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Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – Architecture & History

Small country (88,946 square km) located at the east end of the Mediterranean, bordering Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Jordan can be divided into four main zones, each of which extends into neighbouring countries. In the north of the country the landscape is dominated by black basalt rock which in places forms an almost impenetrable barrier to travel. The oasis of Azraq is located on the southern edge of this region and functions as a station for eastbound traffic to Iraq. The western edge of the country lies within the Jordan valley where it borders Palestine; this area is known locally as the Ghor and includes both the area of the Dead Sea and the east side of the wadi Arabah. The highland area to the east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan river is the most densely populated area of the country and includes the main cities of Amman, Irbid and Zerka. To the south and east of this region is the desert known as the Badiyya; this includes a variety of landscapes ranging from dry steppe in the north to large expanses of sandy desert in the south around Wadi Rum.


Al Khazneh (The Treasury) hewn into the sandstone cliff.

Jordan was not a fully independent state until 1946; before this period it formed part of various empires, kingdoms and lordships. Nevertheless, Jordan has one of the longest and richest archaeological sequences in the Middle East, which is reflected in architecture such as the 9,000-year- old Neolithic houses of Beidha. Probably the best- known architecture of Jordan is that of the Nabatean city of Petra which dates mostly from the period between the first century BCE and the third century CE. Here a series of magnificent facades are carved into the rose-coloured rock reflecting the wealth and connections of the Nabatean kingdom. Further north a series of cities known as the Decapolis (including Jerash, Umm Qeis, Umm al-Jemal, Pella and Amman) testify to the prosperity of this area during the Classical and Byzantine period. During the Byzantine period numerous churches with mosaics were built, the most famous of which is one at Madaba which includes a mosaic map of Palestine.

In 631 the first Arab armies invaded the prosperous lands of the Byzantine Empire. After an initial defeat at Mu’ tah the Arabs eventually triumphed over the Byzantines at the battle of Yarmouk near the city of Pella. During the next 120 years Jordan was enriched with some of the finest examples of early Islamic architecture found anywhere, including the painted bath house of Qusayr Amra and the palace of Mshatta. Subsequent periods in the history of Jordan are not so well known, with the exception of the Crusader period, when magnificent strongholds were built by both Arabs and Crusaders.

The main building materials in Jordan are basalt in the north, limestone and sandstone in the central highlands and mud brick in the Jordan valley and in areas of the desert. Occasionally in the early Islamic period baked brick was employed for vaulting, although this was not repeated in the later periods. The best examples of basalt construction can be seen at Umm al-Jemal where a system of corbels supporting basalt beams was employed. Limestone was used in some of the finer architecture of Roman and early Islamic Jordan because it can be dressed to a fine finish. Mud brick does not survive well, but representative examples of mud-brick architecture can be seen in the oasis town of Ma’an.

Umayyad architecture in Jordan contains a mixture of eastern and western influences with the result that the surviving buildings represent a variety of different architectural types some of which were never repeated (i.e. the use of baked brick and stone at Mshatta and Tuba). Generally buildings from this period may be grouped into three categories: (i) those which are purely developments of Roman Byzantine architecture, (ii) those which are heavily influenced by Persian (Sassanian) architectural concepts and (iii) buildings which combine both eastern and western traditions.


Roman-Byzantine Influence

Brightly colored frescos of the bathhouse

Probably the most famous Islamic building in Jordan is the bath house of Qusayr Amra located in the desert approximately 60 km west of Amman. The building stands alone apart from a small fort or caravanserai several kilometres to the north. Inside the building the walls and ceilings are decorated with a remarkable series of frescoes, including depictions of bathing women, a series of royal portraits, a hunting scene and the zodiac. Although the choice of pictures is certainly Umayyad the style of painting and the design of the bath house is purely Byzantine.

Some of the best-known Umayyad castles are re-used Roman forts or fortresses, whilst others are built in the style of Roman forts with more luxurious fittings. Qasr Hallabat is a square Roman fort 44 m per side with square corner towers. It was originally built in the second century CE to protect the Via Nova Traiana and later expanded in 212215 CE and restored in 529. Careful excavation and analysis of the fort show that it was subsequently changed into an Umayyad residence with mosaics, painted plaster (frescoes), carved and painted wood and finely carved stucco with geometric, floral and animal motifs. To the east of the castle is a tall rectangular mosque with three entrances and a mihrab in the south wall; this building was also decorated with stucco work. Outside the forts, remains of an Umayyad agricultural settlement have been found including small houses. Approximately 3 km to the south of Hallabat is a bath house also of the Umayyad period which probably served Qasr Hallabat. The bath house is similar to that of Qasayr Amra and was decorated with painted plasterwork and stucco. Whilst the particular combination of structures and their design is characteristic of the Umayyad period (a fort converted to palace, bath house and mosque), the individual elements and building style at Hallabat are all Byzantine.

