BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Facelift: Revealing the Beauty of Early Islamic Art

Umayyad mosaic from Jericho now open to the public

From the site of Khirbat al-Mafjar just north of Jericho, this mosaic panel depicts grazing gazelles being hunted by a lion beneath a lush and blooming pomegranate tree.
Credit: Arabischer Mosaizist um 735, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The collection of reproductions by The Yorck Project, copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

After a five-year, $12 million restoration effort, one of the most elaborate and expansive mosaic floors ever discovered in the Holy Land is once again accessible to the public. First uncovered in the 1930s at the site of Khirbat al-Mafjar just north of Jericho, the nearly 9,000-square-foot mosaic adorned the floor of a large bathhouse and palatial complex built by the Umayyad caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (r. 724–743 C.E.). The mosaic includes several dozen panels with intricate, multicolored geometric designs but is perhaps best known for its elegant figural depiction of grazing gazelles being hunted by a lion beneath a lush and blooming pomegranate tree, perhaps meant to recall the biblical “tree of life” (Genesis 2:9). Such images, long considered to be profane depictions of the earthly pleasures enjoyed by the Umayyad princes, were more likely intended to evoke kingly power or religious themes found in the Quran, the Bible, and even classical literature.

After its initial discovery, the mosaic was covered over with cloth and soil for its long-term protection and only rarely exposed to the elements. This meant, however, that the beautiful mosaic floor—considered by many to be one of the world’s finest examples of early Islamic art—was largely inaccessible to local communities, scholars, and tourists. In 2016, with support from the Japanese government, the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities initiated a multiyear restoration project to both protect the mosaics and make them accessible to the public. This included cleaning and preserving the uncovered mosaics, constructing a large domed shelter over the entire floor, and installing suspended walkways and elevated viewing platforms to prevent visitors from walking on and damaging the mosaics. The site—commonly known as Hisham’s Palace—and its restored and protected mosaics were reopened to the public in October 2021.


Read more about mosaics in Bible History Daily:

 

Huqoq 2015: New Mosaics Unearthed at Huqoq Synagogue

The Huqoq Synagogue Mosaics

Ancient Wonders—The Huqoq Mosaics

Read more in the BAS Library:

The Marvelous Mosaics of Kissufim

Saving the Mt. Sinai Mosaics

Magic Carpets

 

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