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Hisham's Palace, Jericho

Khirbet El-Mafjar is located 3 km north of Jericho and commonly called Hisham's Palace because it was first thought to have been built by the Umayyad Caliph Hisham bin AbdulMalek (724-743 AD), who ruled an empire stretching from India to the Pyrenees.

Many from the Umayyad dynasty had such hunting lodges, which enabled them to recover the freedom and independence of the desert, which had been their birthright. But the unorthodox decoration of Khirbet El-Mafjar is incompatible with the character of the austere, righteous Hisham, and fits best with what we know of his nephew and successor; Al-Walid bin Yazid (743-744): "Banished from the court for wild living and scurrility, a passionate aesthete and drinker, habitual companion of singers, himself the best poet and marksman of the Umayyads".

Courtyard framework featuring the Hexagonal Umayyad Star

Caliph Walid first built the bath, which shows signs of having been in use for a number of years. The bath and the great walled hunting park were his main interests. He was assassinated a year after coming to power, so the palace was never completed and, despite an attempted restoration in the 12th century (possibly by Salah Eddin's troops), it thereafter served as a quarry of cut stones for the people of Jericho.

The architecture and the motifs of the stucco decoration (used here for the first time in Palestine) betray a strong Persian influence. Much of the ornate plasterwork is displayed in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.

The main entrance to the colonnaded forecourt was on the south, a gate flanked by two towers. The court extended the length of the palace, and there was an ornamental pool in the center covered by an octagonal pavilion, elaborately carved and decorated.

The main monument of the palace is two storey building, with arcade verandas overlooking the court. Much of the material used is laid out on the ground.

The entrance gate was a large tower, and inside the entrance were benches backed by niches with finely carved heads. Immediately inside is the central courtyard, around which all the rooms were grouped. There was a cloister all around it, and on the columns, lying where they fell, may be seen crosses, showing that they came from a church. Stairs in the northeast and northwest corners led to the second storey. In the center of the south side is a room that appears to have been a mosque, with the foundation of what may have been a minaret outside.

Ruins of Hisham's PalaceThe magnificent floor mosaics at Hisham's Palace

One large room, the roof of which was supported on arches, occupies the whole of the north side. In the center of the west side is a large room, the entrance of which overhangs a sunken court, reached by stairs from the cloister: it has a poor mosaic floor and presumably led into an underground bath nearby and was probably in use before the great baths were added.

In the northwest comer, stairs lead to the baths by what was a covered passageway. To the east, between the palace and the baths, is the mosque, a rectangular enclosure open to the sky except for an arched roof covering the Mihrab (niche).

The baths to the north are the most elaborate part of all, consisting of a forecourt, an entrance, porch, a 30m square hall with a pool on the south side, sun rooms, cool rooms and a steam room, and in the northwest corner a special resting room. The roof of the hall was supported on 16 pillars and the floor was paved with mosaics; representing the largest known area of ancient mosaic.

The entrance porch was a small square room, covered with carved stucco. The drum of the dome had 12 niches with alternate male and female figures. The facade of the porch had two niches, in one was a male figure believed to be that of the Caliph Hisham (displayed in the Jerusalem Museum).

On the south side, stairs lead to the swimming pool. The little room in the north west corner was of special importance, for it has one of the most beautiful and elaborately decorated mosaic floor in the world, the "Tree of Life" mosaic. The design, with a fruit tree and gazelles, was clearly made in imitation of a carpet. On the plan, the room is labeled a guestroom.

The elaborately decorated Tree of Life floor mosaic

The cool rooms and sun rooms to the north have been badly damaged by stone-hunters, and the elaborate brick heating below them has disappeared. Some rooms were over the furnace and hot water tanks. There were two furnaces, both fired from outside. The steam room was to the east; it was paved with white mosaic and had a small fountain.

Much of the carved plaster, which was often painted, has been reconstructed in the Jerusalem Museum.

The architecture of the dome itself as well as the decoration of the palace was no doubt influenced by Christian, Byzantine and Sussanide/Persian traditions.

For the first time in Palestine, the stucco, made to imitate marble, was largely used ornamentally as well as in basic material used to construct windows, balustrades and corbelled structures or human, animal, floral and geometric motifs with Sassanide/Persian inspiration quite apparent.
 

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