(ORDO NEWS) — Discovered in a decaying desert castle in what is now Jordan, the fresco known as “The Six Kings of the Earth” provides a curious glimpse into the early medieval Islamic world. This is especially important as ancient Islamic art is largely underrepresented despite the fact that Islam was the main religion of one of the world’s largest empires during its heyday.
Discovered in a decaying desert castle in what is now Jordan, the fresco known as “The Six Kings of the Earth” provides a curious glimpse into the early medieval Islamic world. This is especially important as ancient Islamic art is largely underrepresented despite the fact that Islam was the main religion of one of the world’s largest empires during its heyday.
These empires were known as caliphates. From 631 AD to 1517 AD, there were three major caliphates in the world. They were huge multinational empires that stretched across continents and united many peoples, cultures and religions. Therefore, the art that became characteristic of Islam was greatly influenced by all the peoples who inhabited the caliphates.
The fresco “Six Kings of the Earth” in Jordan refers to the Umayyad caliphate and indicates that the caliphs understood the world around them well and highly appreciated art. But who are these six kings of the Earth? And why do they decorate the walls of an Islamic castle in the desert?
The painting “Six Kings of the Earth” was a mystery when it was found. She lay for several centuries in the abandoned ruins of the once vast desert castle of Qasr Amra, also known as Quseir ‘Amra. This place once belonged to the ruler of the Umayyad Caliphate, which was the second Islamic caliphate that arose after the death of their prophet Muhammad.
The Umayyad Caliphate – a huge and very powerful empire – was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty of the same name for about a century, after which it was overthrown by the rival Abbasid dynasty. However, even in such a short period, the Umayyad Caliphate achieved a lot. They expanded on the conquests of their predecessors and laid the foundations for the emerging Islamic art.
After being defeated by the Abbasids, the Umayyads established the Caliphate of Cordoba in the Iberian Peninsula. In the years that followed, the city became a thriving center for Islamic art, philosophy and teaching. But the painting “Six Kings of the Earth” dates from the time before the fall of the Umayyads and is located in their heart – in the territory of modern Jordan.
Qasr Amra, also known as Quseir ‘Amra or Quseir Amra (قصر عمرة / Qaṣr ‘Amrah), is the ruins of an Umayyad-era desert castle located about 85 km (53 mi) east of Amman (Jordan’s capital) and 21 km ( 13 miles) southwest of the Azraq oasis in present-day Jordan. The name translates as “Amr’s little palace” and is typical of Umayyad desert castles.
What has survived to this day is actually only part of a larger complex. Archaeological excavations have unearthed the ruins and foundations of many other buildings. It is likely that there was a real castle around the palace, perhaps with minor military functions. This means that the whole complex was designed as a royal retreat for the caliph.
One way or another, the most important part of the complex has been preserved, namely the palace of Qasr Amr and its frescoes. Due to its exceptional importance and age, it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and described as “a masterpiece of human creative genius”, “a unique or at least exceptional evidence of a cultural tradition” and “an outstanding example of a building type, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape , which illustrates an important stage in the history of mankind”.
From the outside, Qasr Amra does not look very exciting. But as soon as you step inside, you are greeted with an abundance of wonderful and exceptionally well-executed frescoes that quickly grab your attention. The frescoes depict various scenes: artisans at work, naked women, bathers, hunting and rulers. If earlier frescoes covered all the walls, now they have remained mainly on the ceilings.
Other paintings include the recently discovered “Jonah Cycle”, as well as an amazing sky painting discovered above the bath chamber. The latter was painted on a hemispherical ceiling and represents the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere accompanied by the signs of the Zodiac, with Ursa Major (Ursa Major) and Ursa Minor (Ursa Minor) being painted in the adjacent hot room. This is considered to be the first known depiction of the heavens (vault of heaven) on a hemispherical surface.
But undoubtedly the most important of all the frescoes of Qasr Amra is the painting known as the Six Kings of the Earth. It is not only a magnificent work of Islamic art, but also serves as a source of information, helping researchers to date the creation of the frescoes and the palace.
The famous panel “Six Kings” depicts six rulers of the world, facing the viewer in two rows of three people. Interestingly, each ruler has their palms turned up, and their arms are extended and directed slightly to the left.
In the adjacent alcove, opposite the painting with the kings, there is a depiction of a man sitting on a throne with a blessing written over his head. There is no doubt that the entire series of frescoes depicted the Umayyad caliph sitting on his throne, with six kings of the earth gesturing in his direction in a sign of supplication or submission. This indicates the power and prestige of the caliph as the most powerful of all the rulers of the (known) world.
So who are these mysterious kings? Unfortunately, not all of their identities are known. The painting has suffered over the centuries, and due to its age, many of the frescoes have lost important details. Each of the six kings is depicted in his attire, which to a certain extent helped in identification.
In addition, above the head of each king there are inscriptions in Greek and Arabic. Written in bold white letters on a blue background, they served to identify prayer rulers. Unfortunately, only four inscriptions can be read today, so the identities of the two kings remain unknown and open to interpretation. The following have been identified:
Kaisar / Kaisar, translated as Caesar: The Byzantine Emperor, wearing his distinctive robes and crown. His face is damaged and not visible.
Rodorikos / Ludhriq, translated as Roderick: Visigothic king of the Spanish Empire. His fresco is also heavily damaged, with only the top of the helmet and part of the robe visible. However, his name is a decisive factor in determining the age of the frescoes and the palace.
