Friday, September 25, 2009

The Qusayr 'Amra Hall

The hall known as Qusayr 'Amra is the most famous of the desert castles in Eastern Jordan, and one of the world's best relics of early Islamic art and architecture. It was built during the Umayyad Dynasty by the Caliph Walid I, most likely between the years 711 and 715. It is close to Amman off of Highway 41, and is a popular tourist destination. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is currently being restored. The site is important for Islamic history, and offers a surprising peek at European History.

This peek comes in the buildings famous murals, like the following:
Probably the most memorable fresco features bathing women. It is something of a surprise to see nudes in Islamic art. Actually, my sister, who lives in Morocco, was surprised to hear that images of humans were once common in Islamic art, including images of Muhammad. In this case, we should remember that the Qusayr 'Amra hall was not a religious building; it was probably a hunting lodge for the Caliph and his friends.

This image gives a nice idea of the people of the dynasty in the 8th century and how they lived.
Here is the dome. Note the signs of the zodiac. This was part of the intellectual milieu of the medieval era, although again, it is something of a surprise.
For me, the most interesting mural is the one known as the image of the six kings. The caliph is shown with other rulers of the time, who he is understood to have surpassed. Some suggest that this draws from a tradition in the ancient and medieval world of a family of kings. In several Persian sources, such as Ferdowsi, the kings of the world are all brothers. The Greek word for victory was found nearby, suggesting the caliph's supremacy. The Umayyad Dynasty is thus shown as the conqueror, but also the inheritor of the dynasties it conquered.

The first four figures in the painting are the Byzantium emperor, the Persian Shah, the Ethiopian Negus, and the Visigothic king, Roderick, confirmed through Greek and Arabic inscriptions superscribed over each leader. The last two are the Chinese Emperor and the Turkish Khan, who were not conquered by the Caliph.

The reason this is an interesting source for European History is that it is a nearly contemporary image of Roderick, the last Visigothic king, who was killed when the Muslims invaded Spain in 711. He died in either 711 or 712. The first written account of him appears in 741, but very little specific information remains. We know that he ruled parts of Iberia, it is believed that he was an usurper of some sort, and we know that he died. The story of his ill-fated passion for the beautiful La Cava is repeated in several Spanish myths, and is the basis for Handel's Rodrigo.

But this is the closest thing we have to a newspaper picture of Roderick.


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