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Qusayr ‘Amra

Qusayr ‘Amra: Art and the Umayyad Elite in Late Antique Syria

Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 419
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  • Book Info
    Qusayr ‘Amra
    Book Description:

    From the stony desolation of Jordan's desert, it is but a step through a doorway into the bath house of the Qusayr 'Amra hunting lodge. Inside, multicolored frescoes depict scenes from courtly life and the hunt, along with musicians, dancing girls, and naked bathing women. The traveler is transported to the luxurious and erotic world of a mid-eighth-century Muslim Arab prince. For scholars, though, Qusayr 'Amra, probably painted in the 730s or 740s, has proved a mirage, its concreteness dissolved by doubts about date, patron, and meaning. This is the first book-length contextualization of the mysterious monument through a compelling analysis of its iconography and of the literary sources for the Umayyad period. It illuminates not only the way of life of the early Muslim elite but also the long afterglow of late antique Syria.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92960-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Maps and Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xxi-xxx)
  6. 1 Musil’s Fairy-Tale Castle
    (pp. 1-30)

    Early in the morning of 8 June 1898, the members of the beduin raiding party rose in silence and made ready. As the sun came up at 4:19 A.M., Shaykh Ṭalālb. al-Fāyiz sprang onto his riding camel. Though he said nothing, his men—some five hundred of them—had watched his every movement and mounted in unison. They set off northeastwards in a wide, thin line, sweeping the desert in line abreast.

    Almost four and a half hours later the raiders dismounted to take a rest. An old man on horseback and a younger figure riding a camel immediately broke...

  7. 2 Luxuries of the Bath
    (pp. 31-84)

    Perhaps because of its characteristic mix of black basalts and white limestones, the region that is bordered to the west by the valley of the Jordan River and extends from the Wādī ‘l-Zarqa or even Irbid in the north as far as the Wādī ’l-Mūjib in the south was recognized by Arabs of the Muslim period to possess some intrinsic coherence—they called it al-Balqa, “the piebald” (map 2).¹ Its waters drain either westwards into the Jordan or eastwards toward the Wādī Sirhān. Of these eastward-flowing watercourses, the Wādī ’l-Butum is one. Collectively, they discharge themselves into the inland drainage...

  8. 3 The Hunt
    (pp. 85-114)

    The same ode just quoted, Imrὐ al-Qays’sMu‘allaqa,begins with the following lines:

    Halt, friends both! Let us weep, recalling a love and a lodging

    by the rim of the twisted sands between al-Dakhūl and Hawmal,

    Tūdih and al-Miqrāt, whose trace is not yet effaced

    for all the spinning of the south winds and the northern blasts.¹

    Most modern analyses of the classical Arabic ode, theqasīda,divide it into three sections, with appeal to the authority of the ninth-century critic Ibn Qutayba—who actually mentions four.² First comes thedhikral-al-atlal,echoing Imrὐal-Qays’s evocation of an abandoned camping place and...

  9. 4 “O God, Bless the Amīr”
    (pp. 115-141)

    After the domesticity of Qusayr Ἁmra’s bathing scenes, and its studiously unheroic depictions of the hunt, the fresco of the prince enthroned in the alcove at the hall’s focal point allows a glimpse of that courtly splendor in which the Umayyads cloaked themselves, when they desired to show forth the caliphate’s full dignity. The sequence in which the paintings are discussed in the present book has so far been determined by a convenient ordering of the bath house functions (bathing, entertainment, hunting) to which they relate, and analogies drawn with the structure of the Arabic ode. But even within this...

  10. 5 The Princely Patron
    (pp. 142-174)

    Is it now possible to be more precise about the identity of the prince who is the subject of the genial portrait described in the last chapter?

