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Hisham’s Palace/ Khirbet al- Mafjar

Date of Submission: 20/10/2020
Criteria: (i)(ii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Palestine to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Governorate of Jericho and Al Aghwar, Jericho
Coordinates: E 35.27.59715 N 31.52.93762 (UTM-36N)
Ref.: 6546
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Description

Hisham’s Palace/ Khirbet al- Mafjar is one of the most significant early Islamic sites in Palestine. It was built between 724 and 743 AD during the Umayyad period, the first Islamic dynasty. The property is located on the northern bank of Wadi Nueima, approximately 4km north of Jericho city (Ariha) in the Jordan Valley. On the basis of epigraphic materials, archaeologists have concluded that the site was most likely built by Caliph Hisham bin Abd el-Malik (r. 724 to 743 AD), and later decorated by his heir, el-Walid II, between 743 and 744 AD. The site was not the official residence of the caliph, but was instead used as a winter resort. It was destroyed during a severe earthquake in 749 AD. The Northern Area of the site, known as day’a, served as an agricultural estate from the Umayyad to Abbasid periods, approximately 730 to 950 AD.

The first excavations at the site were carried out between 1935 and 1948 by the Palestinian Department of Antiquities (Mandatory Palestine), under the direction of Dimitri Baramki, with assistance from Robert Hamilton. The excavation uncovered a significant part of the palace complex. Excavations were then conducted in the Northern Area during the 1960s, but unfortunately the results were never published. In December 2006, a small-scale excavation was carried out inside the bath area. Between 2011 and 2015, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the University of Chicago conducted new archaeological excavations and a re-assessment of the site.

During the Umayyad period, the site was comprised of a palace, an audience hall with a thermal bath, a mosque, a monumental fountain within a perimeter wall, two main gates, and likely an elite residence. The first three principal buildings were arranged along the west side of a common forecourt, with a pool covered by a pavilion at its centre.

The palace was a two-story square building with round towers at its corners. The entrance to the palace was through a vaulted passage, lined with benches on both sides. It was designed around a central courtyard that was enclosed by four arcaded galleries. The arrangement of the rooms suggests that it was used for guests, servants, and storage. The focus of the palace opposite the entrance was the rosette (or star) window, that was found in the main court by the excavators. This star is now a famous symbol of Jericho. 

A small mosque with a mihrab was found on the south side of the site. Stairs on two opposite corners of the courtyard granted access to the second floor, which, as the evidence indicates, housed the living quarters. A stairway leading to an antechamber in the western gallery of the central courtyard led to an underground vaulted room, sirdab, which included a waterspout, benches, and a mosaic floor. The common mosque was attached to the northern wall of the palace with a niche mihrab. The mosque was designed as a rectangular structure.

The great audience hall is located north of the palace. The great treasure of this hall was a pavement approximately 30 x 30m in size and consisting of 38 colourful mosaic carpets. The building once supported a series of vaults and domes. The vaulting system was built using brick and rested on sixteen massive stone piers, in four rows. This building was decorated with carved stucco, stone reliefs, and statues. Its upper walls displayed painted frescoes and a long pool was added along its southern side. The Caliph’s statue stood above the main entrance. The Caliph himself probably sat in the recess at the far end of the hall. A thermal bath was added to the north side. It began with an entrance room called a frigidarium. The main bath complex included two warm rooms (tepidaria), two hot rooms with steam heating (caldaria), two furnaces, and a communal latrine. This kind of bath (hammam) was a typical community structure of Byzantine and early Islamic towns.

At the northwest corner of the reception hall is the diwan, a small guest room, with an apsidal raised platform at the northernmost end of the chamber. The room included benches on both sides. The walls and dome were richly decorated with stucco panels and columns. The floor of the diwan was paved with fine mosaics, including the world famous scene of the tree of life.

The Northern Area of Hisham’s Palace was first built during the Umayyad period (in the beginning of the eighth century) as an agricultural estate. Its agricultural activities are indicated by a very large grape press. An elite residence was added during the Abbasid period (750–950 AD), indicated by a small mosque, houses, and stables for horses.

The palace was supplied with water through an open channel from the Ein Deuk and Ein Nueima springs at the foot of Mount Quruntul, five kilometres to the west. The channel crossed the wadi at two different points over arched bridges and led to a large reservoir located some distance from the palace.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Hisham’s Palace/ Khirbet al- Mafjar, is one of the most significant symbols of Outstanding Universal Value in early Islamic cultural heritage in Palestine and worldwide with an exceptionally well-preserved palace comprised of spectacular secular architecture and decorative arts, including mosaic floors, stucco, sculpture, frescos, and carved stone. It shows a considerable development in architectural and artistic talent during the early Islamic era, and reflects the Umayyad’s luxurious standard of living and their political and tribal power. In decorative terms, the palace gathered the most exquisite forms of architectural décor, from polychrome mosaic floors, frescos, and marble to stucco decorated walls and geometric and vegetal representation. This décor was derived from a unique style, a curious combination of Byzantine traditions with strong Sasanian influences, making it a significant, outstanding example of the development of secular early Islamic architecture and arts and its ability to synthesize native design elements with imported ones; Coptic, Roman, and Sassanid designs were integrated with native Islamic elements. Hisham’s Palace also represents a unique example of the depiction of humans and animals in Umayyad decorative art that reflects the secular art of the time.

