Saturday, April 7, 2012

Khirbat al-Mafjar - House of the Mosaics- Peter Zumthor

Thou Shalt Not Have Any Gods Before Zumthor

Hisham's Palace (Arabic: Khirbat al-Mafjar) is the archaeological remains of an Umayyad winter palace located five km north of Jericho in Palestine.

The palace was built on the northern outskirts of Jericho, then an imperial domain, in 743–744 CE by Al-Walid ibn Yazid during the caliphate of his predecessor Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik,[1] who ruled the Umayyad empire from 723 until his death in 743. It was modeled on a Roman bath house and was covered with exquisite colored mosaics and stucco.
Columns from the courtyard of Hisham's Palace

The complex comprised a palace, a paved courtyard, a bath house, a mosque, a fountain courtyard, a 60-hectare enclosure containing plants, animals, mosaic and decoration of the highest standard. The palace itself was a large square building with a monumental entrance and rooms on two floors around a long porticoed courtyard.

A sophisticated system of underground pipes was constructed to provide hot water and portions of the system still exist. The bath house also served as an audience room and banqueting hall. The architecture of the bath's main hall and fountain contain many examples of late antique and classical secular building techniques not known elsewhere.

Recent excavations have uncovered workshops and storerooms, which may indicate that the palace was also an Umayyad town.

In the top right corner of the Bath is a small room that was reserved for the Prince. In this room a luscious mysterious mosaic panel stood. The main panel depicts a large tree and underneath it a lion attacking a deer (right side) and two deer peacefully grazing (left side). The panel's interpretations have varied, with some claiming that the panel probably represents good and bad governance, while others wrote extensively to explain that the Lion represents the prince and the deer his wives or harem. The latter back their claim with the argument that the deer seem peaceful and un-intimidated by the lion's presence. Thousands of fragments of the mosaics are stored in the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, but few were able to study them.
The stucco features depictions of semi-naked women and is unique in Islamic art.

Many of the details of the palace are known to historians as a result of the excavation and reconstruction of its layout by Robert Hamilton.

The luxurious decoration throughout the palace surpasses that known in late Roman equivalents, something that is often taken as evidence of the irreligious nature of the Umayyads.

The palace was destroyed in 747 by an earthquake.

Modern Threats

According to Global Heritage Fund (GHF), the rapid urban development of Jericho, as well as expansion of agricultural activity in the area, are seriously threatening archaeologists’ access to the palace’s disappearing ruins, much of which remain unexplored. GHF also cites insufficient management as a major threat, explaining that the remains of the palace, including an extensive water management network, have been greatly damaged by both natural causes and invasive development. Important structures such as walls and bridges have also been left to collapse.

In a 2010 report titled Saving Our Vanishing Heritage, GHF identified Hisham's Palace as one of 12 worldwide heritage sites most "On the Verge" of irreparable loss and destruction

Zumthor - House of the Mosaics

The Pritzker Prize winner Peter Zumthor was commissioned by Unesco and the Palestinian Authority to conceive a shelter for the mosaics inside Jericho’s Hisham’s Palace, while also keeping them open for tourists.

The proposed House of the Mosaics will protect the multi-coloured, intricate tiles from the weather, while showcasing one of the richest archeological sites in the Palestinian territories.

Zumthor told the French news agency AFP: “The idea is to recreate the original atmosphere of a leisure city, to make the shelter a landmark of Jericho.”

His proposals include an 18m-tall structure with a lattice of Lebanese cedar beams, resting on pillars of reinforced concrete. It will be covered in a white fabric to provide natural light and ventilation.

Visitors would view the mosaic from a suspended walkway.

Giovanni Fontana, architect and cultural officer at Unesco’s Ramallah office in the West Bank, hopes the shelter will help the whole site achieve World Heritage status.

Jericho is believed to be some 10,000 years old and is considered one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. The palace, built circa 700AD, was discovered in 1873 though excavations did not start until the 1930s.

The project is expected to cost between £6-£9 million and construction is set to start in 2013.

