Ancient Works Reveal Racier Side of Caliphs
Ancient paintings in the Jordanian desert have unveiled a rare glimpse into the lavish lifestyle of Islamic caliphs, indicating that rulers of the early Islamic empire were less pious than their public personas might suggest.
The paintings were discovered at Qusayr Amra, a 1,300 year-old hunting lodge and bathhouse that archaeologists have long believed was a favored retreat for one of the last Umayyad caliphs. What has interested archaeologists in the remote palace is not its prestigious former inhabitant, but the structure itself.
Adorning the palace’s walls are a series of murals, vibrant paintings depicting hunting scenes, nude women, and even dancing and libation, breaking taboos forbidding figural depictions and immoral imagery.
Over the past 11 months, the World Monuments Fund, the Italian Conservation Institute and the Jordanian Department of Antiquities have worked to restore the murals, which have long confounded archaeologists and Islamic art historians who refused to accept that such racy imagery could be traced to early Islamic caliphs.
“Critics have tried to argue that these paintings were the work of the Byzantines or even the Romans,” said Gaetano Palumbo of the WMF. “They just simply couldn’t believe that these paintings could have been commissioned by an Umayyad caliph.”
Proponents of Qusayr Amra’s Islamic origins associate the pleasure palace to Caliph Walid II, whose differences with the religious establishment earned him a reputation as a “reckless playboy” and led to his exile to the Jordanian desert.
Jordanian archaeologists believe the palace likely served as Walid II’s recreational retreat, its remoteness allowing the caliph to indulge in less than modest pleasures away from the prying eyes of the religious establishment and political rivals in the Umayyad’s power base of Damascus.
Despite the emerging consensus among scholars that the palace was frequented by Walid II, experts lacked conclusive evidence linking the pleasure palace’s construction to the caliph — until now. After months of carefully removing centuries of soot and graffiti, the Italian team recently uncovered an inscription proclaiming: “Oh God! Make Walid ibn Yazid virtuous.”
Experts say the lack of a title accompanying Walid’s name indicates that the palace was commissioned when he was still a prince. That would place its construction between 723 and 743 AD, during the reign of Walid’s predecessor Caliph Hisham and a time when the Umayyad empire was still at its peak.
“For the first time we can definitively say that this palace was commissioned by Walid and this is indeed art from the Umayyad era,” says Ghazi Bisheh, former Jordanian antiquities department director.
Over 1,000 years since the first brushstrokes were applied to the palace’s ceilings and walls, conservationists say they now face a race against time to save one of the last known examples of secular Islamic art. The team says centuries of floods, weathering and Bedouin campfires have left the murals in “a state of deterioration.”
With the bulk of Qusayr Amra’s ceilings and walls still obscured and the conservation project set to expire in November, experts say they are savoring a rare glimpse into the private lives of early Islamic rulers often known for their discretion.