QASR AL-HAYR AL-GHARBI
In the Syrian Desert, about 80 Km. south-west of Palmyra, lies Qasr
al-Hayr al-Gharbi. It is constructed in an oasis watered from a valley
feeding it during the rain seasons. Its location is remarkable for being
situated at the cross-roads of two important
routes of the Desert: The route of Damascus-Qaryatayn Palmyra, and the
route of Homs-al-Jawf both are old routes linking together the two wings
of the Fertile Crescent.
Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi is one of the many palaces built by the Umayyad
Caliphs and Princes in the Syrian Desert and Jordan. Among these Palaces
are: Qasr al-Hayr ash-Sharqi (100 Km. north-east of Palmyra): the Arab
Palaces of ar-Rusafah, constructed outside the ancient Byzantine city of
Sergiopolis: the Palace of Wasit ar-Raqqah ( on
the west bank of the Euphrates); Jabal Usays (100 Km. east of Damascus);
the Palace of Hisham (Khirbat al-Mafjir near Jericho of Jordan); al-Mushatta;
Qusayr Amrah; and Khurranah... The last three palaces are situated in
The Caliphs built these palaces in particular places of the desert so
that each palace might serve as a stage while they are on a journey
across the desert, a place of rest and relaxation, and an ideal spot for
sport and hunting, far from the noise of the capital and worries of the
Moreover, the presence of these residences in the heart of the desert
helped the Caliphs and the Umayyad Princes to be in touch with the
chiefs of tribes in order to solve their problems,
get married to their daughters and continue to have their
As we see, these palaces fulfilled many purposes : They ensured complete
control over the desert routes, enabled the Caliphs to have direct
contact with the tribes of Bedouin and constituted paces for relaxation
The Arabs erected Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi on a site which had been
already occupied by ruins of Roman and Byzantine periods. A Byzantine
tower is still standing in the north-west angle of the Umayyad Palace.
We still see in the Palace some remains of the former periods including
the stone door which will he described shortly and some Doric capitals
which the Arab used as bases for the columns of the porticos.
This oasis draws it water from the clam of Harbaqah at about 17 Km. to
the south of the palace. The dam was built before the advent of Islam,
but was repaired when the palace was constructed. The dam detains its
water in a lake of 1550 meters long by 800 meters wide. It has 3
openings: two of them are fixed on the base and the third is attached to
an aqueduct branching to the palace, the orchard and to al-Qusayr
(locally called Khan al-Milh) at about 10 Km. from the Palace.
The orchard is about 1050 m. long by 442 m. wide. Its was surrounded by
a brick wall constructed on a stone base. The wall is supported by
semi-cylindrical buttresses alternating regularly along the wall, partly
from the interior and partly from the exterior. The orchard has two
entrances and a house for the orchard keeper. The excavations carried
out there revealed the existence of stone installations for distribution
of water in the canals which are dug In the ground.
There is a bath outside the palace, close to its western side, bably
built in the Umayyad Period before the construction of the palace. The
bath consists of a cold section having four chambers, and a warm section
having three chambers: The first has a large stone bench, the second has
two basins; and the third has a stone bench and a basin. It is worthy to
mention that the method of heating in the bath does not differ so much
from the method which is still used today.
About 10 Km. from the Palace, close to an artificial pool
,there is a building probably a
palacelet or a caravanserai. Nothing remained of it save its huge stone
door which was transferred to the Damascus Museum. It was reconstructed
in the garden near the facade of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi.
The lintel of the door bears the following Kufic inscription
which revealed to us the name of the constructor and the date of the
period of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi:
" In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful, there is no god
but God, the Unique without Partner. This work has been done by the
order of the servant of God, Hisham, the Prince of the Faithful, May
Allah recompense him, built at the hands of Thabit ibn Abi Thabit in the
month of Rajab, in 109 A.H. = October / November 727 A.D. "
Description of the Palace :
Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi is almost square; its side being 70 meters. It is
supported by cylindrical towers at the corners and semi-cylindrical
towers on the walls and on either side of the door which opens on the
The Palace was built of limestone blocks up to
two meters in height. The rest was completed with courses of bricks
alternating with rows of tiles and wooden cross-beams. The exterior
walls are thicker than those of the interior.
