The Syria of today offers tourists as much a cultural experience as a sightseeing one, where ancient history provides a fascinating backdrop to everyday life on the streets                          

 


 

QASR AL-HAYR AL-GHARBI

In the Syrian Desert, about 80 Km. south-west of Palmyra, lies Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi. It is constructed in an oasis watered from a valley feeding it during the rain seasons. Its location is remarkable for being situated at the cross-roads of two important routes of the Desert: The route of Damascus-Qaryatayn Palmyra, and the route of Homs-al-Jawf both are old routes linking together the two wings of the Fertile Crescent.

Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi is one of the many palaces built by the Umayyad Caliphs and Princes in the Syrian Desert and Jordan. Among these Palaces are: Qasr al-Hayr ash-Sharqi (100 Km. north-east of Palmyra): the Arab Palaces of ar-Rusafah, constructed outside the ancient Byzantine city of Sergiopolis: the Palace of Wasit ar-Raqqah ( on the west bank of the Euphrates); Jabal Usays (100 Km. east of Damascus); the Palace of Hisham (Khirbat al-Mafjir near Jericho of Jordan); al-Mushatta; Qusayr Amrah; and Khurranah... The last three palaces are situated in Transjordan.

The Caliphs built these palaces in particular places of the desert so that each palace might serve as a stage while they are on a journey across the desert, a place of rest and relaxation, and an ideal spot for sport and hunting, far from the noise of the capital and worries of the statecraft.

Moreover, the presence of these residences in the heart of the desert helped the Caliphs and the Umayyad Princes to be in touch with the chiefs of tribes in order to solve their problems, get married to their daughters and continue to have their allegiance.

As we see, these palaces fulfilled many purposes : They ensured complete control over the desert routes, enabled the Caliphs to have direct contact with the tribes of Bedouin and constituted paces for relaxation and rest.

The Arabs erected Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi on a site which had been already occupied by ruins of Roman and Byzantine periods. A Byzantine tower is still standing in the north-west angle of the Umayyad Palace. We still see in the Palace some remains of the former periods including the stone door which will he described shortly and some Doric capitals which the Arab used as bases for the columns of the porticos.

This oasis draws it water from the clam of Harbaqah  at about 17 Km. to the south of the palace. The dam was built before the advent of Islam, but was repaired when the palace was constructed. The dam detains its water in a lake of 1550 meters long by 800 meters wide. It has 3 openings: two of them are fixed on the base and the third is attached to an aqueduct branching to the palace, the orchard and to al-Qusayr (locally called Khan al-Milh) at about 10 Km. from the Palace.

The orchard is about 1050 m. long by 442 m. wide. Its was surrounded by a brick wall constructed on a stone base. The wall is supported by semi-cylindrical buttresses alternating regularly along the wall, partly from the interior and partly from the exterior. The orchard has two entrances and a house for the orchard keeper. The excavations carried out there revealed the existence of stone installations for distribution of water in the canals which are dug In the ground.

There is a bath outside the palace, close to its western side, bably built in the Umayyad Period before the construction of the palace. The bath consists of a cold section having four chambers, and a warm section having three chambers: The first has a large stone bench, the second has two basins; and the third has a stone bench and a basin. It is worthy to mention that the method of heating in the bath does not differ so much from the method which is still used today.

About 10 Km. from the Palace, close to an artificial pool ,there is a building probably a palacelet or a caravanserai. Nothing remained of it save its huge stone door which was transferred to the Damascus Museum. It was reconstructed in the garden near the facade of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi. The lintel of the door bears the following Kufic inscription which revealed to us the name of the constructor and the date of the period of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi:

" In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful, there is no god but God, the Unique without Partner. This work has been done by the order of the servant of God, Hisham, the Prince of the Faithful, May Allah recompense him, built at the hands of Thabit ibn Abi Thabit in the month of Rajab, in 109 A.H. = October / November 727 A.D. "

Description of the Palace :

Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi is almost square; its side being 70 meters. It is supported by cylindrical towers at the corners and semi-cylindrical towers on the walls and on either side of the door which opens on the eastern side.

