Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi
60 km southwest of Palmyra, Syrian Desert, Syria
Hegira 109 / AD 727
Thabit ibn Thabit, who oversaw construction of the Khan al-Milh.
Hisham ibn 'Abd al-Malik (r. AH 105–25 / AD 723–42).
Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi is an Umayyad desert palace complex composed of a dam, underground water canal, garden, lake, mill, khan, hammam and the palace residence. The Umayyad caliphs, particularly Hisham bin 'Abd al-Malik prided themselves on their capacity to transform deserts into lush pleasure gardens for courtly pursuits, such as hunting game.
The dam, known as Kharbaqa Dam, lies 16 km southwest of the palace. Its waters are distributed via an underground canal connected to the palace and the rest of the facilities on site. The garden is an enclosed rectangle, measuring 1,050 m x 442 m, and includes remains of the canal, alongside traces of the custodian's dwelling. The khan, known as Khan al-Milh, is located 10 km northwest of the palace residence and takes the shape of a slanted square, with sides about 55 m long. It has mud-brick walls over a masonry base, and it includes a central courtyard. The hammam is also located to the northwest and consists of two sections: the frigidarium with four rooms, one featuring a mihrab; and the calidarium located above the furnace and consisting of three chambers.
The palace proper has an exterior façade reminiscent of a fort, but any defensive features are purely decorative. The palace is square, with sides approximately 70 m long, made of hewn limestone to a height of about 2 m, after which it is completed with unfired bricks. Three of its exterior corners are embellished by circular towers; the northwestern corner is a square Byzantine tower dating to the AD 6th century. Between each corner is a pair of semi-circular towers. On the eastern wall, the pair of towers is more closely spaced to flank the main entrance and it features extensive stucco decoration of carved geometric, floral and architectonic motifs, with large merlons along the top and narrow windows that resemble arrow loops. In the 1940s this monumental entry façade was carefully transported to become the entrance of the National Museum in Damascus.
Through the palace entrance, a corridor leads to a roofed portico that surrounds a large, square central courtyard. There are two storeys, which were probably identical in layout, and evidence of two staircases. Both storeys are divided into six independently functioning sections each including several rooms, a hall, and a lavatory. Above the entrances to each of these sections are arched windows decorated with pierced stucco that provide the palace with air and light. Splendid paintings, carvings, and statues covered the interior; many of these artefacts now belong to the collection at the National Museum of Damascus.
Despite the palace's grand decoration and clever utilisation of the environment, the paucity of ceramic and glass fragments found on the site indicates the brevity of its Umayyad occupation. During the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, the site was used for military purposes; it was finally abandoned during the Mongol invasion of the AH 7th / AD 13th century.
The quantity of paintings and sculpted stucco that was discovered at this Umayyad palatial complex reveals some of the best examples of early Islamic syncretism of pre-Islamic art, particularly in a courtly context. It was built by Hisham ibn 'Abd al-Malik with large enclosures decorated by semi-circular towers, except for the northwestern corner where a rectangular Byzantine watch-tower stands. The complex is dated to AH 109 / AD 727 by an inscription found in the door lintel of the nearby khan (travellers' lodgings).
The palace complex is dated by means of an inscription found on the lintel of the khan, now located in the National Museum of Damascus, which indicates that the khan was built in the year 109 (727). It is assumed that the rest of the palace complex was also built around that time.
Elisseeff, N., “Kasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi”, Encyclopaedia of Islam, CD-ROM edition, Leiden, 1999.
Schlumberger, D., Qasr el-Heir el-Gharbi, Paris, 1986.
Dina Bakkour "Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2019. 2019. http://www.discoverislamicart.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;sy;Mon01;28;en
Prepared by: Dina BakkourDina Bakkour
Dina Bakkour is an archaeologist. She studied archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology and Museums in Damascus and General History at the University of Damascus. She received her Master's (DEA) in Islamic archaeology from the ParisI Sorbonne University, where she is currently preparing her Ph.D. thesis. She holds a Master's in Museology from the Ecole Du Louvre in Paris. Dina followed many stages in conservation and restoration in Rome, Murcia and Amsterdam. Nowadays, she works in the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Damascus. She participated in many national and European excavations and restoration in Syria and taught at the Institute of Archaeology and Museum in Damascus. She was a contributor to The Restorations of Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi. Nabek-Syria (Damascus: Syrian Ministry of Culture; Rome: Central Institute for Restoration).
Copyedited by: Majd Musa
Translation by: Amal Sachedina (from the Arabic).
Translation copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: SY 35
Islamic Dynasties / Period
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)Geometric Decoration | Geometric Decoration in Architecture The Umayyads | Official Patronage
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