Khosrus/Khisra, translated as Khosrow: Emperor of the Sassanid Empire.
Najashi: Negus (king) of the Aksumite kingdom. His clothes are clearly visible, and he wears a red tippet, a type of shawl.
The image of the Visigothic king Roderick played an important role in the dating of the site. Roderick, known as “the last king of the Goths”, reigned for a very short time, from 710 to 711 AD. He was the last of the Visigothic kings who ruled from the capital of Toledo.
Roderick’s accession to the throne in 710 was controversial, and his reign soon came to an end as Roderick had to face the Umayyad invasion of the Iberian Peninsula that began in 711. That same year, Roderick died at the Battle of Guadaleta, the first major battle of the Umayyad conquest.
This means that the frescoes could have been made no earlier than 710 AD and no later than 750 AD, when the Umayyad Caliphate was overthrown by the Abbasids. Of course, the identification of the Visigothic King Roderick has also helped experts figure out who the other “Kings of the Earth” depicted are.
Taking AD 710 as our starting point, we can try to pinpoint the name of the Byzantine emperor. Alas, this is much more difficult, since the Byzantine Empire of that time was engulfed in a period of twenty years of anarchy, when many emperors changed on the throne.
At that time, in the late 600s of our era, the Arabs and Byzantines were fighting a series of brutal wars. A possible candidate is Justinian II, known as Rhinothmetos, who reigned twice: from 685 to 695 AD and from 705 to 711 AD. During his reign, the Umayyad Arabs won several victories over the Byzantines.
Most notable was their victory at the Battle of Sebastopolis, where the Byzantines were completely routed. After this victory, the Umayyads conquered all of Armenia. The inclusion of Justinian II in the picture of six kings would be logical, making him one of the rulers defeated by the Arabs, like Roderick.
The depiction of Khosrow, the Sasanian emperor, has a similar insinuation. Most likely, this depicts Emperor Khosrow II, known as the Victorious, the last known “king of kings” of the Sasanian Empire. Khusrau’s reign was very eventful and marked by internal strife.
However, in 628 Khosrow was assassinated, leading to a devastating civil war in the already weak Sasanian Empire. Eventually, his eight-year-old grandson, Yazdegerd III, succeeded to the throne, but to no avail. In 651 AD, the Arab conquest of Iran began, which put an end to the venerable Sassanid kingdom.
However, the inclusion of Khosrow in a fresco at Qasr Amr is puzzling. The Arab conquest of Iran was carried out by the previous Rashidun Caliphate, about 50 years before the proposed creation of the palace. However, the Arab conquest of a powerful world ruler is still considered an achievement worthy of inclusion in the palace walls.
The fourth and last identifiable ruler is presumably Armah, king of Aksum. He was also known as Aṣḥamah (Arab. أَصْحَمَة) and Najashi, and reigned from 614 to 630 AD. However, the Rashiduns or Umayyads never had prolonged conflicts with the Aksumite kingdom. In fact, most likely, it was King Armah who gave shelter to the first Muslim emigrants in his lands.
However, by 646 AD, the Rashidun had established control over the Red Sea and Egypt, leaving Aksum in economic isolation. Further conflicts continued when Aksumite pirates managed to invade the Hejaz region in present-day Western Saudi Arabia, occupying the city of Jeddah in 702 AD. In response, the Umayyad caliph struck back and recaptured the Dahlak archipelago from Aksum.
The other two kings, whose faces and names have been damaged beyond recognition, are thought to possibly represent the emperor of China, the ruler of India, or a Turkic khan. All three of these theories are possible because the Umayyads waged war against all of them.
The Umayyads fought the Chinese at the Battle of Aksu in 717 AD, although they lost it. With the Indians, the Umayyads had long conflicts that began as early as 636 AD and peaked from 700 AD onwards. They also fought with the Turkic tribes. Thus, the fresco probably depicts the rulers of these empires.
All this tells us that the palace of Qasr Amra and its amazing frescoes were most likely created during the reign of the Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid II. Although Al-Walid II reigned for only one year, from AD 743 to 744, the palace could have been created sometime between AD 723 and 743.
Although Al-Walid II was not a caliph at the time, he was heir to the throne and therefore had great influence and wealth. During this period, his dominance in the region increased markedly. Al-Waleed II was well known as a great patron of the arts, poetry, sex, singing, drink, poetry, horse racing and the like.
Moreover, the fresco in the palace is identified as that of Al-Walid II, during his tenure as a prince. All this indicates that it was Al-Wallid II who ordered the construction of the palace, being a lover of everything artistic and magnificent, and that the seated Caliph, to whom the “six kings of the earth” obey, is his father, Caliph Yazid II.
The ruins of the desert castle and the fresco have long been known to the Bedouins of the region. They were first discovered by Westerners in 1898, when the Czech scientist Alois Musil visited the site, accompanied by Alfons Leopold Milich, a famous Austrian artist.
When they arrived, the fresco and the inscriptions on it were already quite fragile. Fortunately, Melih made some preliminary sketches and descriptions, which subsequently helped in the identification of the kings. Alas, two researchers attempted to clean the fresco and remove it from the palace, causing massive damage to this irreplaceable work of art.
Despite this, the “Six Kings of the Earth” at Qasr Amr remains one of the defining relics of early Islamic art, the foundations of which were laid during the reign of the Umayyads. The fresco and the rulers depicted on it give us a glimpse into history, providing a clue to understanding the many wars and campaigns undertaken by the Umayyad Arabs.
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