Jordan Umayyad Period

(661 - 750 A.D)

The Umayyad period (661-750 AD) is considered to be one of the most flourishing periods in the history of Jordan. Jordan reaches a peak in monumental architecture and in the urban expansion into desert lands, where the concentration of palatial Umayyad architecture is greater than any other region in the Near East. However, past studies regarding the Islamic period lack a scientific approach because their analysis seems to be either consciously or unconsciously biassed. European scholars can be ethnocentric and Islamic and Arab scholars who can in turn be classed as having biases: those who studied Islamic history and regard it as a pure holy issue that cannot be criticised in any way, and those who prefer some periods to others because the ruling dynasty or family meshes with their own group of beliefs. For example, if a scholar is Sunni, he would most likely underestimate Fatimid accomplishments, because the founders of that Dynasty were Shi’ite. Sectarian conflict sometimes contributes to a biassed analysis and investigation of some periods. Scholars must try hard to be objective and to analyse Islamic periods from a critical point of view.

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Starting in the 19th century, the European scholar’s analysis of Islamic history was based primarily on unsubstantiated Eurocentric perceptions rather than on concrete evidence or objective research (Walmsley 2001, 515). The whole Islamic period is categorised by the idea of a number of “thundering hordes” who invaded the highly civilised Graeco-Roman lands and caused a lot of devastation. Some writers even went so far as to say that the Muslims came and built their little dirty houses among the magnificent Roman and Byzantine monuments. They had no sense of discipline or cleanliness and they stabled their horses and camels in the rich Byzantine basilicas (Macaulay and Beny 1977). Some say that Muslims had never absorbed the concept of state because they stayed in their culture attached to Mecca and that they were not able to absorb the cultures of the people they invaded (Conrad 1983, 26).


Jordan has experienced in the last few decades a number of excellent studies and a concentration of research that is unparalleled by those of previous years and of neighbouring countries. Jordan became one of the most important countries in the Near East to reevaluate our understanding of the early Islamic period (Whitcomb 2001, 503). The excavations carried out so far have changed the whole idea about Jordan during the Islamic period in general and the Umayyad period in particular. The intensive excavations provided us with a clearer image of the early Islamic period (Whitcomb 1995, 468). The archaeological evidence together with the historical data gives us a better understanding of the period of transition from Pre-Islamic Arabia into the early period of Islam. The thousands of documents unearthed in the Giza Synagogue in Cairo and in other parts outside Cairo shed more light on the history of the Southern Levant and can be considered as a major written source for that period (Schick 1998, 75). The rich documents were studied thoroughly and published by Adolf Grohmann and they reveal many facts about the different institutions of the early Islamic state (Grohnmann, 1955).

In fact, Jordan is important for understanding the rise and the decline of the Umayyad Empire. The famous arbitration between Mu’awiya Ibn Abi Sufiyan the establisher of the Umayyad Dynasty and the fourth rightly guided Caliph Ali Bin Abi Talib took place in Udhruh at the mount of Jarba, a site situated in the Southern part of Jordan. The meeting did not lead directly to the birth of the Umayyad Caliphate, but it had a great effect on the events to come later. The Jordanian tribes supported Mu’awiya Ibn Abi Sufyan against Ali. A tribe called Kalab constituted his greatest support. The Kalab tribe were mainly settled in the Southern Levant. Concerning the decline of the Umayyad Empire, the Abbasid Revolution was also initiated from al Humeimah, a historical site situated in the south of Jordan.

The Umayyad period, in terms of the family lines, can be divided into two main periods: The Sufyanids during the reign of the first three Caliphs and the Marwanids during the reign of the next eleven Caliphs (Hawting 1998, 840).




Jordan witnessed a period of high urbanisation during the Umayyad period. The modern desert of Jordan had been crossed by highly urbanised roads and fortifications.

In about 695, Jordan witnessed a new administrative system which was brought during the reign of Abd al-Malik (685-705 AD).

East of Amman, easily reachable on a roundtour of about 260 km, are a series of desert retreats, built by Umayyad princes in the 8th century, among them astounding palaces, bathhouses and hunting lodges.

The caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty who had made Damascus their capital in 661 AD, became best known for these 'castles' (Arabic plural qusur, singular qasr), which served a variety of political, residential, agricultural, and commercial purposes. Partially using older architectural structures, blending Greco-Roman, Byzantine and Persian styles, they created some of the most impressive examples of early Islamic art and architecture, including outstanding figurative frescos and reliefs.


Qasr AL-Kharraneh

This imposing and well preserved Umayyad building in the vastness of the Jordanian desert can be dated before 710 AD, due to an Arabic inscription above one of the doors of a room.

The only entrance gate is centrally located on the southern façade framed by two quarter-round buttresses. Each corner of the 35 m square structure has a three-quarter-round fortification, while semicircular buttresses support the remaining facades at their centre. Narrow openings appear to be arrow slits, but they are too high and actually serve to provide light and ventilation. This proves that al-Kharana wasn't a military "castle". First assumptions typified it as a caravanserai, but it was not on any major trade routes and lacked of large water sources. It most probably served as a representative place for political meetings between local tribal communities and Umayyad rulers.

The entrance passage is flanked by two vaulted chambers that functioned as stables and storage areas. The open central courtyard is surrounded by groups of barrel vaulted rooms forming separate units around a central hall (arrangement known as a "bayt" in Umayyad architecture). The courtyard had a basin for collecting rain water at its center. Two stone staircases lead to the upper floor where the rooms still display decorative details such as stucco moldings, sculpted plaster columns, and arcades.


