The Origin of 'Desert Castles': Qasr Bani Muqatil, near Karbala, Iraq
Finster, B., Schmidt, J., Antiquity
The so-called 'desert castles' still constitute one of the continuing puzzles of Islamic archaeology today. They appear during the eighth century over the area of the Near East dominated by Umayyad dynasties in what is now Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Iraq. Built on a square ground-plan, these fortified sites are equipped with corner bastions and median semicircular towers, while semi- or quarter-towers flank the entrances (for an example from Iraq, see Figure 1; for an example from Syria, see Genequand 2005, this volume, p. 350: figure 3). The interiors contain structures arranged around a courtyard which, in most cases, is surrounded by a peristyle (Creswell & Allan 1989: 93-105, 118-216; Hillenbrand 1994: 384-90). There are different opinions regarding the use of the castles: hunting lodge, estate centre, wayside station and meeting place with the Bedouins; functions that do not actually exclude each other (Helms 1990: 27-9).
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Likely models for the desert castles have been seen in the fortresses of the Roman Limes, even though these had already been built and abandoned some two centuries earlier. In Syria, it has not yet been possible to name an edifice of pre-Islamic times that may have served as a model, but the situation is different in Mesopotamia. This paper summarises work on a site which provides an important example of continuity of a fortress from pre-Islamic into Islamic times: Tulul al-Ukhaidir--Qasr Bani Muqatil (Figures 2-4).
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The site and its central reception hall
Tulul al-Ukhaidir is an unobtrusive area of ruins, situated to the west of Karbala about 2.5km north of the Abbasid castle of al-Ukhaidir, from which it is separated by a wadi. The ruins cover an area of about 220 x 170m; in aerial photographs it appears as a square complex, surrounded by an enclosing wall and revealing a hilly structure in the middle (Figure 3). In its entirety, the form of the site has a square ground-plan with median towers and three-quarter round towers at the corners of the building, exactly as we know it in fortresses of the 'desert castle' type.
The main building in the interior was investigated in the years 1973 and 1975 (Figures 4 and 5). The excavated parts included part of an external wall and a reception area in the form of a columned hall, apparently situated in the central axis of the complex. The hall measures 10 x 11m and is divided into a nave and two aisles by its columns. Two rows of three columns each were connected by arcades that were taken up by corresponding half columns at the rear wall of the hall. In turn, these half columns rest on pilasters (column diameter: 1.10m; distance between axes: 3.20m; width of centre nave: 4.60m). In contrast, the aisles with a width of only 1.50m produce a comparatively narrowing effect. The front (north) pair of columns immediately borders the courtyard which is reached by a step, i.e. the courtyard lies on a somewhat lower level. Originally, the rear wall of the hall must have been richly structured.
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There was not only a gradation that enhanced the relief-like effect of the wall; (in a second phase) the arches that ran between the pilasters and the half-columns were fully decorated with stucco. The side walls of the hall were decorated with stucco ornaments and mural paintings, as can be deduced from the position in which the fragments were found (Figure 6). The archivolt above the door, which led to the back room, was decorated in the same way. In a room on the east side of the hall, stucco slabs with the sign of the cross and a red painted cross were found (Figure 7).
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Situated in the axis of the columned hall, a door in the rear wall leads to the back room, which is of the same width as the hall. This room was also part of the official suite of the building. The entrance was vaulted over by a round arch and had ornamental stuccowork on the other side; the walls showed black, white and red paintings. …