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If you’re not ready for it, you might miss the squat QUSAYR AMRA, beside the Amman–Azraq road 15km east of Kharana. Qusayr is the diminutive of qasr, meaning “little castle” (the building is also often called “Qasr Amra”). A small bath-house, Amra was built to capitalize on the waters of the Wadi Butm, named after the butm (wild pistachio) trees which still form a ribbon of fertility winding through the desert, now arbitrarily cleft by the highway. A short walk in the wadi-bed beyond Amra can transport you within minutes into total silence among the trees.

Amra was where the Umayyad caliphs came to let their hair down, far from prying eyes in Damascus. Probably built between 711 and 715 by Caliph Walid I, it is unmissable for the frescoes covering its interior walls. Joyously human, vivid and detailed, they stand in stark contrast to the windswept emptiness of the desert, and feature an earthly paradise of luscious fruits and vines, naked women, cupids, musicians, hunters and the kings of conquered lands. The first Islamic edict ordering the destruction of images came from one of Walid’s successors, when Amra’s frescoes were just five years old, but for some reason they were overlooked and have managed to survive 1300 years of fire and graffiti.

The Visitor Centre includes an interpretation room, with good information about the building and its history. As you approach, what you see first is the water supply system – a cistern, well and saqiya, or turning circle (an ox or a donkey went round and round this circle to draw up water).

The central aisle and arches

The main door opens southwards into the main hall, which is divided into three aisles; facing you at the back is a small suite of rooms probably reserved for the caliph. At first sight, the frescoes are disappointingly sparse, scratched with graffiti and – after the brightness of the desert sun – almost invisible. But if you wait a few minutes to let your eyes adjust, the frescoes become much easier to see, and much more rewarding to linger over.

On the sides of the arches facing you, setting the tone of the place, are a topless woman holding up a fish [e on our map] and a nude female dancer welcoming visitors [f]. Above the entrance is a woman on a bed [a], with figures by her side, a pensive woman reclining with a winged angel [b] and a female flautist, a male lute-player and a dancer [c], with another nude woman [d]. The central aisle that you’re standing in mostly has real or fantasized scenes from court life: aside from women, there are horsemen, archers and people sitting and talking [g].

The west aisle

At the far end of the right-hand (west) aisle, a woman [o] reclines on a golden couch beneath an awning, with a male attendant and a woman seated on the ground nearby; at the head of the couch is a bearded man who pops up in many of the murals and who, archeologists have surmised, might have been in charge of the bath-house. Above the figures are two peacocks and a Greek inscription referring to victory. Below is what looks like a walled city, and below that, a decorative geometric pattern runs at eye level around the room. Near the corner – and difficult to make out – are six kings [p], all conquered by Walid: the Byzantine emperor, the last Visigothic king of Spain, the Persian emperor, the king of Abyssinia and two others, now obscured (the king of India, the emperor of China or the Turkish khan). Next to them is a strikingly clear nude female bather [q], surrounded by onlookers, one of whom is the bearded man; he’s also watching male gymnastics [r]. Above, wild asses, their ears pricked, are being driven into nets. Round near the entrance are some grapes and fragments showing curled toes [s].

The throne room

If the suite at the back – sometimes called the throne room – has not been closed off, you can see the leopards [j] and fruit trees [k] decorating the side walls. On either side of where the throne might have stood are male and female figures – one, very pregnant, representing fertility [l]. Dominating the back wall is a seated king [h], possibly Walid; two attendants with fans or fly-whisks keep him happy and there’s a frieze of partridges around his head. On either side are what were presumably royal withdrawing rooms, with mosaic floors [m] and murals of fat grapes, giant pomegranates, acanthus leaves and peaches or heart-shaped fruit [n].

The east aisle

Back in the main hall the east aisle has, near the entrance, a large leaf design [t] beside hunters killing and butchering asses inside huge nets [u]. The whole of the east wall is devoted to a hunting scene of saluki hounds chasing and capturing asses [v]. At the far end are the muses of History and Philosophy [w], alongside Poetry [x]. Dominating this aisle, though, are everyday scenes overhead, depicting metalworkers, carpenters, blacksmiths, hod-carriers and jolly working camels.

The baths

The door in the east wall leads into the baths, which show a more intimate style of decoration, probably the work of a different artist. The first room is thought to have been a changing room (apodyterium) or a cool room (frigidarium), originally floored in marble with benches on two sides. Above the door is a reclining woman, gazed on by a stubbled admirer and a cupid [A]. The south wall has a sequence of little figures in a diamond pattern, including a monkey [B] applauding a bear playing the lute [C]. Opposite the door is a woman with a very 1960s hairdo [D]; next to her are a flautist [E] and a female dancer [F]. On the ceiling overhead, blackened by smoke, is a fine sequence showing the three ages of man, with the penetrating gaze of the same man in his 20s, 40s and 60s. Next door is a tepidarium, with a plunge pool and a hypocaust system to allow warm air to circulate beneath the floor and up flues in the wall. Beside the door is a tableau of three nude women [G], one of them holding a child; if you follow the picture round to the right, a woman is pouring water [H] and is about to bathe the child [J].

The last room, a domed steam room, or caldarium, is next to the furnace; the holes in the wall all around supported marble wall slabs, and there are a couple of plunge pools. Above is the earliest surviving representation of the zodiac on a spherical surface [K]. Dead ahead you can easily identify Sagittarius, the centaur, with the tail of Scorpio to the left. Ophiuchus the serpent-holder is above Scorpio and below an upside-down, club-wielding Hercules. From Scorpio, follow the red band left to Gemini, the twins, and Orion. The whole map is centred on the North Star; just to the left of it is the Great Bear. Above and at right angles is the Little Bear, and twisting between the two is Draco, the snake. Just to the right, Cepheus is shrugging his shoulders, next to Andromeda with outspread arms. Cygnus the swan is just by Andromeda’s left hand.

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