The Palace was built of limestone blocks up to two meters in height. The rest was completed with courses of bricks alternating with rows of tiles and wooden cross-beams. The exterior walls are thicker than those of the interior.

This residence had two stories. Only the ground floor is known to us, but the upper floor is not, but its existence is confirmed by the remains lying on the ground. The Palace is entered by a big gate in the eastern facade, one passes there over a large corridor provided, on each side, with benches having elbow-rests and its ceiling is supported by arches. Having passed over this corridor, one reaches the central courtyard of the Palace. This courtyard is square and open to sky. It is surrounded on all sides by a portico whose capitals are of sculptured gypsum according to the Corinthian style and whose are of stone. The supports of the portico are in the form of an angle whose extremity ends with a half column.

The ground floor is divided into six flats, each one comprises a number of halls and chambers. They are fifty nine in all with the exception of the Byzantine tower. Only two sections of the flats near-by the corridor are displayed in the reconstructed section of the palace at the National Museum of Damascus.

The Artistic Value of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi:

This palace presents a first-class specimen for the study of architecture and decorative art of the Umayyad Period. The Arab architects were able to copy the Persian art and at the same time the Byzantine art ( heir of the Greco-Roman art) and then to synthesis the acquired elements and thereby creating an original architecture which is neither eastern nor western, but rather an original one responding to the requirements of the age, the region, and the orientation of the new civilization.

As the Palace, on the whole, was built in bricks, the exterior and the interior walls were whitewashed the ornaments were either a paint on the whitewashed walls or on the earthen unpaved floor. In tact, two halls were plastered with mortar. The decoration also comprises carved wood colored and gilded (some fragments of the wainscot have been found among the rubble. These are displayed in one of the showcases and these fragments are considered the oldest and the most important of what were left over of the Umayyad Period), or sculpture in the soft stucco including: arches, windows, balustrades and capitals. They have also floral, human and animal decorative motifs. The decorations in stucco are the richest, the most abundant and in great variety.

By observing the decorative elements of Qasr al-Hayr al Gharbi, we can draw out the principal essentials which characterize the Islamic-Arab art in Its first appearance.

1.      When the Arab artist wants to use the decorative themes, he represents them in a naturalistic form, but he arranges and presents them in a phantasmal style, disposing the floral motifs of symmetric and almost geometrical shape.

2.      The artist does not confine himself to a single theme in decoration. Searching for the variety, he uses floral, geometrical, semi-geometrical, human and animal motifs, some of them or all of them in the decoration of one place.

3.      When the artist wants to decorate a big facade (like that of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi) he divides it into many superimposed blocks, separating each one from the other by bands of cornices rows of rosettes, niches or panels. The artist then deals with the motifs of the regular facade.

4.      In the distribution of decorative themes the artist takes into consideration the symmetry, the resemblance and the harmony,

5.      The artist repeats the same subject to decorate a cornice, a band or a register. Sometimes he uses two different subjects alternately to avoid monotony.

6.      If the artist used the floral motifs in a decoration of a window arch, he would employ the geometrical motifs in the decoration of claustra and vice versa.

 

The Important Elements of the Reconstructed Wing:

The Principal Facade: It consists of tow semi-cylindrical towers framing the gate. These towers and the part surmounting the door are divided into zones, in the direction of the width. The following is the description of zones from top to bottom There is first the prominent cornice ornamented with leaves of acanthus, then there is a large band divided into three zones in the direction of the top, the two extreme zones are decorated with geometrical and floral motifs, symmetrical and similar. They are surmounted by a row of rosettes over a prominent cornice in the middle. This cornices is topped by another band divided into zones decorated with two alternating motifs: the first square, ornamented with successive bands, a circle and a rosette in the centre. the second comprises a lozenge with a rosette in the middle . Over this band there is a ribbon decorated with floral motifs. The band is topped by niches framed with rails of two categories: niches with horse-shoe arches and niches with pointed arches, These niches are surmounted by ribbon having vegetable decorations, then a row of rosettes, followed by a cornice surmounted by merlons having in their centre an opening in the form of an arrow.

