A few kilometers north of Jericho, at more than 12,000 years old one of the oldest cities in the world, lie the ruins of a palace with the largest and most artistically accomplished mosaic floor to survive from the ancient world. Composed of 38 intricate panels covering a space over 30 by 30 meters square, the mosaics of the audience hall and bath at Khirbat al-Mafjar (“Ruins of Flowing Waters”; also called “Qasr Hisham” or “Hisham’s Palace”) are masterpieces of early Islamic artistic design.
Dating from the first half of the eighth century, the time of the Umayyad caliphate, about a century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the patterns are mostly abstract, but a few use pictorial elements. Drawing from both Byzantine and Sasanian (Persian) traditions, the artists at Khirbat al-Mafjar created a new, exuberant esthetic of intricate geometric and floral motifs. Many are based on infinitely repeatable patterns, a technique that later came to be characteristic of geometric art across the Islamic world; others are based on textile arts and fresco painting.
Until recently, few of these patterns had been published. In 2010 the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage uncovered, cleaned and assessed the state of conservation of these mosaics. The floor was comprehensively photographed for the first time. A small museum opened last year, in partnership with the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.
The ruins at Khirbat al-Mafjar were discovered in 1894 and first excavated in the 1930s and ’40s by the Palestinian Department of Antiquities under Dimitri Baramki and Robert Hamilton. Baramki identified the patron of the site as Umayyad Caliph Hisham ibn ‘Abd al-Malik, who ruled from 724 until 743 ce. This elaborate complex stood for only a few years, however, until the audience hall and bath were largely ruined by an earthquake in 131 ah (748 or 749 ce). In the 1950s and ’60s, further archeological work and some restoration were carried out under Jordanian rule, but the site was abandoned under Israeli occupation from 1967 to 1994. Beginning in 1996 the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage revived conservation and archeological efforts.
In addition to the audience hall, Khirbat al-Mafjar included within its 60-hectare complex a large, two-story palace, a multi-room bath, a mosque, a monumental fountain, a perimeter wall and residences. It served as an occasional winter residence for the caliph, and it was part of an array of such palaces (qusur) throughout Syria, Jordan and Palestine that served variously as caravan stations, royal or elite residences, trading posts and security outposts. Like Khirbat al-Mafjar, many developed irrigation systems that allowed them to continue as agricultural estates.
Among its ruins, the audience hall and bath of Khirbat al-Mafjar is the best-preserved and the most striking monument. The exterior walls have 11 semicircular mosaic-tiled apses (or exedra); these half-domed structures echo the interior’s larger and higher domes supported by 16 massive piers. This structure is unique for late Byzantine and early Islamic architecture. The walls and apses were richly covered with carved stone and stucco panels—the earliest known use of stucco in the region—and there may well have been panels of glass mosaics as well.
While the earliest examples of mosaics found in the Jericho region date to the Hellenistic, early Roman and Byzantine periods, the art of mosaic flourished particularly during the Umayyad period. Some of the finest Umayyad wall mosaics, sometimes made of glass tesserae, survive in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque in Damascus. Khirbat al-Mafjar shows that the mosaic tradition continued with white mosaic paving into the subsequent Abbasid and Fatimid periods.
The entire floor of the audience hall is paved with colored mosaics. The carpets—as the floor panels are called—divide the hall into circular and rectangular spaces that appear to reflect the architectural superstructure, especially the majestic circular carpet under the central dome. It is likely that the hall served several purposes, from an audience or reception area (majlis) to a room for social events, including musical performances, to an extravagant frigidarium, or cool room, attached to the smaller heated rooms of the bath along its north wall.
Although many Umayyad mosaics are now known in the region, none surpass the mastery of art and craft at Khirbat al-Mafjar. Here, brilliant colors were woven into common motifs to fuse into a new fashion, one that was complemented by no-less-intricate wall coverings of colored stone and stucco carvings in paneled surfaces, columns and other architectural elements; above, there is evidence of painted frescos on upper floors.
When photography, film and conservation studies of the floor were completed, the mosaics were covered with Geotextile and sand for conservation until a permanent, protective shelter can be built over them. Meanwhile, excavations and research continue at other places in the Khirbat al-Mafjar complex. It is hoped that with suitable protection and conservation, the mosaics may one day be uncovered for public viewing, making Khirbat al-Mafjar a prime destination for tourists and historians.