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Qasr Amra 360° virtual tour
Being the best-known of all desert castles in Jordan, this mysterious building has been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Is commonly identified as a bathhouse built by Umayyad caliph Walid I (705–715 AD), but nothing is sure about it. Present structures could have belonged to a larger complex out of which only a few foundations remained. What stands today is either identified as a caravanserai or a royal retreat (a hunting lodge) without any military function. If the latter presumption is accepted, then the main building can be an audience hall with a bath attached to it. Inside there are fascinating strange frescoes depicting naked women and other scenes that should be banned in Islam.
1. What to see
It is important to note that our 360° images were taken prior to fall 2011, when restoration works were started. As of November 2011, exterior of the building and a segment of the West aisle got covered in scaffolding.
1.1. The Well
The path from the small visitor centre leads through a barren area believed to have been a lush garden with pools. Reaching the buildings, the first sight to be seen is a 36m meter deep well and a restored animal-driven water lifting mechanism.
Next to the well stands the main highlight of any visit to Qasr Amra, the building identified as a royal retreat or hunting lodge. It could have been used as a base from which to hunt animals in the nearby Azraq oasis. According to the common interpretation, this building consists of an audience hall and a bath attached to it. The audience hall has three naves and two small chambers connected to an open-fronted third one interpreted as the place of the royal throne.
1.2. Central nave
Our opinion is that the building is mistakenly dated and it has nothing to do with Umayyad caliphs because the frescoes reflect very strong Roman influence.
It is simply impossible that any painters existed in the early 8th century who still followed the style of the 3rd-4th century. According to an interpretation, the caliphs wished to get everything painted here that is banned by Islam. However, if the caliphs would have commissioned non-Islamic or recently converted artists, they would have painted in Byzantine style and not in former Roman style. Furthermore, there are a few Greek inscriptions on the walls (like one meaning victory). There is also some evidence that the frescoes were made at an age when ancient Roman mythology and newborn Christianity already began to melt together, but Christianity was not yet dominant.
1.3. West aisle
From right to left, frescoes of the West nave depict wrestlers warming up or a battle. In the middle is a huge image of a semi-naked woman bathing in a thong. To the left are faded images of kings.
Dating of the entire building was based on this scene as five of the seven rulers have already been identified. Namely they are:
- an Umayyad caliph
- Caesar, a Byzantine emperor;
- Roderic, the Visigoth king of Hispania (710-712)
- Chosroes, a Persian emperor
- and a Negus, a title meaning the king of Abyssinia (present Ethiopia).
Exact meaning of the fresco is however unclear. It might be an assembly of famous rulers of the era, or it can suggest the caliph's supremacy over his enemies.
Our opinion is that all these scenes should belong to the same story which can be a legend from Greek mythology, like the story of Helen of Troy. It was very common in ancient cultures that size of the figures reflected their importance. If we accept that, the key figure of the scene is the bathing female figure (possibly Helen). To the right is the battle for her while to the left, the king summons priests and nobles in the palace to decide what to do next.
1.4. East aisle
Frescoes of the East nave depict a large hunting scene with dogs driving wild onagers into a trap of nets.
Building construction works including quarrying, moving the stones by camel, carpentry and plastering of the walls are to be seen on the ceiling. It is likely that they are about the construction of this building.
The three small rooms making the bath are reachable through a small doorway from the East nave.
1.5. Apodyterium (changing room)
The first room connecting the bath with the audience hall is commonly referred as an Apodyterium (changing room). Inside there are well-preserved very ambiguous frescoes.
Just above the door is an image having an angel gazing down on a shrouded human form. It has often been thought to be a death scene, but some other interpretations have suggested the shroud covers a pair of lovers.
The ceiling is dotted with dancing humans and animals engaging in human activities like a bear playing the banjo and an applauding monkey. In the middle of the ceiling are three blackened faces. According to some sources they are to represent the three stages of a man’s life. Local Christians believe the central figure could be a depiction of Jesus.
Our theory is that all the frescoes are about the same subject and they depict Heaven in a unique way. The story begins right above the door with angels gazing down to the body of a dead person. His soul is brought to the heaven where both animals and humans sing, dance and rejoice the Holy trinity, depicted in the middle of the ceiling. Normally God father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are referred to as the Holy Trinity but Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) states clearly in the Holy Qur’an that Christians known by him believed in a Holy Trinity comprising God father, Mary and Jesus. He gave his followers arguments to be able to convince Christians that there is only one deity, Allah and not three. On the other hand, we have never ever seen any Christian depiction of such a Holy Trinity that the prophet mentions apart from this one. If we carefully examine the three faces, the central one is very likely to be of Jesus, the old man with balding white hair is God father and the third one is a female head and definitely not a pigeon, symbol of the Holy Spirit. According to Islamic legends, the prophet managed to travel north to Bosra (in present Syria) with his caravans where a Christian monk foretold him that he'll play a very important religious role. If we accept that he could have travelled there, it is also possible that he spent some time with a community that adapted the teaching of the Holy Trinity in a different way compared to mainstream Christianity.
1.6. Tepidarium (warm bath)
This room is usually identified as a warm bath (Tepidarium). We're a bit unlucky with the frescoes since they are in very bad state and it is difficult to understand them.
One painting depicts a naked woman probably bathing a child. Another scene could depict the Three Graces in a rural way. The three goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity and fertility were called as Charis in Greek and Gratiae in Roman mythology. The ceiling is covered with branches of trees in a lush garden. Evidence of the ancient heating system is clearly visible below the floor.
1.7. Caldarium (hot bath)
The Caldarium served as the hot bath which was directly heated from outside. Similarly to the Tepidarium, evidence of the ancient heating system is clearly visible below the floor. No frescoes survived on the walls of this room except for the dome painted with map of the northern hemisphere sky accompanied by the signs of the zodiac.
2. When to see
This monument is open daily 8am-6pm between May and September and 8am-4pm during the rest of the year. Similarly to other remote desert castles, there is always a caretaker who can unlock it if visitors arrive. It was our fourth stop on a half-day trip from Amman during Ramadan to discover the desert castles and we've obviously found it open about 4pm.