History of Jericho

Jericho is a green oasis in the Jordan Valley which lies 7 km west of the River Jordan, 10 Km north of the Dead Sea and 30 Km east of Jerusalem. It lies 250 meters below sea level and thus it is considered to be the lowest city in the world.

The origin of the name "Jericho" is Semitic. To the Canaanites it meant "The Moon". In Syriac the name meant "Scent and odour". The city is called "The city of Palm" and "The Garden of God".

Jericho is the oldest city in the world. The ruins of the oldest civilization discovered in Jericho are 10,000 years old. There are a lot of important and beautiful historical places to visit in Jericho, such as Old Jericho, River Jordan where Jesus Christ was baptized, Mount of Temptation, Hisham Palace, Ein Al-Sultan (Elisha) spring, Sycamore tree, Monastery of Saint George (Wadi Kelt), Hasmoneans (Herod) Palace,Monastery of Dier hajlah, Kumran Caves, Dead Sea, and a lot more. The nice climate of the city is conducive to tourism both domestic and International.


Various Images from inside the Site and some Aerial Shots

Hamilton, Khirbat al Mafjar

Extra Information

Lozenges on thresholds in Umayyad architecture, and the pavement of the bath of Khirbat al-Mafjar
Sketch plan of the bath at Khirbat al-Mafjar

Figure 1. Sketch plan of the bath at Khirbat al-Mafjar

Khirbat al-Mafjar, in Palestine near Arîhâ (Jericho), was built in the second quarter of the eighth century A.D. and consists of an unfinished palace and an apparently earlier bath that had been completed and used before the whole complex was destroyed in a mid-century earthquake. The bath has an outsized main hall with a remarkably preserved mosaic floor that has been the subject of much discussion. The structure was composed of nine bays on sixteen piers surrounded by aisles the bays of which were developed into apses. The public entry was in the center of the east side, a private entry from the palace was in the southwest, the three apses on the south side and the aisle in front of them were enclosed by a raised pool, the hot rooms and latrine were on the north, and at the northwest corner was a richly decorated audience hall. The center apse on the west side was marked by a special design in a border strip in its pavement, interpreted variously as a picture-puzzle or a rebus, and a curious stone chain that hung from its frontal arch: this was evidently a place for the owner to sit in audience or view proceedings in the main hall.

Lozenges in the Pavement

The fields of the mosaic pavement, except those in the apses and the audience hall, were designated “panels” by the excavator, Robert W. Hamilton. Very generally and disregarding the border designs, each bay and each space between piers contains one panel, or rectangular field of geometric decoration, while the aisles are treated as continuous fields; each apse has its own decoration, as does the audience hall. The central bay and those on axis with it are larger than the others, and the pavements of the central bay and the four bays in the corners of the nine-bay zone, all of which were domed (see below), are marked by large circular designs, the central one being outsized. There are two exceptions to this scheme, which I shall discuss below.

One need not look far for lozenges. The threshold between the portal and the interior (immediately east of panel 1, which stretches the length of the eastern aisle) is decorated with a lozenge the left and right corners of which develop into knots that may be considered similar to flanking bands.4 Another lozenge appears on the threshold to the audience hall5 without flanking bands, which may indicate either that in this context the lozenge itself bore a connotation of threshold or that, as in Palermo, in an interior context the significance of the lozenge was to mark a spot to stand, stop, or wait. (In either case, the occurrence of these lozenges in these locations has led me to accept Tronzo's remarks on “threshold pavements” without further investigation.)

Surprisingly, a somewhat similar lozenge is floated on the pattern of panel 18, just north of the central circle and facing the central axis of the large pool (Hamilton, Khirbat al Mafjar, pl. 78, no. 18; and Figure 1, crudely redrawn after Hamilton's plan). I find no other occurrence of such a floating motif.6 It is with this lozenge that I am concerned.

