(MENAFN - Jordan Times) Conservationists in eastern Jordan have announced a groundbreaking discovery they say proves that one of the earliest examples of secular Islamic art is older than previously believed.
A conservation team working to save the frescoes of Qusayr Amra, an Umayyad hunting lodge located in eastern Jordan, say they have uncovered an ancient inscription definitively tying the pleasure palace to an Umayyad prince, challenging traditional scholarship.
According to the World Monument Fund (WMF), an Italian-led campaign removing centuries worth of grit, graffiti and previously failed restoration efforts have revealed an Arabic inscription reading "Oh God! Make Walid Bin Yazid virtuous".
Experts say the absence of phrases such as "Servant of God" and "Prince of Believers", traditional titles that preceded any mention of Umayyad caliphs, serves as proof that the hunting lodge was constructed while Walid II was still a prince, placing its construction during the early half of the reign of Caliph Hisham Bin Abd Al Malik, who ruled between 725 and 743AD.
The discovery challenges traditional scholarship, which placed Qusayr Amra's commission during Walid II's brief reign as caliph, between 743 and 744AD.
"We now have definitive proof that Qusayr Amra was indeed commissioned by Walid II and that these striking images are actually older than previously believed," said Geatano Palumbo of the WMF, one of the organisations funding and carrying out the restoration project.
Experts say the inscription also serves as validation for Qusayr Amra scholars who long faced scepticism from Islamic historians who doubted that figural depictions of nude women, dancing and even libation could have been commissioned in the early Islamic era.
"Many scholars argued that these images were in fact painted in the Byzantine or Roman eras," Palumbo said.
"But now we have definitive proof that this is indeed Islamic art."
While the discovery has solved one of the mysteries that have long surrounded the hunting lodge, experts say that work to save Qusayr Amra, and understand its vibrant frescoes, is far from complete.
During the project, jointly financed by the Rome-based Institute for Conservation and Restoration (ICR) and the WMF, conservationists have spent over 11 months working to clean and stabilise murals on the southern wall of the millennial bathhouse.
Despite years of collective expertise staging similar cleaning and interventions on murals in Italy, Syria and Turkey, ICR and WMF experts say the millennial bathhouse poses a series of unique challenges that confound even the most seasoned conservationist.
The frescoes have been badly damaged by vandals, weathering, bedouin campfires and early 20th century explorers who chipped away slabs of the palace walls for personal collections and museum showcases.
Conservationists say the most difficult task has been scaling back a previous restoration carried out by a Spanish team in the 1970s which used chemicals such as shellac that over the decades have yellowed, seeped into the murals and threaten to detach the paintings from the palace's walls.
"The Spanish team worked with the best materials available at the time, but now it is clear that they hurt rather than helped," Palumbo said.
The team is also rushing to stabilise foundations of the palace itself, with cement used by previous interventions to reinforce the palace's limestone walls now crumbling due to ongoing weathering and flash floods.
"The cement was basically slapped on to act as a band-aid," said Alex Sarro, as he set a limestone slab onto the outside of the palace's outer walls.
"But as the Umayyads knew, cement is no match for limestone."
Continuing what is at times tedious work: conservationists spend several hours to clean a single six-square-centimetre section.
"It is a very slow process, but once you see the original colours, it makes all the work worth it," said Stephia Di-Marcello, one of the dozen conservationists working on the site.
Months of careful work has unveiled striking images that have not been looked upon for over 1,000 years: peacocks in full bloom, royalty and detailed hunting scenes.
"Each day we are making new discoveries; it is as if we are finally seeing the murals for the very first time," Di-Marcello said.
Experts say another major success of the campaign has been the scaling back of efforts by the Spanish team to recreate incomplete and missing images that often misinterpret the brushstrokes of artists some 1,300 years ago.
The intervention has unveiled for the first time the true position, colours and even gender of the figural depictions.
"For decades, people thought that these images were crude, but what we are finding is that they are actually very finely detailed and true works of craftsmanship," Palumbo said.
Conservationists say the campaign, which is to continue through November, has also uncovered distinctively Byzantine, Hellenistic and Persian motifs, a sign that the young prince commissioned artists from across the Umayyad empire.
With the project's future unclear and the bulk of Qusayr Amra's walls still obscured by dirt and dust, experts say they are only beginning to understand murals that defied early Islamic culture and norms.
"We still have yet to know what was the true purpose of the palace, who visited it, and whether it was used after the fall of the Umayyads," Palumbo said.
"But if it was painted, hopefully we will find it."