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Compare and contrast Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi and Khirbat al-Mafjar.

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Introduction

Compare and contrast Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi and Khirbat al-Mafjar. Between 661 and 750AD, the Umayyad Caliphate ruled the Muslim world. During their reigns, Umayyad Caliphs would often build themselves lavish 'desert palaces', several of which are still standing today. The uses of the palaces varied, and some believe the Umayyads built them to get away from the new urban central lifestyle set about by the Byzantine Empire (Hoag, 1979: 17). The Umayyad style of architecture is an interesting and luxurious one, as it takes its key styles directly from several other cultures, for example several Roman, Byzantine and Sassanian elements are often seen (Hoag, 1975: 20). Two important buildings when looking at Umayyad architecture are Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi and Khirbat al-Mafjar. These so-called 'desert palaces' of the Umayyads help us to gain an understanding of what secular Muslim architecture was like at the time. Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi was built around 726AD by the Caliph Hisham, and was built on what is thought to be the site of a Ghassanid monastery, parts of which still remain within the newer structure. The location is in a very fertile land, and the Ghassanid would have been able to farm here to sustain themselves. Though the palace lies on a key caravan route between Palmyra and Damascus, it is still thought to have been built very much for the Caliph's pleasure (remains have been found of a mosque, caravanserai, and small bath house) ...read more.

Middle

An earthquake ruined the parts of the palace that were finished fairly soon after they were built (believed to be 747AD), however, the extravagant bath house, one of the only finished rooms in the palace, shows signs of use before its destruction. The palace of Khirbat al-Mafjar is located in the Valley of Jericho and, like Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, is built on extremely fertile land. The name Khirbat al-Mafjar literally means 'place of flowing water'. This 'desert palace' has several key features, and these too display the Umayyad characteristic of using ideas from other cultures. The main room of the palace is the lavish bath hall, or audience hall, with the Caliph's divan located off one side of it. This room is clearly intended for entertainment, with its nine-domed roof creating brilliant acoustics; it would have made an excellent venue for music and poetry performances (Hillenbrand, 1999: 21). The bath hall is extensively covered with tessellating mosaics with a rug-like quality (Ettinghausen, Grabar, 1987: 54-55), and would have been very impressive and luxurious. In the divan, leading off of the bath hall, is the largest single floor mosaic to survive from the ancient or medieval world (Hillenbrand, 1999: 32). This mosaic depicts an animal hunting scene around a tree, with a lion attacking a gazelle on one side, whilst the other side two more gazelles graze peacefully. ...read more.

Conclusion

Both had bath houses, Khirbat al-Mafjar's being especially exquisite, and were clearly intended for the Caliph to entertain himself and guests. Despite both being examples of secular Islamic architecture, the palaces had mosques, in and around which figurative art and sculpture would not have been allowed. The mosque at Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi is no longer standing, and at Khirbat al-Mafjar it was probably never even finished, but despite the Umayyads often being classed as godless by many Muslims, they clearly cared for their religion. Whether the extravagant story of the Umayyads building these 'desert palaces' to escape the new urban lifestyle set about by the Byzantine Empire for their deep-rooted home of the desert (Hoag, 1979: 17) is true or not, it is clear that the Caliphs used these palaces often, and got great pleasure from doing so. The palaces would have been the height of luxury, style and wealth at the time, and the Umayyads are notorious for building unnecessary constructions, which is believed to have partially influenced their downfall by angering their people. In conclusion, both of these examples of 'desert palaces' display clearly the ideas behind Umayyad secular architecture, those being the use of other cultures' influences, and the idea of luxury. Their architectural styles were developed further by the Abbasids who followed them, and eventually reached as far as Islamic Spain, showing great influence on all Islamic architecture to follow. ...read more.

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