This residence had two stories. Only the ground floor is known to us,
but the upper floor is not, but its existence is confirmed by the
remains lying on the ground. The Palace is entered by a big gate in the
eastern facade, one passes there over a large corridor provided, on each
side, with benches having elbow-rests and its ceiling is supported by
arches. Having passed over this corridor, one reaches the central
courtyard of the Palace. This courtyard is square and open to sky. It is
surrounded on all sides by a portico whose capitals are of sculptured
gypsum according to the Corinthian style and whose are of stone. The
supports of the portico are in the form of an angle whose extremity ends
with a half column.
The ground floor is divided into six flats, each one comprises a number
of halls and chambers. They are fifty nine in all with the exception of
the Byzantine tower. Only two sections of the flats near-by the corridor
are displayed in the reconstructed section of the palace at the National
Museum of Damascus.
Artistic Value of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi:
This palace presents a first-class specimen for the study of
architecture and decorative art of the Umayyad Period. The Arab
architects were able to copy the Persian art and at the same time the
Byzantine art ( heir of the Greco-Roman art) and then to synthesis the
acquired elements and thereby creating an original architecture which is
neither eastern nor western, but rather an original one responding to
the requirements of the age, the region, and the orientation of the new
As the Palace, on the whole, was built in bricks,
the exterior and the interior walls were whitewashed the ornaments were
either a paint on the whitewashed walls or on the earthen unpaved floor.
In tact, two halls were plastered with mortar. The decoration also
comprises carved wood colored and gilded (some fragments of the
wainscot have been found among the rubble. These are displayed in one of
the showcases and these fragments are considered the oldest and the most
important of what were left over of the Umayyad Period), or sculpture in
the soft stucco including: arches, windows, balustrades and capitals.
They have also floral, human and animal decorative motifs. The
decorations in stucco are the richest, the most abundant and in great
By observing the decorative elements of Qasr al-Hayr al Gharbi, we can
draw out the principal essentials which characterize the Islamic-Arab
art in Its first appearance.
When the Arab artist wants to use the decorative
themes, he represents them in a naturalistic form, but he arranges and
presents them in a phantasmal style, disposing the floral motifs of
symmetric and almost geometrical shape.
The artist does not confine himself to a single
theme in decoration. Searching for the variety, he uses floral,
geometrical, semi-geometrical, human and animal motifs, some of them or
all of them in the decoration of one place.
When the artist wants to decorate a big facade
(like that of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi) he divides it into many
superimposed blocks, separating each
one from the other by bands of cornices rows of rosettes, niches or
panels. The artist then deals with the motifs of the regular facade.
In the distribution of decorative themes the
artist takes into consideration the symmetry, the resemblance and the
The artist repeats the same subject to decorate a
cornice, a band or a register. Sometimes he uses two different subjects
alternately to avoid monotony.
If the artist used the floral motifs in a
decoration of a window arch, he would employ the geometrical motifs in
the decoration of claustra and vice versa.
Important Elements of the Reconstructed Wing:
The Principal Facade: It consists of tow semi-cylindrical towers framing
the gate. These towers and the part surmounting the door are divided
into zones, in the direction of the width. The following is the
description of zones from top to bottom There is first the prominent
cornice ornamented with leaves of acanthus, then there is a large band
divided into three zones in the direction of the top, the two extreme
zones are decorated with geometrical and floral motifs, symmetrical and
similar. They are surmounted by a row of rosettes over a prominent
cornice in the middle. This cornices is topped by another band divided
into zones decorated with two alternating motifs: the first square,
ornamented with successive bands, a circle and a rosette in the centre.
the second comprises a lozenge with a rosette in the middle
. Over this band there is a ribbon
decorated with floral motifs. The band is topped by niches framed with
rails of two categories: niches with horse-shoe arches and niches with
pointed arches, These niches are surmounted by
ribbon having vegetable decorations, then a row of rosettes, followed by
a cornice surmounted by merlons having in their centre an opening in the
form of an arrow.