Circulation Patterns of the Bath

No circulation pattern that can be derived from the location of the bath's doors and features of its elevation leads to or through the lozenge. From the private entry the owner could have entered the pool immediately, reached the central western apse with a few steps, or proceeded to the audience hall in a straight line. From the public entry, facing the central western apse, guests could have headed to the right to the latrine (entered through a door east of the easternmost apse on the north side) or the hot rooms (entered through the western apse on the north side); or they could have headed to the left to the pool; they would have disrobed in the main hall, leaving their clothes in any of the niches that lined it, or on the wooden benches installed in most of the apses.7 Guests coming to meet the owner could have proceeded due west to the central western apse or by some undefined route to the audience hall. There is no door in the central apse on the north side, so there was no completely axial approach to the pool.

There are other clues to the circulation pattern in the pavement. The continuous carpeting of the three aisles strongly suggests they were intended to be walked along. The two exceptions to the scheme outlined above by which the pavement was divided into fields are panels 15 and 25. Panel 15 lies just north of the pool, covering what would otherwise be three fields: this feature seems to be a matter of formal correspondence to the pool8 or (more likely, I think) to the three full aisles.

More importantly, panel 25 lies west of the public entry, just beyond panel 1, which covers the eastern aisle. Panel 25 covers what would otherwise be two fields: the space between the two central eastern piers and the next bay to the west, on axis with the central circle and the central western apse. The double size of this panel defines what may be thought of as an entry zone: a guest entering from the west who did not turn immediately left or right along the eastern aisle instead stepped forward onto panel 25. Having done so, he would then have three choices: continue west on axis, or turn left to the pool or right, perhaps to traverse the northern bays of the nine-bay zone to reach the hot rooms or the audience hall (there may have been some water feature in the westernmost apse on the north side, where the entry to the hot rooms was, which would have made the northern aisle unsuited as a route for clothed guests headed to the audience hall).9

Such routes—or others—could have been defined by curtains stretched between the piers. The Umayyads often seated themselves behind curtains before receiving guests.10 Hamilton thought there could have been curtains around the pool and in front of the apse of the audience hall.11 I can imagine a curtain hung between the piers at the west edge of panel 25, blocking a direct view of the western apse and directing guests to one side or the other. But this curtain is pure speculation on my part; because of the destruction of most of the height of the piers there is no direct evidence for it.

Variations of complexity in the design of the panels of the mosaic pavement provide further evidence for the circulation pattern. Hamilton categorized them in seven groups on formal grounds, and it so happens that these groups are nearly uniformly of different degrees of complexity.12 Working from outside in and north to south, I arrive at the following observations:

The three full-length aisle panels (1, 2, and 3) all belong to the category of “interlacings on rectangular grid,” which is the most complex group; the three panels are of equal complexity.

The apses, aside from the central western apse and apse XI, are all fairly simple, exhibiting “sprig patterns” (IV and IX) and “rainbow matting patterns” (VI, VII, VIII, and X).

The central western apse (apse V) is filled with a “basketry pattern”, which is actually a spectacular radiating pattern, perhaps not geometrically complex but visually showy; it occurs elsewhere only in the central circle (panel 17). Uniquely, this apse also has a formally distinct border strip along the front, in which the picture-puzzle or rebus is set.

Apse XI, located south of the eastern entry, at the east end of the aisle of bays in front of the pool, is divided similarly, but somewhat incoherently. The main part of the apse bears a pattern of “concentric interlacing” (complex), while along the front is a strip of interlacing on a rectangular grid (also complex), joined up to the first pattern somewhat uneasily.13 I cannot understand this design except as the result of a change in plan involving an originally intended border strip of some different design that was either never executed after the mosaic in the main part of the apse had already been laid or was removed and replaced. (Had the change been made before any mosaic was laid the main pattern could presumably have been extended.)

The panels between the piers on the north side (6, 10, 12, 14, 18 [the one with the lozenge], 20, 22, 26, 28, and 30) are all simple, falling in Hamilton's categories of “rectilinear diapers or reticulations” and sprig patterns (panel 20 only). The former are coffering patterns, very likely reflecting the decoration of the ceiling above these areas; in panel 20 sprigs replace rectilinear coffering. All of these patterns are relatively simple.

