berlin's Pergamon Museum, shows attendants as well as a boat in waters abundant with fish and fowl.

An image known as the "six kings" depicts the caliph with the rulers of neighbouring powers—the Byzantine Emperor, the Visigothic king Roderic, the Sassanid Persian Shah, the Negus of Ethiopia and two others who are unidentified, possibly a Khazar or Turkic khagan and an Indian raja. Its intent was unclear until conservators in the late 1970s discovered the Greek word "NHKH", or nike, meaning victory, nearby. It was concluded that the "six kings" image was meant to suggest the caliph's supremacy over his enemies.

The apodyterium, or changing room, is decorated with scenes of animals engaging in human activities, particularly performing music. One ambiguous image has an angel gazing down on a shrouded human form. It has often been thought to be a death scene, but some other interpretations have suggested the shroud covers a pair of lovers. Three blackened faces on the ceiling have been thought to represent the stages of life. Christians in the area believe the middle figure is Jesus Christ.

On the walls and ceiling of the tepidarium, or warm bath, are scenes of plants and trees similar to those in the mosaic at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. They are interspersed with naked females in various poses, some bathing a child. The caldarium or hot bath's hemispheric dome has a representation of the heavens in which the zodiac is depicted, among 35 separate identifiable constellations.

It is believed to be the earliest image of the night sky painted on anything other than a flat surface. The radii emerge not from the dome's center but, accurately, from the north celestial pole. The angle of the zodiac is depicted accurately as well. The only error discernible in the surviving artwork is the counterclockwise order of the stars, which suggests the image was copied from one on a flat surface.

The frescoes in all rooms but the caldarium reflect the advice of contemporary Arab physicians. They believed that baths drained the spirits of the bathers, and that to revive "the three vital principles in the body, the animal, the spiritual and the natural," the bath's walls should be covered with pictures of activities like hunting, of lovers, and of gardens and palm trees.