Back to Cities and Architecture

Click on thumbnails to enlarge them



One of the most important chapters in the history of the “Silk Road” concerns the rise and rapid spread of Islam and the way in which Islamic beliefs and Arab tradition interacted with the existing cultures of the empires which the Arabs conquered. While popular notions concerning the arts and architecture of the developed Islamic world tend (erroneously) to emphasize uniformities, certainly in the first Islamic century or two there was a great deal of experimentation and very substantial borrowing from the other cultures in the Middle East. This can be seen in the architecture and decoration of important early Islamic religious buildings such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Umayyid Mosque in Damascus and in a number of less well known secular buildings.

The Umayyid rulers and members of their elite built various palaces whose remains have survived in the deserts of Syria, Jordan and Israel. In some cases, these were probably centers for the administration of areas which were being developed economically through extensive irrigation; in other instances, the buildings may have been primarily suburban retreats for pleasure and relaxation. Their architecture and building techniques draw on the one hand upon the Greek and Roman tradition filtered through Byzantium, which had ruled in these territories prior to the rise of Islam. On the other hand, the traditions of Sassanian Iran, which the Arabs encountered as they expanded eastward, clearly were important. The decoration of these buildings demonstrates that at least in the secular sphere there were no restrictions on figural representation of living beings. The buildings contained statuary, elaborate floor mosaic, and even semi-erotic wall paintings of dancers. Two examples of early eighth-century (CE) decorative arts are a fragment from a wall painting at Qusayr al_Amrah and a decorative stone carving of pomegranates from Khirbat al-Minya. It is worth emphasizing that even after a ban on figural representation in the religious sphere became the norm, the courtly and other secular arts of the Islamic world never were subject to the same limitations.

One of the most intriguing of all the suburban Umayyad palaces is Mshatta, located about 30 km. southeast of Amman, Jordan. It seems likely that it was begun in the time of Caliph al-Walid II (743-744). One can speculate that the disruptions produced by the Abbasid revolt, which brought down the Umayyids a few years later, may have prevented completion of the building. Mshatta occupies a large square 144 m. on a side. It was surrounded by a fortified wall, in the center of whose southern side was an entrance gate that led into an inner courtyard at the far end of which was the residence. An open arched entrance hall led into a domed chamber which presumably was something like an audience hall, with the private apartments around it concealed, of course, behind partitions.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman government gave permission for the most important architectural and archaeological remains of Mshatta to be taken to Berlin, where they can be seen today in the Museum of Islamic Art in the building of the Pergamon Museum. The centerpiece of the display is a major section of the lower part of Mshatta’s southern external wall. An elaborately carved frieze ran along the wall, highlighted by a zig-zag that divides the façade into interlocking triangles. Lobed and octagonal “rosettes” protrude from the center of each triangular section. The entire surface of the framing sculpture and the “background” is carpeted with relief images of vegetation inhabited by birds, lions and other real and imaginary animals. The main animal images tend to be symmetrically arranged — for example, lions on either side of a basin from which they are drinking. The motifs in this sculpture may all be found in sources such as Byzantine art, although the particular “carpeting” effect is distinctive. All those who have studied Mshatta have pointed out that to the right of the entrance, in the section of wall that formed part of the mosque just inside the entrance, there is no figural carving of animals. This may indicate that there was already a restriction on the use of such decoration on a religious structure.

In addition to the remarkable carved façade, Mshatta has yielded some rather badly battered free-standing sculptures: the pelvic area (with bare buttocks) of a woman, the naked upper torso of a woman, and a guardian lion. The sculptural traditions represented here, like the decorative motifs in the reliefs, derive from the Classical culture of late Antiquity which even to this day is abundantly evident in the ruins scattered through Syria and Jordan. One can at least assume that it was deemed perfectly acceptable to have such sculpture decorating the residence of a Muslim ruler in the first half of the eighth century. It is possible that this sculpture was subsequently defaced in a period of iconoclasm.


In many respects, Mshatta is unique amongst the Umayyid monuments; even the most knowledgeable of specialists despair of interpreting the decorative scheme of the frieze. However, Mshatta provides clear evidence of the artistic syncretism that was involved in the formation of Islamic art.



  • Richard Ettinghausen, Oleg Grabar and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina, Islamic Art and Architecture 650-1250 (Pelican History of Art) (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), esp. Introduction and pp. 36-51.
  • Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Museum für Islamische Kunst, “Mshatta — A Caliph’s Palace” (Museum guide leaflet).

Back to Top

© Daniel C. Waugh 2004