The door opening into this facade, is surmounted by a big semi-circular
arch, topped by a band decorated with rosettes
surmounted by a row of small niches alternating with pretty rails. This
is followed by another ribbon, and a row of false windows, two of them
in the middle are true windows. All these are surmounted by another
band, a large zone limited with two arches at the
top which was occupied by a scene bearing fierce animals, persons, then
a zone whose height is unknown to us,
The Portico of the Courtyard: It comprises columns with Corinthian
capitals which support the gallery of the upper
floor and from which appears the balustrade. Each panel of this
balustrade is ornamented with human or animal motifs in relief. These
motifs are considered the most important decorations of the palace.
two apartments close to the corridor:
Two apartments only are represented. Each one contains a wide hall, its
ceiling is supported by a large arch. There are two entrances on both
sides of the hall: Two entrances communicating with two closets near the
corridor, and two entrances, on the opposite side, communicating with a
number of closets (have not been reconstructed yet). On entering the
hall. one remarks a lighting shaft in stucco above the door. The walls
are ornamented with zones of wavy motifs in black and red colors. The
decorations of the walls constitute various examples which give and idea
of the decoration of the other halls. Above these colored motifs there
is a white zone which might have been decorated with human themes, then
a zone in brick color, then a new white zone ornamented with floral
motifs. The corners of these closets are decorated with an elegant motif
by using brick-red color. This motif is in the form of a candlestick
reclining on the skirting.
Explanatory Documents :
Having passed over the corridor of the entrance. one sees on the
opposite wall, a panel bearing the Kufic text of the caravanserai which
we have already mentioned. Below it. one sees the plan of the whole
palace in black color. The reconstructed part at the Museum is marked in
are also two maquettes: one represents the palace such as it was at the
moment of its discovery, and the other is a maquette of the palace
reconstructed after detailed archaeological study.
Architectural Elements of the Upper Floor:
The upper floor comprises a portico and a large hall which was supposed
to be an exhibition hall:
Here we can see the reconstruction of two doors
along with their lighting shafts. They are the most beautiful pieces of
the Palace. One can easily note the harmony existing among; the
different decorative elements.
We can also see in the large hall of the upper
floor a reconstructed facade having windows which alternate with the
following themes, in high relief: A hunter, big eagle, and a person
sitting on a throne.
In the Exhibition Hall : Big fresco fixed on the
eastern wall (500 x 458 cm.). It had been covering the floor of one of
the Palace Halls and was made of a mortar so solid as concrete.
It represents three colored tableaux : A cavalier two musicians and a
scene of festival. The costumes of persons are, to a great extent,
influenced by the Sassanid art.
Big fresco fixed on the western wail (521 x 443 cm ) . It is also
adorned with colored designs depicting a woman
carrying fruits. A serpent is coiling itself round her neck. This
scene is copied from the Greek Mythological representation of Ge
(goddess of the earth). Above this scene, two sea centaurs can be
seen. Each one is half man half dog with a
On the south wall, fragments of a statue
in stucco with traces of colors is displayed. The statue represents an
important person wearing an oriental turban and rich clothes of
Sassanid style. the statue is probably depicting the Caliph Hisham ibn
Abd -al-Malik, the founder of the Palace (?).
stucco statue supposed to be the Caliph Hisham ibn Abd-al-Malik
Various specimens of windows and light shafts in openwork stucco are
In the Middle of the Hall: Numerous specimens of objects are displayed.
They are: Balustrades, capitals of big and small columns,
fragments of mural paintings depicting the slaves and the female
slaved of the Palace and some naturalistic vegetable motifs. One of
these important paintings in particular attract the attention. It is a
painting of a person wearing a hat of Frankish type, may he it was of
Frank who was taken captive (?).
Patterns of windows and lighting shafts displayed
on the wall of the upper gallery.
Main facade of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, now
at the National Museum in Damascus.