The most exceptional feature of this property is the bathhouse complex. It is one of the largest Islamic baths ever built, housing one of the largest early Islamic mosaic floors in the world (about 900 square meters in size). The floor is decorated with thirty-eight different mosaic carpets. Its walls were covered with stucco panels and human figures, making it the most attractive feature at the site. The diwan, however, is the most lavishly decorated room, not only among the those in the bathhouse but of all palace components; its walls were decorated with stucco and the floor was paved with a wonderful fine polychrome mosaic, known as the “tree of life”, containing the scene of a lion pouncing upon two unsuspecting gazelles grazing under a tree. This carpet with all of its components is a unique piece of mosaic works with no parallel example in any Roman-Byzantine or even Umayyad carpet. It is a world masterpiece of mosaics art.

Criterion (i): Hisham’s Palace/ Khirbet al- Mafjar represents a high quality of artistic and technological achievements of the Early Islamic architecture and decorative arts in its successful utilization of Roman, Byzantine, Coptic and Sassanid arts and architectural elements to create a new distinctive identity of Umayyad  arts and architecture. This new style is demonstrated chiefly by its mosaic floors, stuccoworks, and carved stones. In terms of architectural monuments and decorative art, Hisham’s Palace/ Khirbet al Mafjar has the largest Islamic bathhouse complex ever built. Its pavilion is also a unique structure among Umayyad desert palaces in great Syria (Bilad al-Sham). No similar structure has been discovered in any other Umayyad buildings and no model of it has been discovered in pre-Islamic architecture. Its audience hall houses the largest coloured mosaic floor (ca. 900-meters squared), most beautiful with 38 carpets designed and seven different patterns of numerous variations, and well preserved Early Islamic mosaic floor found to date. The well-known panel of “the Tree of Life”, depicting an orange/ pomegranate tree with two gazelles (Arab Maha), which might symbolizes good and evil and/ or peace,” dar al-islam”, and war, “dar al-harb”, is a masterpiece of the Early Islamic art indicating the peak of architectural and artistic talent of Umayyad luxury and its sophisticated tastes. 

Criterion (ii): Hisham’s Palace/ Khirbet al- Mafjar, exhibits an outstanding testament to distinct cultural interchange between Islamic, Byzantine, Sasanian, and Coptic traditions and influences in architecture and monumental arts. The works illustrate cultural interactions, and the influence of precedent civilizations on the development of Early Islamic architecture and art. It impressively demonstrates the remarkable ability of Early Islamic art to synthesize native design elements with imported ones, creating a new identity and module of the Umayyad artistic and architectural styles that appeared in the site’s architectural design, craftsmanship and decorative art. In other words,  Hisham’s Palace/ Khirbet al Mafjar demonstrates how the West met the East,  and how Roman, Byzantine, Coptic and Sassanid arts and architectural styles continued to be utilized and employed in the Early Islamic period  to create a fantastic integration of  new creative  schools of art and architecture.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Khirbat al-Mafjar / Hisham’s Palace is an outstanding example of authentic early Islamic architecture and art. It demonstrates Umayyad luxury and the dynasty’s highly sophisticated artistic taste. As per the Palestinian law on Tangible Cultural Heritage (No. 11, 2018), the property is managed by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in close cooperation with the Municipality of Jericho and the local community. The site is located in a seismic area. It was destroyed in a severe earthquake in 749 AD. However, it gained a particular significance due to its exceptionally well-preserved remains. Its mosaics, considered as some of the most intact found to date, have been well maintained since their discovery in the 1930s. The property has been the object of many conservation and reconstruction interventions since its discovery in the 1930s. During the Jordanian time —especially during the 1950s—most of its main features were reconstructed using the same building materials found during excavations or with similar material to the originals.  However, some monuments were reconstructed from new modern materials (concrete), such as the pillars of the bathhouse in 1960s.

As the site was built from sandstone walls and its floors paved with mosaic works and flagstones, its features are generally fragile and vulnerable to both anthropic and atmospheric deterioration agents, such as winds, high temperatures, and adverse tourist behaviours, especially by school students.  

