Jordan’s Qusayr Amra is a bathhouse for the noble

Friday 28/08/2015
A rear view of what appears to be a water well feeding Qusayr Amra, a bathtub used by the nobles.

Amman - The eastern desert of Jor­dan is an unforgiving landscape. Along the main road, there are few signs of life, yet through the desert silence, the winds speak softly of luxury.

Along the long and lonely High­way 40, roughly 85 kilometres from Amman and 21 kilometres south-west of the oasis town of Az­raq, there is a splendidly decorated bathhouse on the north side of the road.

Qasr Amra, often called Qusayr Amra, meaning “little castle”, is the best known of the desert castles in eastern Jordan and among the most spectacular examples of early Is­lamic art and architecture, a solitary monument attesting to the good life in this sun-scorched desert.

Qusayr Amra is one of several cas­tles, hunting lodges and fortresses built in the deserts of Syria and Jordan during the first half of the eighth century. Princes and their entourages escaped to the desert re­treats for safety and relaxation.

The bathhouse was built in the early eighth century to capitalise on the waters of the Wadi Butm, named after the butm, or wild pis­tachio trees, which even today give life to the desert, a place where the Umayyad caliphs and princes came to escape prying eyes in Damascus.

The discovery in 2012 of an in­scription during restoration work has allowed for more accurate dat­ing of the building of the structure to between 723 and 743, by Walid Ibn Yazid, whose dominance of the region was rising when he was still a prince and before he became Umayyad caliph Walid II.

The site seems to have been abandoned not long after Walid II’s death in 744 and forgotten within a decade after that as Abbasid revo­lutionaries swept the Umayyads from power. In 1898, Austrian artist Alphons Mielich rediscovered the abandoned structure and its fres­coes in drawings for a book by Alois Musil.

Built of sand-coloured lime­stone, Qusayr Amra has a low pro­file against the desert’s inhospita­ble surroundings. As the grounds of the bathhouse are approached, the first thing noticed is the water supply system — a cistern, well and animal-drawn turning circle used for pumping water. The building is what remains of a larger complex that included a castle, meant as a royal retreat and without military function.

A door on the western wall leads into an attached bath compound, once fed by rain water stored in an underground cistern and the Ro­man-style baths include a changing room, a warm room, a hot room and a domed chamber for housing fire­wood.

More significant than Qusayr Am­ra’s architecture is its interior deco­ration. Brightly coloured frescoes cover practically every centimetre of the walls and ceilings.

Its frescoes, restored by a Spanish team in the late 1970s, depict hunt­ing, naked women and an accurate representation of the zodiac that led to its designation in 1985 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of four in Jordan.

The frescoes in all rooms but the hot room reflect advice of contem­porary Arab physicians that baths drained the spirits of the bathers. The physicians recommended that the bath’s walls be covered with pic­tures of activities like hunting, lov­ers, gardens and palm trees so that the animal, the spiritual and the natural — the three principles of the body — could revive properly.

Qusayr Amra perfectly expresses Prince Walid’s alleged love of deca­dence and power with images of hunts demonstrating the prince’s skill and dominance. For Prince Walid, who also wanted to show­case his manliness, the hunt was both high sport and political thea­tre.

The main entry vault depicts hunting, animals, fruit and wine consumption and naked women. One surface depicts the construc­tion of the building. Near the base of one wall a haloed king is shown on a throne. An image known as the “Six Kings” depicts the caliph with the rulers of neighbouring powers and was meant to suggest the caliph’s supremacy over his enemies.

The changing room is adorned with scenes of animals doing hu­man activities, predominantly play­ing music.

Certain frescoes convey religious and political messages. One im­age has an angel gazing down on a shrouded human form. Three black­ened faces are thought to represent the stages of life. Christians believe the middle figure is that of Jesus.

On the walls and ceiling of the warm bath are scenes of plants and trees similar to those found in the mosaic at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus but with naked females in various poses scattered through­out.

The hot bath’s ceiling has a repre­sentation of the heavens in which the zodiac is depicted along with 35 identifiable constellations.

Indeed, for a bathhouse that once belonged to a Muslim prince, the imagery shows little regard for reli­gious prohibitions.

“The frescoes depict a mesh of conventional Greek, Roman, Per­sian, pagan and Christian ideologies that make up early Islamic art,” said Ingmar Armbrüster, a German tour­ist visiting the site, along with her husband.

“It is magnificent to see a struc­ture built over 1,300 years ago still having such beautiful paintings on its walls and ceilings. But too bad about the graffiti, which has ruined some of the décor,” she added, smil­ing about her wonderful vacation in Jordan.

The harsh climate, graffiti and numerous restoration efforts have diminished the liveliness of the paintings but their effect remains profound and the site remains a true work of art.