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 (A.D. 705-715). An inscription discovered in the spring of 2012, however, revealed that the building was commissioned by Walid Ibn Yazid sometime between A.D. 723 and 743 before his short reign as caliph (A.D. 743-44).
The building's plan consists of a rectangular audience hall, a bath complex, and hydraulic structures. The baths are located on the east side of the main hall and connect to a water tank. Qusayr ‘Amra was placed on the World Heritage List in 1985 due to its extensive cycle of unique mural paintings. The murals depict hunting and dancing scenes as well as craftsmen at work, and represent the transition between Byzantine culture and the new Islamic era. The painting of the “six kings” is perhaps the most famous, and shows the Umayyad ruler with the Byzantine emperor, the Sassanian King, the emperor of China, the Visigothic king of Spain, and the king of Abyssinia. The calidarium ceiling illustrates constellations and zodiac signs and is the earliest surviving example of heaven represented on a hemispherical surface.
Conservation and proper management protect a World Heritage site
Following Qusayr ’Amra’s inclusion on the 2008 World Monuments Watch, we coordinated with the Italian Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro and Jordan’s Department of Antiquities to assess the site’s conditions and to implement a pilot project for the conservation of the building’s mural paintings and exterior. In 2009 and 2010 a total of four missions were conducted in order to sample the structure’s mortars and bring them to Italy for analysis. The pigments and the products applied on the surface of the paintings in previous conservation efforts were also analyzed. An international workshop was held in February 2011 to discuss the various aspects of the project and to present the findings of the laboratory work to the scientific community.
Two field campaigns followed in the spring and fall of the same year, during which high-resolution photographs were taken using normal, infrared, and ultraviolet light. The information collected provided a record of the building’s condition as well as a thermal analysis of its structure. Other activities included removing previously installed cement, consolidating the exterior of the building, applying fresh lime mortar, and installing new windows and coverings on ceiling openings in order to prevent water and animals from getting into the building. In December 2011 interpretation panels were installed at the site, and the spring of 2012 the Arabic inscriptions indicating the era of the building’s construction were discovered, studied and conserved. A harmful shellac applied to the murals in the 1970s was also removed, revealing a rich color palette and previously unknown details in the paintings. Conservation work continued in the spring of 2013 with the completion of the exterior’s restoration, the investigation and cleaning of the floor, the conservation and consolidation of the murals, and the undertaking of archaeological surveys. By the fall of the same year the topographical surveys and laser scanning modeling had been completed, the building’s floors had been restored, and the site’s boundaries had been defined with precision. A survey of the apodyterium, or the room where bathers changed their clothing, was also carried out. Its conservation, which included cleaning, restoration, and the removal of concrete and yellow tempera installed as part of harmful past interventions, was completed by the end of 2014. Between April and June of 2015 murals in the west aisle of the main hall were restored, and paint layers in the alcove rooms were consolidated and cleaned. In the fall of 2015 a painted mural under the west arch was restored. In summer 2018, conservation of the murals of Qusayr ‘Amra’s vault was completed. Twelve out of its 32 painted frames that showcase scenes of craftsmen at work, likely related to the process of the structure’s construction, were treated using the same methodology developed in previous work at the site.
Further aspects of the project included capacity building and the analysis of the site surrounding the residence. In January 2011 the conservation team provided instruction in lime mortar preparation and the conservation of walls and mural paintings to Jordanian masons and conservators, and in May 2013 50 Museum Studies undergraduate students were provided with an opportunity to take part in hands-on restoration work at Qusayr ’Amra. Between 2012 and January 2014 a management plan was created in order to address the conservation concerns related to the residence and the adjacent historic complex. The complex contains a Jordanian badiya or steppe, the ruins of a qasr or castle, and several ancillary structures including two deep wells called saqiyya and a paradeisos, or a garden irrigated by the waters of the nearby wadi through a system of dams and canals. The remains lie outside of the boundaries of the World Heritage site and are at risk from modern development and looting. They were studied in the fall of 2012, and the saqiyya were completely restored by June 2013. Goals for the site include the prevention of further vandalism and graffiti at the complex. The improvement of visitor experience is another objective, and to that end tourists were surveyed in 2012 and 2013. The responses gathered included statistical information about the visitors themselves and feedback on the site’s facilities and the quality of its presentation. In April 2016, ICCROM-ATHAR recognized the work of the teams involved in the undertaking as one of the 14 best conservation projects in the Arab world.
Qusayr ‘Amra 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 project continues to address problems faced by many sites in the Middle East including maintenance issues, crowd control, and site presentation.
New support enhances conservation
In February 2019, the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust announced $2 million total in funding to support preservation efforts at five WMF projects, including Qusayr ‘Amra. Funds will support the continued conservation of wall paintings in the east aisle of the main space of the bath house.