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144, April 2010 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Hisham’s Palace
By Dr. Hamdan Taha
The site of Hisham’s Palace is located on the northern bank of Wadi Nueima, approximately 2 km north of Jericho in the Jordan Valley. It is identified with the ruins of Khirbat al-Mafjar. The site was attributed to Caliph Hisham bin Abed el-Malik  (724-743 AD) on the basis of some epigraphic materials, but today it is believed that his heir el-Walid II built the palace between 743 and 744 AD. The site was not the official residence of the caliph but was used as a winter resort. The spectacular palace, which was never completed (with the exception of the bath), was destroyed in a severe earthquake around 749 AD.

The excavation at Khirbat al-Mafjar was carried out by the Palestinian Department of Antiquities between 1935 and 1948, under the direction of Dimitri Baramki and Robert Hamilton. The excavation uncovered a significant part of the palace complex. The results of the excavation carried out in 1960 in the northern section of the palace were unfortunately never published. In December 2006, a small-scale excavation, under my direction, was carried out in the bath area. Four main strata were distinguished, with two architectural phases, indicating occupation of the site after the earthquake.

The site is composed of a palace, a thermal bath complex, a mosque, and a monumental fountain within a perimeter wall that was never completed. The first three principal buildings were arranged along the west side of a common forecourt, with a fountain in its centre. The area to the north was partially excavated and revealed a series of rooms that was identified as a probable caravanserai.

The palace was a two-storey square building with round towers at the corners. The entrance to the palace was through a vaulted passage that was lined with benches on both sides. It was planned around a central courtyard that was enclosed by four arcaded galleries. The arrangement of the rooms suggests that it was used for guests, servants, and storage.

On the southern side, a small mosque with a mihrab was found. Stairs on the two opposite corners of the courtyard gave access to the second storey, which, as the evidence indicates, houses the living quarters.

In the western gallery of the central courtyard a stairway led to a mosaic-paved antechamber, leading to an underground vaulted room, sirdab, with a waterspout, wall benches, and a mosaic floor.

The common mosque is attached to the northern wall of the palace, with a niche mihrab. The mosque was planned as a rectangular structure.

The large bath is located in the northern part of the palace. It consisted of a domed porch to the east, a hall (frigidarium), a domed reception room, and a series of small bathing rooms and a latrine.

 The frigidarium, the main feature of the bath, was about 30 m2, its roof rose to a central dome. The vaulting system was of brick and rested on sixteen massive stone piers, in four rows. In the southern part of the bath, a 20-metre long and 1.5-metre deep swimming pool was found. It was filled from a spout higher than the surviving masonry. The style of the western central exedra, facing the entrance to the bath, has horseshoe-shaped niches.

The main entrance to the bath from the east side was through a high open archway covered by a hemispherical dome resting on a cylindrical drum that was lightened by fourteen niches containing plaster statues. The interior of the porch was covered with stucco. Beside the frigidarium four small rooms were found, two of which were unheated. Two furnaces, whose pipes were concealed in the thick walls, heated the two other rooms.

At the northwest corner of the frigidarium is the diwan, a small guest room with an apsidal raised platform at the northernmost end of the chamber. The room had wall benches on both sides. The floor of the diwan was paved completely with fine mosaics, with geometric motifs and the famous nature scene with animals and a stylised tree symbolising the tree of life.

In the forecourt of the palace a pool covered with a pavilion built on eight piers was found.

The palace was supplied with water through an open channel from the double spring Ein Dyuk and Ein Nueima at the foot of Mount Quruntul, eight kilometres to the west. The channel crossed the wadi at two different points over arched bridges and led to a large reservoir at some distance from the palace. 

The architecture and the decoration of the palace were influenced by both Byzantine and Sassanian traditions. This is represented by the architectural style, paintings, fine stucco ornaments, and rich mosaic pavements. One statue, probably representing Caliph al-Walid, stood alone fully dressed, with a sword in his hand, black eyes, and fully covered with golden-brown hair. The coloured mosaic floors uncovered in the bath frigidarium, the diwan, and the sirdab at Hisham’s Palace represent a distinctive feature of early Islamic art.

Following the transfer of authority to the Palestinian side in Jericho, a large restoration and rehabilitation programme was carried out on the site by the Palestinian Department of Antiquities, in cooperation with UNESCO, Italian Cooperation, ANERA, and USAID. The archaeological park now includes a modern interpretation centre, a mosaic laboratory, and a site museum, as well as a new bridge and access roads.

Dr. Hamdan Taha, Deputy Assistant Minister for Antiquities and Cultural Heritage in the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, has directed a series of archaeological excavations and rehabilitation projects and has produced various publications on the archaeology of Palestine.

Article photos: Palestine Image Bank.
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