The door opening into this facade, is surmounted by a big semi-circular arch, topped by a band decorated with rosettes surmounted by a row of small niches alternating with pretty rails. This is followed by another ribbon, and a row of false windows, two of them in the middle are true windows. All these are surmounted by another band, a large zone limited with two arches at the top which was occupied by a scene bearing fierce animals, persons, then a zone whose height is unknown to us,

The Portico of the Courtyard: It comprises columns with Corinthian capitals which support the gallery of the upper floor and from which appears the balustrade. Each panel of this balustrade is ornamented with human or animal motifs in relief. These motifs are considered the most important decorations of the palace.

The two apartments close to the corridor:

Two apartments only are represented. Each one contains a wide hall, its ceiling is supported by a large arch. There are two entrances on both sides of the hall: Two entrances communicating with two closets near the corridor, and two entrances, on the opposite side, communicating with a number of closets (have not been reconstructed yet). On entering the hall. one remarks a lighting shaft in stucco above the door. The walls are ornamented with zones of wavy motifs in black and red colors. The decorations of the walls constitute various examples which give and idea of the decoration of the other halls. Above these colored motifs there is a white zone which might have been decorated with human themes, then a zone in brick color, then a new white zone ornamented with floral motifs. The corners of these closets are decorated with an elegant motif by using brick-red color. This motif is in the form of a candlestick reclining on the skirting.

Explanatory Documents :

Having passed over the corridor of the entrance. one sees on the opposite wall, a panel bearing the Kufic text of the caravanserai which we have already mentioned. Below it. one sees the plan of the whole palace in black color. The reconstructed part at the Museum is marked in red color.

There are also two maquettes: one represents the palace such as it was at the moment of its discovery, and the other is a maquette of the palace reconstructed after detailed archaeological study.

Architectural Elements of the Upper Floor:

The upper floor comprises a portico and a large hall which was supposed to be an exhibition hall:

1.      Here we can see the reconstruction of two doors along with their lighting shafts. They are the most beautiful pieces of the Palace. One can easily note the harmony existing among; the different decorative elements.

2.      We can also see in the large hall of the upper floor a reconstructed facade having windows which alternate with the following themes, in high relief: A hunter, big eagle, and a person sitting on a throne.

3.      In the Exhibition Hall : Big fresco fixed on the eastern wall (500 x 458 cm.). It had been covering the floor of one of the Palace Halls and was made of a mortar so solid as concrete. It represents three colored tableaux : A cavalier two musicians and a scene of festival. The costumes of persons are, to a great extent, influenced by the Sassanid art.

                    

  1. Big fresco fixed on the western wail (521 x 443 cm ) . It is also adorned with colored designs depicting a woman carrying fruits. A serpent is coiling itself round her neck. This scene is copied from the Greek Mythological representation of Ge (goddess of the earth). Above this scene, two sea centaurs can be seen. Each one is half man half dog with a serpent tail.
  2. On the south wall, fragments of a statue in stucco with traces of colors is displayed. The statue represents an important person wearing an oriental turban and rich clothes of Sassanid style. the statue is probably depicting the Caliph Hisham ibn Abd -al-Malik, the founder of the Palace (?).


    stucco statue supposed to be the Caliph Hisham ibn Abd-al-Malik

  3. Various specimens of windows and light shafts in openwork stucco are displayed.
  4. In the Middle of the Hall: Numerous specimens of objects are displayed. They are: Balustrades, capitals of big and small columns, fragments of mural paintings depicting the slaves and the female slaved of the Palace and some naturalistic vegetable motifs. One of these important paintings in particular attract the attention. It is a painting of a person wearing a hat of Frankish type, may he it was of Frank who was taken captive (?).

 

Patterns of windows and lighting shafts displayed on the wall of the upper gallery.

Main facade of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, now reconstructed
at the National Museum in Damascus.
 

 

 
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