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Qusayr Amra

Qusayr Amra was probably built between 730 - 740 AD, commissioned by Prince Walid Ibn Yazid, the future Umayyad caliph Walid II (who reigned only 743-744). Located beside the Wadi Butum, a seasonal watercourse, this desert establishment was both a fortress with a garrison and a residence/pleasure palace that comprises a reception hall and hammam (a bath complex with changing room, warm and hot rooms), all richly decorated with figurative murals.

The extensive fresco paintings of the bath building and reception hall are unique for Islamic architecture of the Umayyad period. The wall paintings depict bathing scenes, hunting scenes, Byzantine style portraits, crafts and trades, animals, among other motifs, and are accompanied by inscriptions in Greek and Arabic. The representation of the zodiac on the domed ceiling of the caldarium (hot room) is one of the earliest known surviving portrayals of a map of the heavens on a dome.

Together with the remains of the fort/garrison buildings several hundred metres to the north and traces of agricultural water catchment works, the fresco-painted building with an adjacent well, tank and water-lifting hydraulic system, drainage pipes and cesspool represent an outstanding example of an Umayyad desert establishment.

In 1985 Qusayr Amra was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


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Qasr Al-Mushata

The palace of Mshatta (Arabic for winter) is located 30 km south of Amman, next to Queen Alia International Airport. Its construction probably started during the brief reign of the Umayyad caliph al-Walid II (743-744 AD), but was not completed as he was murdered, and the palace destroyed by an earthquake later. The key function of the palace was to create a prestigious environment for the caliph to hold audiences and conduct high-level meetings with local tribal leaders.

Qasr al-Mshatta is world-famous for the elaborate ornamentation of its southern main façade with detailed reliefs deeply carved into the limestone. On the western (left) section, between zigzag-like mouldings and magnificent rosettes and octagons, animals and human figures are depicted under a web of vines. On the right side of the gate the decorations are geometric, probably due to the presence of the mosque behind.

The decorated part of the southern façade was sent to Germany in 1903 in gratitude for the construction of the Hejaz Railway. It is on view at the Museum of Islamic Art, on Berlin’s Museum Island. In 2013, the original site was extensively restored in a joint project of the Kingdom of Jordan and the Federal Republic of Germany.


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Qasr Al-Hallabat

On the site of Qasr al-Hallabat there was originally a Roman fort, built up from the beginning of the 2nd century AD on a former Nabatean outpost, as part of the Limes Arabicus (the Arabian frontier). Extended in the 4th century AD, the fort was abandoned and then heavily damaged by the earthquake of 551 AD. Afterwards it was transformed into a monastery and a palace by the Ghassanids, using older black basaltic rock blocks to expand the Roman remains.

The Umayyad caliph Hisham (ruled 724-743) ordered the demolition of the existing structure to transform the site into one of the largest of all Umayyad desert complexes. The main palace is constructed of black basalt and limestone and has a square floor plan (42 x 43 m) with towers at each corner. The principal structures were further enhanced with decorative mosaics depicting an assortment of animals, detailed frescoes and highly crafted stucco carvings. The Umayyad extension included a mosque, a water system with five cisterns and a large water reservoir, and a bathhouse. Situated to the west of the palace remains an enclosed structure probably used for agricultural purposes. In 749 AD the site was destroyed and abandoned.


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Hammam al-Sarah

In order to expand and consolidate their domination in the region, the Umayyad caliphs cultivated a strategy of political representation where art and architecture played an important role. In their bath-house ensembles, they combined the functional and social value of bathing practices with their political interests, using them as a venue for audiences and receptions for local tribal leaders, seeking their political and military support.

Hammam al-Sarah, related to the palatine complex of Qasr al-Hallabat, 3.5 km further West, is composed of a bath-house with adjoining audience hall and hydraulic system, and a walled garden. The mosque was erected at a later time.

The caldarium (heated room) is covered with a dome on pendentives, and flanked by two lateral semi-circular recesses, pierced with arched windows and covered with semi-domes. Although strikingly similar to that of Qusayr Amra in plan, Hammam al-Sarah's bath-house evidences a better construction technique.

To the east of the building are the remains of a well, water wheel (sāqīya) and elevated water tank. Foundations of a large walled garden with fountain basin can still be seen surrounding the complex.


Qasr Al-Azraq

The black basalt fort, strategically located in the middle of the Azraq oasis, and on a major desert trade route, has been in continuous use since it was built by the Romans in the 3rd century AD.

The Umayyad caliph Walid II transformed it into his favourite hunting residence in a time when the wetlands nearby offered an extraordinarily rich wild fauna. The mosque in the courtyard, the well and the stables are from this period.

The Ayyubids improved its fortification in 1237 as defence against the Crusaders - dated in an inscription above the South entrance gate. In the 16th century, an Ottoman garrison was stationed there. During the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman empire, Qasr al-Azraq served as winter headquarters for the British officer and writer T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), his Arab counterpart Sharif Hussein Bin Ali and followers, while preparing their military activities which culminated in the capture of Damascus from the Turks in October 1918.

The fort has a square structure with 80 m long walls encircling a large central courtyard. The main entrance gate through the South tower consists of two massive basalt slabs, which can still be moved easily. In this tower T. E. Lawrence had his room overlooking the entry. He wrote about this experience in Qasr al-Azraq in his famous autobiographical account Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Jordan Major cities : Amman (The capital ) , Al Zarqa , Irbid , Jerash , Maan , Aqaba, Al Salt, Al Tafilah, Karak , Shobak, Wadi Mousa , Mafraq 

Jordan Main Attractions : Petra , Wadi Rum, Dead Sea , Jerash , Ajloun, Umm Qais , Madaba, Mount Nebo , Al Karak castle , Al Shobak castle , Desert castles , Aqaba , Baptism site, Umm Al Jimal , Amman Citadel, Roman Theater



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