    It has already been indicated that the inglorious collapse of the Umayyad dynasty and the coming of the Abbasids, in 750, marks a point after which it becomes less likely that a princely bath house would have been built in the Balqā͐.¹ Not that Jordan suddenly fell off the map in 750—indeed, Abbasid Jordan is becoming one of the new frontiers of Middle Eastern archaeology, thanks to revision of traditional periodizations triggered...

  11. 6 Maintaining the Dynasty
    (pp. 175-196)

    Although the prince occupies Qusayr Ἁmra’s focal point, on the back wall of the alcove, he is not the only enthroned figure depicted in the hall. No less immediately visible to visitors who enter through the main doorway is a large painting on the southern endwall of the west or right-hand aisle (fig. 50, 51).¹ Even when Musil and Mielich were at Qusayr Ἁmra, it was clear that this panel depicted a richly dressed woman reclining under an awning and flanked by two standing figures with two young persons to the right of her. Further details were revealed by the...

  12. 7 The Six Kings
    (pp. 197-226)

    Immediately to the right of the dynastic icon, and at right angles to it, in other words at the southern end of the west wall, are to be seen the degraded remains of the famous painting of the six kings (fig. 52, 53). Of all the frescoes, this one has attracted most attention since the publication of the Vienna Academy’s volumes in 1907. Several of the reviews that appeared shortly afterwards, by such as Carl Becker, Rudolf Brünnow, Max van Berchem, and Theodor Nöldeke, already contributed to the elucidation of the panel’s Arabic and Greek labels, and by extension to...

  13. 8 A Captive Sasanian Princess
    (pp. 227-247)

    Adjacent to the six kings and contrasting oddly with them, in the very center of the hall’s west wall, a tall and beautiful woman, almost entirely naked, stands in a bathing pool amidst an impressive architectural setting (fig.57).¹ Much better preserved than the six kings, and a more striking, focused composition than the acrobats in the third, right-hand panel on this wall, our painting now dominates the west aisle. But whereas part of the meaning of the six kings panel yields itself more or less at first glance, while even the more complex image of dynastic succession on the endwall...

  14. 9 Quṣayr Ἁmra Contextualized
    (pp. 248-290)

    Entering QuἉayr Ἁmra’s hall through the doorway in its northern wall, we find ourselves standing before the prince enthroned in his alcove, flanked by lines of courtiers framed in arcades (fig.8). The central aisle offers to our eyes a variety of images often arranged in pairs on opposite walls, and we have a sense of moving along a short processional way. Life-size human figures adorn the soffits of the arches that divide the hall into three aisles—we can still discern well the long-skirted, bare-breasted women on the east arch, who act as “supporters” of a portrait medallion now frustratingly...

  15. 10 Umayyad Self-Representation
    (pp. 291-324)

    If, as was argued in chapter 5, our bath house paintings do not occupy an eccentric position in the spectrum of Umayyad art, while the whole Wādī ’l-Buṭum complex can comfortably be contextualized within the set quṭūr (chapter 9), then Quṣayr Ἁmra may reasonably be treated as representative of late Umayyad court taste. To label its frescoes “private art”¹ is too limiting. Admittedly al-Walīd, for one, was not unaware of the existence and indeed usefulness of the public/private distinction.² The modern tendency to dichotomize whole lives and artistic genres according to this criterion seems risky, though, when applied to absolute...

  16. Epilogue
    (pp. 325-326)

    During one of the two visits he made to Damascus, either in 830 or else shortly before he died in 833, the Abbasid caliph al-Mẚmūn decided one day to go hunting. He took the road that led up toward Hermon, “Snowy Mountain” as the Arabs called it, and after a while the party halted at an enormous cistern shaded by four tall cypresses of surpassing beauty. Nearby had stood one of the rural retreats the Umayyad clan built in this pleasant and salubrious hill country. Al-Mẚmūn admired its picturesque ruins, then settled down to a picnic of wine andbazmaward,...

  17. Appendix: The Value of Arabic Literary Sources
    (pp. 327-334)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 335-374)
  19. Index
    (pp. 375-390)