Hisham’s Palace Museum

by Jack Green, Chief Curator, Oriental Institute Museum


Click here to download "Hisham’s Palace Site and Museum Project" from the Oriental Institute 2013-14 Annual Report


A new museum opened to the public at the archaeological site of Khirbet al-Mafjar (Hisham’s Palace) on May 28, 2014. The museum presents archaeological artifacts, architectural elements, and stucco decoration, providing a range of information to visitors about the site’s rich history and aspects of daily life in the Palace and the adjacent agricultural estate.

Graphic panels and thematic displays present key elements of interpretation that supplement the information provided by the introductory film and site panels on the archaeological site. An introductory museum panel presents a timeline and maps that situate the site over time and space. An adjacent panel presents information about Palestinian archaeologist Dimitri Baramki and his contribution to the early excavations in the 1930s and subsequent study of Khirbet al-Mafjar, prior to the later work on the site by British archaeologist Robert Hamilton. The intention of this panel is to recognize Baramki’s achievements and to raise awareness of archaeological fieldwork by Palestinian archaeologists in the 20th century – inspiring subsequent generations in the 21st century.  

A further testament to Baramki’s contribution is presented in a display entitled Ceramic Traditions, which utilizes his pottery sequence demonstrating the more extensive occupation of the site after the end of the Umayyad Dynasty (ca. 750 AD), during the Abbasid and into the Ayyubid period (until around 1250 AD). In addition to transitional early Islamic and Umayyad red-painted pottery, the majority of ceramics retrieved from the site and displayed here are actually Abbasid in date (ca. 750–1000 AD), including incised and molded creamware vessels, Abbasid “Palace Ware” and glazed ceramics. This informative display of ceramic types presents an obvious challenge to Hamilton’s narrative that proposed a general abandonment of the site after an earthquake around 749 AD.

One display case presents objects that illustrate the economic role of the site as an agricultural estate and the import of products or materials. Carbonized dates and sesame seeds are just some of the organic products encountered during the excavations of Khirbet al-Mafjar. In addition, the display presents information about the grape press found at the site attesting to the fertility and abundance of the site within the Jordan Valley. Ceramic and glass vessels associated with cooking, eating, and drinking, mostly dated to the Abbasid period, hint at the types of objects associated with the spirit of hospitality and entertainment at Khirbet al-Mafjar. Objects of daily life, including coins, personal ornaments, and cosmetic implements come largely from the more recent excavations in the Northern Area carried out by the Jericho-Mafjar Project.

The rest of the Museum focuses on decorative and architectural aspects of Hisham’s Palace. A reconstructed cupola (dome) from the Audience Hall’s Diwan stands in the entrance. Now in fragments, it was originally carved from a single piece of sandstone, and plastered and painted. This decorative installation contains motifs visible on grander scale in the Palace and carved column capitals that imitate earlier Classical traditions but also hint at Sasanian inspiration. A niche from the façade of the audience hall is installed in one corner of the gallery, which introduces the context of the famous stucco sculpture of the Caliph (Hisham or Walid II) that once dominated the entrance. Many fragments of carved humans, animals and vegetal and geometric friezes in stucco, as well as smaller architectural elements are presented in one very large case, some of which still carry red, yellow, and black colored pigments. Graphic panels provide information on wall paintings and mosaics of Hisham’s Palace, supported by images on a video slideshow from the Rockefeller Museum that give a broader sense of the discoveries from the site on display in Jerusalem. Lastly, a “touchable” exhibit consisting of fragments of building materials is presented in a display entitled “Building Hisham’s Palace.” This invites all visitors (not only children), to touch these samples of marble, sandstone, cedarwood, brick, amongst other materials.

This small museum now contains around 150 objects from the site of Khirbet al-Mafjar. The majority of the artifacts come from the 1934–1948 excavations carried out by Dimitri Baramki, later joined by Robert Hamilton. This group is supplemented by more recent discoveries from the Jericho-Mafjar Project (2011–2013 seasons). The former group consists of mainly restored ceramics and fragments of carved stucco retrieved during the mid-1990s from a long-forgotten and partially buried storage depot near the entrance of the site. These artifacts appear to have been left at the site by its excavators in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps with the intention that one day they might form the basis for a site museum. The majority of the larger fragments of stucco, painted plaster, and other objects were transported to the Palestine Archaeological Museum (Rockefeller Museum), Jerusalem, and can be seen there today.

Hisham’s Palace Site Interpretation Panels

A series of 16 new site interpretation panels were also produced as part of the site and museum improvement project in 2014. These replace earlier site panels which had served the Palace and Audience Hall areas of the site over the past few years, supplemented by a series of additional panels in the Northern Area of the site.

The panels were printed on ceramic tiles, seen as the most durable option for the site, and are incorporated into a new visitor route for the site that takes into account more recent findings from the excavations. New panels that have not been previously available to the public include: The Grape Press, the Northern Area mosque, the Stables, and the Abbasid House.

The site of Khirbet al-Mafjar is a popular tourist destination as well as a key site for Palestinian school children. Visits to the site are part of the school curriculum, and therefore all children visit the site as part of their history education. The site is also a popular destination for Palestinian families. These improvements to the site and museum will therefore enhance peoples’ understanding and appreciation of the importance of Jericho’s rich cultural heritage, and in particular its early Islamic heritage, for years to come. In addition, the benefit to the local economy in terms of tourism is obvious. With more to see at the site, and more reasons to visit the site and spend time there, this will encourage greater interest and investment in Jericho as a cultural destination for visitors.

Project Collaboration and Partnership

The Museum and Site Improvement project was conceived by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, with the assistance of the Jericho-Mafjar Project of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. The Museum and Site project was managed by the Non-Governmental Organization DAI (Development Alternatives Inc.) as part of The Compete Project, a USAID funded initiative to build economic sectors within the West Bank and Gaza, including tourism. The Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, was invited to contribute to and consult on the project through providing text and graphic content, curatorial and museum exhibition advice, and the preparation of mounts for the new displays. The museum and site panel content was prepared and edited by the co-directors of the Jericho Mafjar Project, Donald Whitcomb, Associate Professor of Islamic Archaeology, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and Hamdan Taha, Director of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, and Deputy Minister of Tourism and Antiquities. Jack Green, Chief Curator of the Oriental Institute Museum, served as the curatorial consultant and exhibit coordinator. Erik Lindahl, Head of the Preparation Department of the Oriental Institute Museum also served as a consultant on the project, and helped sourcing materials and making mounts. Brian Zimerle joined Erik and Jack on the mount making and installation team, closely assisted by Firas Aqel, Elham Alama, and Imad Doudeen, of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage. Elham Alama is the assigned curator for the Hisham’s Palace Museum.

Acknowledgements: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago wishes to thank the following for all their assistance in bringing this project to fruition:

Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities/Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage: Hamdan Taha, Ihab Daoud, Jehad Yasin, Eyad Hamdan, Ahmed Rjoob, Firas Aqel, Mohammed Diab, Elham Alama, Imad Doudeen.

DAI / The Compete Project (USAID Contractor / Project Management): Dennis Gallagher, Ihab Jabari, Mohammed Taweel, Walid Sharif, Chethana Biliyar, Miguel Baca, Zahraa Zawawi, Mira Stephan.

Al Nasher (Graphic Design, Cabinets, and Panel Production): Jack Rabah and Abdel-Hamid (Abed) Ramadan.

Midmack (Architects): Rashad Jabi and Fawaz Yaish.

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