A similar structure to Hallabat is the Umayyad complex at Qastal (25 km south of Amman) which until recently was thought to have been built as a Roman or Byzantine fort. However, recent research has shown that all the main structures date from the Umayyad period. The main structure are a fortlike palace, a mosque, a bath house, reservoir, dams, cisterns, a cemetery and domestic houses. The central palace complex consists of a square fort-like building (about 68 m per side) with four round corner towers and intermediate semi-circular buttress towers. The decoration within the palace is similar to that found at Hallabat and includes mosaics, stucco work and carved stonework. Internally the building consists of a central courtyard opening on to six buyut (pl. of bayt) or houses. Probably the most impressive feature of the building was the large triple-apsed audience hall, located directly above the entrance.

Sassanian Influence (‘Eastern’)

Interior of Qasr Kharana, Jordan

Structures representing strong Sassanian or eastern influences are less numerous although perhaps more striking because of their obviously foreign derivation. Perhaps the best-known building of this type is Qasr Kharana (located 50 km east of Amman on the present Baghdad-Amman high-way). Kharana consists of a two-storey square-plan structure, 35 m per side, with small projecting corner towers and a projecting rounded entrance. The building is remarkable for its superb state of preservation, which includes in situ plasterwork on the upper floor. The building is made out of roughly shaped blocks set in a mud-based mortar with decorative courses of flat stones placed in bands running around the outside of the building. There are also small slits set within the wall which were probably for ventilation (their size and positioning means that they could not have been used as arrow slits). Internally the building is decorated with pilasters, blind niches and medallions finished in plaster. The whole appearance of the building is so different from other Umayyad structures in Jordan that scholars have tried to attribute it to the period of Sassanian occupation of the area despite an eighth-century inscription. The best parallels for Kharana are to be found in early Islamic buildings in Iraq such as Khan ‘Atshan (similar size and decoration) and Qasr Khubbaz which is built using the same materials (i.e. rough stone blocks set in mud mortar).

Another building erroneously attributed to the Sassanian period is the palace on the citadel in Amman. Like Kharana the Amman citadel building exhibits unmistakable eastern influence in its architecture and layout. The best preserved part of the palace is the building known as the kiosk. This is constructed on a four-iwan plan and decorated with blind niches lined with plaster, a common feature of Sassanian and Umayyad architecture in Iraq (e.g. Ctesiphon and Ukhaidhir). The layout of the palace was huge with at least twelve courtyards arranged on a linear plan. At the opposite end of the complex from the kiosk was a large iwan leading to a cruciform-plan audience hall. All of these features are reminiscent of Mesopotamian palace arcitecture, where palaces are like small cities, containing both administrative and residential areas.

East-West Influence

Aerial View of Qasr Mshatta

Two buildings dated to the later Umayyad period (probably the reign of Walid II 743-4) represent a combination of eastern and western influences. The most obvious demonstration of these mixed influences is the use of baked brick for vaults and walls and dressed stone masonry for foundations and architectural details. The most famous of these buildings is Qasr Mshatta located 25 km to the south of Amman. This consists of a large square enclosure with four semi-circular buttress towers. The best- known feature of this palace is the southern facade which consists of a delicately carved stone frieze incorporating animals and plant motifs within a geometric scheme of giant triangles. Internally the building is divided into three longitudinal strips; only the central strip (running north-south) was developed and contains within it the entrance, the central courtyard and the audience hall. The audience hall consists of a triple-apsed room covered by a large brick dome. The layout of the palace immediately recalls that of the Abbasid palaces of Iraq such as Ukhaidhir and has led some scholars to suggest an Abbasid date for the structure. Byzantine elements are also present, however, most notably in the basilical arrangement of the approach to the triple-apsed room and in the motifs of the stonework.
Although Qasr al-Tuba is in many respects similar to Mshatta it is much simpler in its decoration and is generally thought to be closer to a caravanserai than a palace. Qasr al-Tuba is the largest of the desert castles and consists of two identical halves, the southern half of which appears never to have been built. Stacks of bricks on the floor testify to the unfinished nature of the building, although it is possible that some of the structure was originally built out of mud brick. Originally there were some fine carved stone lintels at Tuba but these have now disappeared.

Medieval Period

Standing remains of the Abbasid and Fatimid period in Jordan are rare and architectural remains are mostly limited to archaeological excavations. The reasons for this are complex and related to the fall of the Umayyads and Jordan’s peripheral position in relation to the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates. The only place where significant architectural remains from this period have been uncovered are at Aqaba on Jordan’s Red Sea coast. This town seems to have reached its peak of prosperity during the Abbasid and Fatimid periods, when it was a trading port in contact with Iraq,

Yemen, Egypt and China. Excavations at the site have revealed a walled town (160 by 120 m approximately) with rounded buttress towers and four gateways providing access to the two main streets. Sometime during the Fatimid period mud brick replaced cut stone as the building material for many of the houses.


