From 'Desert Castle' to Medieval Town: Qasr Al-Hayr Al-Sharqi (Syria)

Article excerpt


Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi is one of the so-called Umayyad 'desert castles', a term applied to a series of fortified sites belonging to the early period of Islam but recovering different realities (Finster & Schmidt 2005). It certainly represents one of the most impressive and best-preserved secular monuments of the early Islamic period. It lies some 110km to the north-east of Palmyra in the Syrian steppe lands. It is situated near the crossroads of the ancient routes linking the caravan city of Palmyra to Rusafa and Raqqa on the upper course of the Syrian Euphrates on one hand, and to Dayr al-Zawr, the Jazira and lower Mesopotamia on the other. The site is on the edge of a vast plain extending beyond the southern slopes of the Jabal Bishri, which is the far eastern range of the Palmyrene chain. The region is a semi-arid steppe with a mean annual rainfall under 140mm.

Following some surface surveys, Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi was excavated in six seasons between 1964 and 1971 by an American team led by Oleg Grabar. These excavations resulted in a very stimulating publication oriented towards a detailed interpretation of the Umayyad settlement (Grabar et al. 1978). Since then, a Syrian team has conducted excavation and restoration work there. More recently, this work has turned into a collaborative project between the Syrian team and a Syrian-Swiss mission working under the aegis of the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums of Syria and the Swiss-Liechtenstein Foundation for Archaeological Research Abroad (SLFA--Zurich). This newly undertaken work has added to our knowledge of the Umayyad settlement at Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi, but has also led to a better understanding of an important medieval reoccupation at the site between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries (Genequand 2003; 2004).

The Umayyad settlement (eighth century AD)

In all previous studies of the site, three main components of the Umayyad settlement at Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi have been recognised. Following Grabar's work, they are respectively called the Small Enclosure, the Large Enclosure and the Outer Enclosure (Figure 1). They are each very different in form, as well as in function. Built in stone and baked-brick, or partially in mud-brick over a stone base, all three components are easily recognisable, even without excavations. They are, however, not the only constructions related to the Umayyad settlement. Indeed, several areas of the site, which covers more than 7[km.sup.2], contain mud-brick buildings, some of which were probably of importance, but now reduced by erosion to mere mounds with contours.


The Small Enclosure is a square building, with sides measuring 70m in length (Figure 2). It had two storeys and is still preserved up to 11m in places. Its external wall is reinforced at its corners by four tower-buttresses in the shape of a three-quarter circle and by eight tower-buttresses in the shape of a half-circle along the sides. Inside the building, rooms are organised on two storeys around a central courtyard with a portico. The plans of both storeys are nearly identical and represent the traditional layout of Umayyad castles in their grouping of rooms as apartments (bayt/buyut); in other words, a large central room opening on to four or five smaller ones. The function of the building is controversial. Grabar has seen it as a caravanserai (Grabar et al. 1978: 32), but this interpretation has recently been challenged. This is correct as it is much more likely that it was a palace (Northedge 1994: 235-6).

The Large Enclosure forms a square structure with sides measuring 167m in length. It has several elements in common with the smaller enclosure. The most obvious of these is its enclosure wall, which is also reinforced by four corner tower-buttresses in the shape of a three-quarter circle and twenty-four semi-circular tower-buttresses along the sides. …