Hisham’s Palace or Khirbet al-Mafjar is an archaeological site located 3km north of Jericho in the West Bank; the archaeological remains are a significant example of early Islamic architecture during the Umayyad Period. It is the most important archaeological site in Palestine and an important part of the people’s heritage. Hisham’s Palace is named after Umayyad Caliph Hisham bin AbdulMalek who ruled from 724AD to 743AD but the palace may have been built by Walid Ibn Yazid, Hisham’s successor. The palace is one of the last surviving examples of a Middle Easter desert palace. It was common for Umayyad rulers to have a desert retreat or hunting lodge where they could relax, a bit like a modern-day country home or vacation home. The palace would have been used as a seasonal home or winter home. The entire complex covers approximately 265m² (150 acres).
The architecture of Hisham’s Palace
The palace was part of a complex which included royal buildings, baths, colonnaded courtyards, stables, a mosque and grape press. Significant findings from excavation work done at the site include mosaic floors, carved stucco, sculptured stones and artifacts of everyday life. Many of the carvings, mosaics and paintings depict well known Islamic symbols of early classical Islamic art. The architectural structure of the palace was sophisticated and elaborate including elements like barrel vaults and a dome. The palace complex is divided in three sections – the palace, bathhouse and an agricultural estate with a complex irrigation system. There are two multi-level palaces, a mosque with courtyard and bath enclosed by an outer wall and along the eastern border of the complex a forecourt with a central fountain. The main gate on the southern façade of the palace is flanked by towers.
From the structures experts have learned a lot about early Islamic architectural features. For example up until the discovery of Hisham’s Palace it was believe that the extended porch was a feature which only appeared in c.916AD but as it is part of Hisham’s Palace is must have existed before. Many of the decorative features like the ornate plasterwork was used here for the first time in Palestine. The palace featured a dome which was probably inspired by Christian, Persian or Byzantine traditions. Another first in the décor of the palace was the use of stucco to imitate marble. Persian-inspired motifs of animals, flowers and geometric shapes were used in the plasterwork. One of the most stunning pieces of architecture which has survived intact is a window of the palace in the form of a large circle holding a hexagonal star-shape which surrounds another circular window.
Within the residential palace the rooms faced inward towards the inner courtyard. The bathhouse appears to have been lavishly decorated to fit the opulent life of Hisham as described in ancient texts. Years after Caliph Walid’s reign the palace complex is thought to have been abandoned due to an earthquake. The people of Jericho would then use the stones of the various structures in building new structures. In the 12th century there was an attempt to restore the palace but it was never seen through to fruition.
The Tree of Life Mosaic
One of the bathhouse mosaics depicts a lion attacking a gazelle under a large, fruit-bearing tree. This mosaic has become renowned as one of the most beautiful from this period and the image is thought to represent a period of peace which followed Islam’s triumph. The bathhouse was the second largest structure in the complex after the palace itself and it is apparent that careful attention to detail was given to the bathhouse as a very important structure. The bathhouse appears to have been built before the palace and used before as well.
Who Lived in Hisham’s Palace?
During excavation an ostracon (pottery with engraved writing on it) was found bearing the name “Hisham” this was seen as evidence that the palace had belonged to Hisham. However the Umayyad Caliph Hisham bin AbdulMalek lived an opulent life of luxury and was eventually assassinated. He ruled an empire from India to the Pyrenees from 724 to 743AD. Hisham had a reputation for being righteous and living an austere lifestyle. Some experts believe that the architecture and decoration of the palace does not match the austere personality and reputation of Hisham and better suits Hisham’s successor, his nephew All-Walid bin Yazid who ruled 743-744. Al-Walid lived an extravagant lifestyle which would be more aligned to the design of this palace.
And so although the palace was named after Hisham the true owner is uncertain. Caliph Walid was assassinated a year after coming to power leaving the palace incomplete. What is definite is that the palace dates back to the 8th century and was built during the Umayyad Dynasty.
Excavation of Hisham’s Palace
Hisham’s Palace was uncovered in 1873 but only excavated in 1894 by Syrian-born American archaeologist F.J.Bliss. However the major work on the site was done by C.D.Baramki, a Palestinian archaeologist who dedicated himself to this project from 1934 to 1948. In 2006 excavations were once again undertaken, this time by Dr. Hamdan Taha for the Palestinian National Authority Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Research continues on the site through the Jericho Mafjar Project undertaken by the Palestinian authority and the University of Chicago. In 2015 the Palestinian Authority accepted the help of the Japan International Cooperation Agency in a new project to uncover 825m² of mosaics in the palace.
Hisham’s Palace Museum
The Hisham’s Palace Museum opened in 2014 and displays artifacts, archaeological findings, stucco fragments, decorative tiles, painted plaster and information relating to the palace. At the museum you can learn about life in the palace and life on the adjacent farm. The museum has graphic panels explaining each exhibit and there is an introductory film about the archeological site. There is a useful timeline of the site’s history and maps outlining the site at different periods of history. There is a section dedicated to Palestinian archaeologist Dimitri Baramki and his work on the excavation in the 1930s. Other displays in the museum include one on ceramic traditions; the economic role of the agricultural estate and decorative and architectural aspects of the palace. In all there are about 150 artifacts on display. A trip to the site is part of the Palestinian school curriculum and the site is considered very important to their history education.