The three panels between the piers that stood south of the central axis (8, 16, and 24) are also rectilinear diapers or reticulations (coffering patterns).

Panel 4, between the two piers at the west end of the aisle in front of the pool, is an interlace on a rectangular grid (complex, not a coffering pattern), while panel 29, corresponding to it on the east, is a rectilinear diaper or reticulation (simple, a coffering pattern).

The four panels in the bays at the corners of the nine-bay zone (7, 11, 23, and 27) have circular concentric interlacings (complex) with corner fillers. The concentric interlace, which is closely related to interlacings on a rectilinear grid, occurs elsewhere only in the curious apse XI and here should reflect domes above. Hamilton thought that these corner bays were cross-vaulted, but only because he found no pendentives; the pavement tells another story.14

As noted above, the central circle (panel 17) had a showy basketry pattern, reflecting its dome.

Panel 15, in front of the pool, has a pattern of interlacing on a rectangular grid (complex), as does the double-length entry panel 25.

Finally, there are the remaining panels along the two main axes of the building. Panel 19, in the bay on the north-south axis north of the center, is on the simple side; Hamilton made a special category for it, “overlapping circles”, but it is not so complex as the interlacings on a rectangular grid. Panel 9, in the bay west of the central circle, is another interlacing on a rectangular grid (complex), as is panel 5, between the two piers directly east of the central western apse. Panels 13 and 21, which flank the central circle on the east-west axis, are classified as sprig patterns but are notably complex compared to the other members of this group.

To summarize, there is a clear and systematic distribution of the more complex patterns in the three long aisles, along the central east-west axis leading to and including the central western apse, and in front of the pool, including the panel between piers closest to the private entry (for which I have no explanation),15 and in the apse on the other side of the hall, the design of which indicates that it either had some significance (which escapes me) or was originally planned to.

Significance of the Lozenge

Still, none of these observations on circulation patterns yields a direct route to the lozenge. To reach the lozenge a guest would have to have wandered around to it or have been directed to it by attendants or some means such as an arrangement of curtains. Standing at the lozenge, the guest would have faced not the central western apse but the center of the pool. So the lozenge may be connected not with circulation but with static location: it may be a place-marker. But for what purpose?

Hamilton interpreted the bath variously and in combination as a “ceremonial apartment with provision, and extravagant provision, for bathing parties” or “Frivolity Hall”; as a majlis al-lahu or “play-room … designed with the spatial, acoustic and decorative properties requisite for the entertainment of a numerous company with music, bathing, perhaps ball games and … other relaxing pastimes”; and as a “music room”.

The main hall was not a ceremonial apartment: the ceremonial apartment—if that is what it was—is the separate, finely decorated chamber entered from the northwest corner of the main hall. The central western apse, as it has been interpreted, is a travesty of a formal throne setting. Nor is the plan of the main hall suitable for an audience hall with the central western apse as its focus, as the piers block the view of that apse from much of the hall. Known Umayyad audience halls at Khirbat al-Minya and Mushattâ are instead basilical.

Then again, the main hall may have been intended to accomodate functions such as were associated in Antiquity with large unheated rooms in major baths, including athletic competitions such as wrestling; or performances by the acrobats and dancers who may appear in the frescoes of Qusayr `Amra.16 But an audience for such performances would have found its view obstructed by the piers, and the performers would have had to work around them. As for Hamilton's suggestion of ball games, it would be a strange ball game indeed that could be played among so many obstacles.

In Roman baths the large unheated hall was usually a single unobstructed space, as known in Rome from the Baths of Titus, Caracalla, and Constantine, and reflected in the European and North African provinces.17 The Baths of Diocletian in Rome offer only a partial exception, but even there the subsidary spaces screened by columns were dwarfed by the vast central space. Among Umayyad baths, both Qusayr `Amra and Hammâm al-Sarakh have unheated halls of three aisles opened by large arches to form as unified a space as possible using the architectural devices the builders seem to have had at hand. At `Anjar there is a bath at the north city gate with a main hall of three aisles on four piers, but these are slim compared with the massive piers at Khirbat al-Mafjar, and again the intent must have been to create a relatively unobstructed space.18 Thus there is no parallel in bath architecture for an unheated hall filled with piers.