Mamluk mosque at Pella, Jordan (after Bishe)


The Ayyubid and Mamluk periods are marked by the intrusion of the Crusaders who built castles at Karak, Shawbak and Petra to control movement between Egypt and Syria. As a result of the Crusader presence most of the well-known buildings from this period are castles and forts. Examples of Islamic forts can be seen at Azraq, Ajlun, Jise and Qasr Shebib (the Crusader castles at Karak and Shawbak were also remodelled during this period). The best example of medieval fortification can be seen at Qal’at Rabad (Ajlun) built in 1184-5. This consists of several thick walled towers with V-shaped arrow slits linked by curtain walls. The masonry of the castle consists of large blocks similar to those used by the Crusaders at Karak and Shawbak.

In addition to the large castles several smaller forts survive from the medieval period. These were either built to protect the road system or as signal posts. Probably the most important route in Jordan was the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Mecca; several forts on this route have survived, notably the forts at Jise and Qasr Shebib in Zerka. Related to these forts is the Mamluk fortified khan at Aqaba. This is a rectangular structure with circular corner towers and a deep protected entrance. The form of the arch above the entrance recalls the architecture of Mamluk Egypt with its ablaq masonry and horseshoe arch.

Later Islamic Architecture
The best-known examples of early Ottoman architecture in Jordan are the Hajj forts which were built to protect the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Mecca. The earliest of the these forts were built in the sixteenth century during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent. These were small square structures with large decorated arrow slits, projecting machicolations and large crenellated parapets. In the late eighteenth century the fort network was expanded to counter increased bedouin raids. Forts of this period are more functional and have small gun slits instead of large arrow slits, with projecting corner towers to increase the field of fire.

Other early Ottoman buildings in Jordan are difficult to date so precisely, although the fortified farmsteads at Yadudeh and Udruh probably both date from the eighteenth century.
The best examples of nineteenth-century architecture in Jordan can be seen at al-Salt west of Amman and at Umm Qeis north of Irbid. The architecture of both towns shows strong Palestinian influence. Salt in particular shares many features with Nablus. Amman, however, differs from the other cities in north Jordan as it was settled by Circassian refugees. Characteristic features of Circassian houses are the use of wood, the introduction of chimneys and small rooms.
Several mosques of the medieval period are known in Jordan, the finest of which was the twelfth- century structure at Mazar, near Mut’ah (this has now been destroyed). Mamluk mosques can also be seen at Pella and in the fort at Azraq; these are rectangular structures with flat roofs resting on arches supported by columns.

By Andrew Peteren – Dictionary of Islamic Architecture

Andrew PetersonAndrew Petersen is an archeologist specializing in the Islamic Middle East. He is currently a research fellow at Cardiff University, Wales, and was formerly a research officer for the Amman-based Council for British Research in the Levant. He has specialized in research on Jordan ‘s Hajj forts since 1986. His e-mail address is [email protected].


Further reading:
G.L.Harding, The Antiquities of Jordan, London 1967. S.Helms, with A.V.G.Betts, W. and F.Lancaster and C.J.Lenzen, Early Islamic Architecture of the Desert: A Bedouin Station in Eastern Jordan, Edinburgh 1990. A.Khammash, Notes on the Village Architecture of Jordan,
Louisiana 1986. R.G.Khoury, Pella: A Brief Guide to the Antiquities, Amman and Sydney 1988.
Amman: A Brief Guide to the Antiquities, Amman 1988.
The Desert Castles: A Brief Guide to the Antiquities,
Amman 1988.
Petra: A Brief Guide to the Antiquities, Amman 1988.
A.McQuitty, ‘An architectural study of the Irbid region with particular reference to a building in Irbid’, Levant 21:119-28,1989. A.D.Petersen, ‘Early Ottoman forts on the Darb al-Hajj’, Levant 21: 97-117, 1989.
Two medieval forts on the medieval Hajj route in
Jordan’, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 35: 347-89, 1991.

About the Author
Dr.Andrew Petersen is Director of Research in Islamic Archaeology at the University of Wales Lampeter. He has carried out fieldwork in many parts of the Islamic world including Iraq, Oman, Jordan, Palestine, UAE and Qatar. His current research interests include Islamic urbanism, pilgrimage routes and fortifications. For the last two years he has been working on the archaeology of coastal settlement in northern Qatar in collaboration with the Qatar Museums Authority and the Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage project.
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