Since 1994, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has conducted a set of conservation and valorisation projects at the property in cooperation with the Franciscan School in Jerusalem, the Italian Cooperation, UNESCO, and USAID, with an aim of preserving and valorising the site to be an archaeological park.  However, the extensive, highly significant mosaic floor of the bathhouse is not presented to visitors and is still covered with a layer of soil as a protection measure. From 2002 to 2010, several failed attempts were undertaken to establish a protection shelter above the mosaic. Nonetheless, a new protection shelter project, funded by the government of Japan through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) , began in 2015 and is currently being implemented. It is based on lessons learnt from previous attempts and international conservation standards and through engagement of a multidisciplinary team and community participation. This project aims to achieve both protection and exhibition of the mosaics through the creation of a shelter above the mosaics and the surrounding remains (covering cir. 2500m2), and also by constructing a visitor trail around the mosaic floor.

The significant attributes of the Outstanding Universal Value of the property remain intact, including the palace, mosque, bath, audience hall, residential (service) quarter, water system, and their setting. Few Umayyad qusur, or desert palace complexes, exhibit such a level of integrity for this type of architecture and decoration as does Hisham’s Palace/ Khirbet al- Mafjar. The environs of the property are protected by a buffer zone indicated on the regulation plan of the Jericho Municipality. 

Comparison with other similar properties

The Umayyad palaces (circa 38 palaces), also known as Umayyad desert palaces (qusur sahrawiyya), built during the early Islamic period, are spread throughout Greater Syria (Bilad al-Sham): Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. They were primarily rural settlements that often incorporated a bathhouse, residential areas, a mosque, an irrigation system that could sustain agricultural activities, and sometimes other facilities such as a Khan. With the use of stone and brick, and mosaic and carved stucco, the palaces marry Byzantine and Sassanian influences in their decoration and building materials. They were commissioned by the princes of the Umayyad Caliphate, who would in turn become Caliphs, and thus these estates might have provided a meeting point to maintain political connections with tribal communities. Notable palaces are the Quseir Amra (Jordan c. 715), Qasr al Hayr West (Syria 724 and 727), Qasr al-Kharanah (Jordan 711), Khirbet al-Mafjar/ Hisham’s Palace (Palestine 743-744), and Meshatta (Jordan 743-744). In these palaces, the Umayyad demonstrated considerable architectural and decorative talent. In terms of design, the builders developed a complex layout containing audience halls, baths, domestic apartments for both males and females, mosques, courtyards, stables, and garden enclosures, reflecting their luxurious standard of living and their political and tribal power.

Despite similarities in materials and techniques used, as well as in the composition and style of the details in Umayyad desert palaces, Hisham’s Palace/ Khirbet al- Mafjar is the richest among all Umayyad palaces. The lavish decorations, including mosaics, sculpture, frescos, and stucco decorations, are not confined to the palace, as is the case with other Umayyad palaces, but also appear in equal quality and quantity in the bathhouse and the pavilion. The dizzying array of colours and patterns in the audience hall’s mosaic floor features 38 different scenes in 21 colours with figural art unique to the Umayyad period; at about 900 square meters, this is one of the largest mosaic floors in the world. 

In most Umayyad palaces, great attention was devoted to the decoration of the entrance’s façade. At Mshatta, the decoration of the Palace’s façade is notably superior to those of the interior units. At Hisham’s Palace/ Khirbet al- Mafjar and Qasr al-Hyr West, for example, the balustrades of the galleries that surround the structure at the top of the second floor and the grills of the windows were also richly ornamented. The entrance and reception rooms in the two complexes were also important foci of decoration, but the general composition of these units at Qasr al Hayr West is not as ambitious as that of Khirbat al-Mafjar. 

Qusier Amra (Jordan) was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1985 according to criteria (i, ii, and iii). Although the two properties are associated with the same era, Hisham’s Palace/ Khirbet al- Mafjar has several distinctive peculiarities in terms of size, architecture and artistic richness. The Outstanding Universal Value of Quseir Amra is primarily based on its paintings and frescos, which were unique artistic achievements during the Umayyad period. However, the Outstanding Universal Value of Hisham’s Palace/  Khirbet al- Mafjar is more diverse and   based more on the quality and quantity of the spectacular Umayyad architecture and decorative arts, including its mosaic floors, stucco, sculpture, frescos, and carved stones.

As a result, Hisham’s Palace/ Khirbet al- Mafjar remains one of the most highly sophisticated Umayyad palaces in the region for its elaborate mosaics, stucco carvings, and overall sculptural magnificence, making it an exceptional example of the development of secular early Islamic architecture and arts and its ability to synthesize native design elements with imported ones. The mosaic floors at Khirbat al-Mafjar present an outstanding example of early Islamic art. Despite the discovery of many mosaic works at similar Umayyad sites, none may duplicate the embellishment of Hisham’s Palace/ Khirbet al- Mafjar. The intricate pavements that covered in the vast audience hall, the diwan, and sirdab, each carpeted with bright colour patterns, are considered an unparalleled outstanding example of this unique form of art. All of the above exceptional cultural traits strongly justify the Outstanding Universal Value of the property for inscription on the World Heritage List.