Khirbet al-Mafjar, one of the most famous Umayyad palaces, was intensively excavated by D.C. Baramki and R. W Hamilton during the years 1934-1948. A portion of the results of the twelve excavation seasons was published by Baramki in preliminary reports in QDAP and later, in an almost complete report by Hamilton (R.W Hamilton. Khirbat al-Mafjar: An Arabian Mansion in the Jordan Valley. Oxford, 1959). In these publications Hamilton discusses the building methods and the different decorations in mosaic, stucco, stone relief and fresco. His publications served as a basis for further analyses of the royal complex by other scholars. However, little was done concerning the frescoes.
The wall frescoes were found in a fallen state both on the floors of the palace and on the floor of the bath hall. Only a part of the fresco paintings was described in the final report by Hamilton with a discussion of their style by Oleg Grabar. Recently, two large files with many aquarelle copies of the frescoes were found in the Mandatory Archive at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. The aquarelle paintings were prepared as part of the documentation undertaken by Baramki. Unfortunately, at this stage the identity of the aquarelle painter is unknown, as we have only a picture of his hand while illustrating the face of a worker (fig.1). Dozens of the paintings in the files were not included in Grabar’s discussion. Furthermore, Grabar’s report includes only black and white reproductions while the paintings are colorful (fig.2).
Fig. 1. The painter's hand.
Fig. 2a. A fresco fragment as published in the final report.
Fig. 2b. A fresco fragment as newly found in the Mandatory Archive at the Rockefeller.
This project aims at reconstructing the paintings, their location in the palace and, if possible understands the iconography. In this short report I would like to represent but one scene that I refer to here as the “battle scene.”
The “Battle Scene”
On the southern part of the east wing where the entrance to the qasir unit is situated, large ashlars stones were found in a fallen position. Part of the blocks were found inside one of the rooms, room Vb (fig.3), and the others were found in the southern portico outside the enclosure. At least five different-sized pieces can be brought together to create the “battle scene.”
Fig. 3. Frescoes locations in the qasir.
One of the major blocks, more than 1.5 m long, with frescoes on it, depicts a row of at least four heads painted on a blue background and five black diagonal pointed lines outcropping behind and to the side of the heads (fig.4-6). Those heads and lines gave the impression that these are soldiers holding spears in a battle field, hence the proposed name of the scene (fig.7). This piece is framed by thick border lines on two sides, one above the heads and one to the side of them. This border sets the piece as an upper corner of the scene. As such, it determines the border of this wall painting (fig.7a).
Fig. 4. The "heads block" when just uncovered and before becoming damaged.
Fig. 5. The block, few weeks later, fully exposed but partly damaged.
Fig. 6. The "heads block" Aquarelle copy.
Another two pieces with blue sky background were found in the room: one with the head of a man illustrated in profile and with a stretched hand (fig.7b), and the second illustrating a man’s head with a surviving eye gazing at the observer, a spear and what looks like part of another head (fig.7c). Those pieces form the skyline, occupying the upper part of the scene.
As for the lower body of the scene, two pieces are proposed; both are bordered on the side and therefore should be placed closer to the frame. One of them illustrates what looks like three legs, a round shield and a quiver (fig.7aiii). The lower parts of the legs are covered with gray strips and red bands, while the upper parts are exposed. The rounded curve of the shield is painted in yellow and the quiver is painted in the same color of the strips on the legs. These features look like part of two soldiers standing, one frontal and one in movement to the right. One of them is holding a quiver. To their back a shield is positioned. Traces of a third soldier can be seen to the left near the border line. Only portions of the legs survived, one of them partly covered with gray strips. Another fresco with a circular feature illustrated in it, was found in the south portico outside room Vb, thus it is considered to be another piece of this scene (fig.7aii). It seems that the circular piece is a part of a shield; therefore we propose that it was on top of the lower piece of the shield. Above the shield a hand can be seen.
Fig. 7. The reconstructed "battle scene".
The scene is far from being clear, though at least we can reconstruct a row of soldiers standing and holding spears and shields. The projecting spears recall the spears from the famous battle scene of Alexander dated to the second century B.C. In that mosaic the two rivals, the Persian king Darius and the Macedonian one, Alexander, face each other in battle. One of the clear fields is the skyline where horrified faces can be seen and spears stick out, while the lower part is less obvious: horses and worriers are clashing, which makes it difficult to distinguish between the different features. The same applies to the lower body of the battle from Mafjar, where few pieces survived.
Artists active under the Umayyads can be seen as largely integrating two artistic traditions, the Sasanian and the Roman-Byzantine. The newly established art language emerging from the two traditions can be seen in the various Umayyad monuments, either serving religious purposes such as the Dome of the Rock and the Great mosque of Damascus, or palatial complexes, for instance Qusayr Amra and Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi. The battle scene displays soldiers illustrated in the Roman-Byzantine style rather than the Sasanian one. Unfortunately, its fragmental condition does not offer any clue regarding the nature of the battle. However, this scene points to a section of the palace where visitors would be able to sense the type of life the patron wished to present. On the other side of this section we found other royal motifs, especially the Simurv, which is illustrated on the walls to the side with classical motifs influenced by the Sasanian tradition.
The Martin Buber Society of fellows,
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem,