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Expanding the Story

New discoveries are overturning long-held assumptions and revealing previously ignored complexities at the desert castle of Khirbet al-Mafjar

November/December 2016

Khirbet Bathouse Mosaic 

In 1935, Dmitri Baramki, a young archaeologist working for the British administration in his native Palestine, began excavating three dirt mounds outside the ancient city of Jericho 25 miles east of Jerusalem. Baramki was concerned that important evidence of a Byzantine church or monastery inside the mounds was being destroyed by the locals’ habit of pilfering and reusing the ancient stones for building material. However, he soon realized that what he had found was not a Christian religious building at all, but instead, the remains of an eighth-century Islamic palace.


Though much of the palace complex was in shambles, likely destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 747, Baramki’s team nevertheless unearthed detailed mosaics and stuccowork of the highest quality that once had decorated the palace’s walls and floors. Baramki also discovered a white marble ostracon inscribed in ink in Arabic reading “Hisham, commander of the faithful.” The phrase is probably the opening of a letter, and is the only writing found at the site. Local residents, who had previously called the mounds Khirbet al-Mafjar, “Ruins of Flowing Water,” for their location near an aqueduct, began referring to them as “Hisham’s Palace.” Soon archaeologists concluded that the palace had been built during the reign of Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik, the tenth Umayyad caliph (r. A.D. 724-743), Islam’s chief religious and political leader.


Khirbet Inscription Hisham

The Umayyads were a merchant family from Syria who converted to Islam in 627. Islam’s founder, Muhammad, died in 632 without leaving a clear system of succession, ushering in a period of strife. By 661 the Umayyads had ascended to the caliphate, having won the first of many wars fought for leadership of the religion and its growing sphere of influence. The first Umayyad caliph, Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, moved the caliphate’s capital from Medina, in what is now Saudi Arabia, to Damascus, in modern-day Syria, where the family already had high standing, thereby boosting the power and legitimacy of the new leader. For 89 years the Umayyads reigned over an empire stretching from India to Spain. Their fragile hold on power was constantly threatened by various groups claiming rights to the caliphate, and they ultimately lost several key military battles to the Abbasid Dynasty, who finally wrested away control in 750.


Robert W. Hamilton was the head of the British Mandate for Palestine’s Department of Antiquities who oversaw Baramki’s excavations at Khirbet al-Mafjar and eventually joined him at the dig in the later 1940s. The sumptuous nature of the palace, much more extensively decorated than other Umayyad desert compounds found across the Middle East, could, thought Hamilton, only be fully explained by linking it to one particular short-lived caliph—a nephew of Hisham named Walid ibn Yazid, known from later Islamic writers for his love of music, wine, and women. “It existed for reasons which must be sought not in the realm of public affairs but in that of personal pleasure,” Hamilton wrote in his 1959 book, Khirbat al-Mafjar: An Arabian Mansion in the Jordan Valley. In another book, Walid and His Friends, Hamilton relates a story from the tenth-century text of Islamic historian Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani about Walid bathing in a tub of wine, and then emerging intoxicated with the level of wine in the tub significantly lowered. Al-Isfahani does not mention where this episode took place, but Hamilton writes that it occurred in the palace’s bathhouse.

Khirbet Excavation Stables
The Palace’s Other Lives