It may be, of course, that the Umayyad builders of Khirbat al-Mafjar simply could not vault so large a space in stone and brick, and that the form of the main hall is an unhappy compromise sacrificing sight lines and open space for overall size. But Hamilton's last suggestion, that the main hall was intended for musical performances (including recital of poetry), is of a function that required no line of sight between performers and most of the audience. Based on anecdotes of the life of the Umayyad caliph al-Walîd II, whom Hamilton believed (with reason but not beyond dispute) to have built it, he emphasized what he felt was the acoustic suitability for singing of the many curved surfaces of the elevation.19

Music and oral recitation were activities also performed in churches. Consequently churches may be considered as possible prototypes, especially as Hamilton notes that al-Walîd spent much time—drinking—in monasteries, although none of the anecdotes he collected mentions any performance in a church.20 The central nine bays of the main hall, plausibly reconstructed by Hamilton with a central dome on a drum (to which I add four corner domes), recall cross-in-square churches. But this is a deceptive similarity. Cross-in-square churches are not ringed with aisles and apses on all sides. The main hall would not have impressed a visitor as being like the sixth-century Ghassânid building north of the city walls of Rusafah, which has a nine-bay plan and has recently been reinterpreted as a church.21 Syrian churches of centralized plan, such as the cathedral of Busrâ, could perhaps be more likely as inspiration for a design full of curved surfaces, but they have large central spaces.

It is possible to conclude that the main hall would not have been unsuited to musical and poetic performances because of its hypostyle interior, and if the curved surfaces of its elevation—and the breaking up of space with the many piers—in fact enhanced sound, or at least were expected to do so, it would have been positively suited to auditory performance.22 In short, despite the lack of clear formal prototypes, the peculiar form of the main hall of the bath suits it better to musical and poetic performance than to anything else.

The lozenge points to the disposition of performer and at least the principal member of the audience. Hamilton seems to have thought that al-Walîd usually occupied the central western apse or the audience hall, but there is no reason this must have been so. The middle of the pool on the south side would have been just as good a listening point as the central western apse for any performance occurring under the central dome, and several of the anecdotes about al-Walîd and singers place al-Walîd in a pool. Hamilton thought that a reciter or singer would have stood or sat on the central circle, which he labelled “the performer's circle.” 23 So the lozenge may have been intended to signal a place to stop before approaching the pool or stepping into the central circle (if it marked the threshold of the central circle). We can imagine a performer approaching the pool from the north, guided by attendants, arriving at the lozenge, and standing under the central dome facing the pool, not the central western apse, to perform.

Alternately, the lozenge may instead have represented an important place to stand or sit. In a more intimate arrangement, the performer would have stood or sat in the central circle and the patron on the lozenge. Or, as the design of the central circle corresponds to the central western apse, which is one of the special locations presumably reserved for the owner on some (other) occasions, the performer would have stood or sat in the lozenge and the patron in the central circle, marked as his special spot, at the point where echoes of the music converged and in the center of the most magnificent element of the mosaic floor.
Other Lozenges in Umayyad Pavements

In a partial survey of floors in other Umayyad palaces I found few other lozenges, and none on thresholds. At Qusayr `Amra a lozenge similarly developed with knots and with a circle in its center is set in the back of the mosaic pavement of the apse of one of the two small rooms behind the three-aisled hall.24 This paucity of threshold mosaics and place-markers may show that the meanings borne by the mosaic pavement of Khirbat al-Mafjar were drawn from Late Antique practice in a particularly idiosyncratic and conscious way that was not paralleled in other Umayyad palaces. If not, the lozenge north of the central circle in the Khirbat al-Mafjar bath pavement may represent a tradition of using place-markers that has gone unnoticed in early Islamic architecture.

More information

Hamilton, Khirbat al Mafjar

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