Qusayr ‘Amra, located 85 kilometers to the east of Amman, is a small residence discovered by the Czech traveler Alois Musil in 1898. It dates to the Umayyad period and for many years was thought to have been built during the reign of Caliph Walid I (705-715). An inscription discovered in spring 2012, however, revealed that the building was commissioned Walid Ibn Yazid sometime between 723 and 743, before his short reign as caliph (743-44).
The building's plan consists of a rectangular audience hall, a bath complex, and hydraulic structures. The main hall has three rooms along its south side. The baths are located on the east side of the main hall and are connected to a water tank. Qusayr ‘Amra was placed on the World Heritage List in 1985, due to its extensive cycle of mural paintings, which are unique and represent hunting and dancing scenes, as well as craftsmen at work. The calidarium ceiling illustrates constellations and zodiac signs and is the earliest surviving example of representations of heaven on a hemispherical surface. The wall paintings represent the transition between Byzantine culture and the new Islamic era. The painting that represents the “six kings” is perhaps the most famous, depicting the Umayyad ruler with the Byzantine emperor, the Sassanian King, the emperor of China, the Visigothic king of Spain, and the king of Abyssinia.
How We Helped
Following Qusayr ’Amra’s inclusion on the 2008 Watch, WMF coordinated with the Italian Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro and the Department of Antiquities of Jordan to assess the site’s conditions and to implement a pilot project for the conservation of the building’s exterior and of its mural paintings. In spring 2009 two missions were conducted and samples of the exterior mortars and of those below the paint layers were analyzed in Italy. In 2010, two more missions were conducted to complete the sampling and the analyses of pigments and of the products applied on the surface of the paintings in previous conservation efforts.
In January 2011 the conservation team provided training to Jordanian conservators in lime mortar preparation, wall conservation, and mural painting conservation techniques. An international workshop was conducted in February to discuss the various aspects of the project and to present to the scientific community the findings of the laboratory analyses. Two field campaigns followed, in spring and fall of the same year, to conduct high-resolution photography using normal, infrared, and ultraviolet light, in order to provide a record of the building’s condition before the conservation intervention. The photography was also used to conduct a thermal analysis of the building in order to identify the positions of stone blocks under painted layers with the hope of identifying the causes of detachments of these layers from the walls. Other activities included consolidating the exterior of the building, where the base of the walls and the top of the vaults showed substantial loss of mortar, which was resulting in dangerous water infiltration. A preparation of lime mortar was applied, using a formula close to the original Umayyad mortars. New windows and coverings on ceiling openings were installed to prevent water and animals from getting into the building. (Broken windows and glass covers were one of the primary reasons for water and pests penetrating the building and causing substantial damage to the paintings.)
Inside, a team of Italian conservators painstakingly removed thick layers of shellac from the surface of one of the mural paintings. This material was applied in the 1970s as a protective layer after years of soot and grime had been removed, residue from centuries of use of the building as a shelter and burial place by the local Bedouin tribes. The shellac had degraded, leaving only a shiny yellowish hue on the paintings, which also suffered from the impermeability of this substance, causing the detachments of the paint layers from their base. The deep cleaning conducted during this test revealed not only a rich color palette where blue, orange, red, and yellow prevail, but also previously unknown details, which are bound to change the interpretation of the painting and our understanding of U
mayyad art. Conservation of the exterior and further work on the mural paintings inside is scheduled to continue in 2013.
The project is raising the interest of many scholars and organizations that have conducted studies on the building and its art, and collaborations have been established with the Ecole Normale Supérieure and the CNRS in France, the Institut Français du Proche Orient (IFPO) in Jordan, the Spanish Archaeological mission in Jordan, the Pergamon Museum and the Rathgen laboratories in Berlin, Germany, as well as with a number of institutions holding early images of Qusayr ’Amra, which have generously provided the use of these historic photographs for study purposes.
The project is also studying the context of the building, since this was not an isolated structure in the Jordanian badiya (steppe), but part of a complex that included a qasr (castle), now in ruins, and several ancillary structures, including two deep wells (saqiyya) and perhaps a paradeisos, a garden irrigated by the waters of the nearby wadi through a system of dams and canals. This complex lies outside of the boundaries of the World Heritage site, and is at risk from modern development and looting. A site management plan will be prepared to address these issues and better secure the archaeological context of site while. At the same time efforts will be made to improve the visitor experience through better public presentation and work will be done to reduce the constant threat of vandalism and graffiti.
A new grant from the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation announced October 2013 will allow for the conservation of paintings in the apodyterium.
Why It Matters
This monument is one of four World Heritage sites in Jordan. Its mural paintings are an extraordinary and unparalleled example of early Islamic art, and a window into the life of a society in transition. The problems it faces are typical of many sites in the Middle East, especially as they concern maintenance issues, crowd control, and site presentation.