An etrog, a lion, and all the secrets of a 1,300-year-old mosaic in Jericho

Why does a citrus fruit, also known in Hebrew as etrog, appear in the magnificent mosaic that paves the main hall of a caliphate castle in Jericho? According to Dr. Lev Arie Kapitaikin, Professor of Islamic Art at Tel Aviv University and Shenkar College, the choice to include the fruit in the artwork remains somewhat mysterious, but it shows the deep interconnections between Abrahamic beliefs.

“The etrog is considered an enigmatic fruit in Islam,” he said. “Nobody really knows what it means, perhaps it was a symbol of fertility, perhaps even of dynastic succession. Here it is represented with a knife, near the throne, a place that highlights its importance. It is interesting to see how a Jewish emblem also became important in Islam.

The mosaic was unveiled by the Palestinian Authority Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Rula Ma’ay’a, after a lengthy restoration funded by the Japanese government for $ 12 million. The ceremony was also attended by the Japanese ambassador to Lebanon and former ambassador for Palestinian affairs, Okubo Takeshi. Since then, for the first time, the site is open to the public. Ma’ay’a expressed hope that the artifact will boost tourism in the Palestinian Authority.

Hisham’s Palace dates from the first half of the 8th century AD, only about 100 years after Muhammad’s death.

The palace was built under the Umayyad dynasty, the first great Muslim dynasty.

A Palestinian visits Hisham’s Palace, which has one of the largest mosaic panels in the world after its opening to the public, in Jericho, West Bank, on October 25, 2021 (credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN / REUTERS).

The Umayyads ruled a vast empire, including the area of ​​modern Israel, for about a century.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was completed under Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik in 692-693 CE.

The site is located north of Jericho in the Palestinian Authority, in a building attributed to the 10th Umayyad Caliph, Hishām ibn ʿAbd al-Malik, who erected several palaces and castles in the region.

“We are not talking about a capital palace, but a recreational one,” Kapitaikin said. “It was incredibly sumptuous. The mosaic covers the main hall of the palace where the throne was located. “

The site, which is also known as Khirbat al-Mafjar, was first discovered in 1894 and subsequently excavated between 1934 and 1948 under the direction of archaeologists Dimitri Baramki, who served as Chief Inspector of Antiquities and later as Director of Antiquities. in the British Mandate of Palestine and Robert Hamilton, who was also Director of Antiquities in the Mandate for a period.

Some restoration and archaeological work was carried out while Jordan ruled the area before 1967, and work resumed under the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage in 1996, according to Dr. Donald Whitcomb, Associate Professor of Islamic Archeology at the University of Chicago. who conducted more excavations in the area in recent years and wrote several publications on the subject.

The building’s magnificent features included some 150 acres of gardens irrigated via an aqueduct, a great room, a bathroom, an entrance hall with a porch.

While the palace was likely destroyed when an earthquake struck the area in 748, according to Whitcomb, the site was reoccupied and rebuilt and remained in use until the late 13th century.

The magnificent stone mosaic is composed of 38 large tiles for an area of ​​826 square meters.

“We are talking about one of the largest mosaic surfaces in the ancient world that has survived intact,” Kapitaikin noted. “His performances offer some insights into the life and pleasures of the Umayyad princes.”

The large mosaic in the main hall features geometric shapes and floral motifs in bright, vivid colors.

“These elements, which began to emerge in that period, will become the dominant motifs of Islamic art,” Kapitaikin said.

Another mosaic adorns a smaller room.

“This room was dedicated to the private pleasures of kings,” Kapitaikin noted. “Here we can see a mosaic with a lion attacking a gazelle. In the past, it was interpreted as a symbol of war, of Islam defeating its enemies, but the current opinion among scholars is that it represents Islamic poetry that focused on the pleasures of love and hunting. The room could have been the place where they read this kind of refined and delicate poetry. “

Traditionally, Islam discourages the depiction of humans or animals.

“In the mosaic in the great hall, there are no living creatures depicted, and Islam forbids it, but while this prohibition was maintained in public and religious buildings, in private and intimate contexts many living creatures were depicted,” Kapitaikin said. “It was a popular custom.”

The expert noted that mosaic art was very common in that time period in all cultures, but few mosaics dating to the Umayyads survive, including those from the Dome of the Rock and the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

“I think it is really wonderful that the mosaic can finally be admired by the public,” concluded Kapitaikin. “It is a truly extraordinary experience.”

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