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

The magnificent artwork was opened to the public for the first time last week.

Palestinians visit Hisham's Palace that has one of the largest mosaic panels in the world after it was opened to the public, in Jericho, in the West Bank October 25, 2021. (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
Palestinians visit Hisham's Palace that has one of the largest mosaic panels in the world after it was opened to the public, in Jericho, in the West Bank October 25, 2021.
(photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)

Why is a citrus fruit – also known in Hebrew as etrog – featured in the magnificent mosaic paving the main hall of a caliphate castle in Jericho? According to Dr. Lev Arie Kapitaikin, a lecturer in Islamic Art at Tel Aviv University and Shenkar College, the choice to include the fruit in the artwork remains somewhat mysterious but it does show the deep interconnections between the Abrahamic faiths.

“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 depicted with a knife, near the throne, a location that highlights its importance. It is interesting to see how a Jewish emblem also became important in Islam.”

The mosaic was unveiled by Palestinian Authority Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Rula Ma’ay’a late last month after a long restoration funded by the government of Japan for $12 million. The ceremony was also attended by Japanese Ambassador to Lebanon and former Ambassador for Palestinian Affairs, Okubo Takeshi. The site is now open to the public. Ma’ay’a expressed hope that the artifact will boost tourism in the Palestinian Authority.

Hisham’s Palace dates to the first half of the 8th century CE, about 100 years after the death of Mohammed, under the Umayyad Dynasty, the first major Muslim dynasty.

The Umayyads ruled over a vast empire – including the area of modern Israel – for about a century. The site is located north of Jericho in the Palestinian Authority, in a building attributed to the tenth Umayyad Caliph, Hishām ibn Abd al-Malik, who erected several palaces and castles in the region. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was completed under a previous caliph Abd al-Malik in 692-693 CE.

A Palestinian visits Hisham's Palace that has one of the largest mosaic panels in the world after it was opened to the public, in Jericho, in the West Bank October 25, 2021. (credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)A Palestinian visits Hisham's Palace that has one of the largest mosaic panels in the world after it was opened to the public, in Jericho, in the West Bank October 25, 2021. (credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)

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

The site, which is also known as Khirbat al-Mafjar, was first discovered in 1894 and subsequently excavated between 1934 and 1948 under 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 during the Mandate.

Some restoration and archaeological work was carried out when Jordan ruled over the area before 1967, which resumed under the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage in 1996, according to Dr. Donald Whitcomb, an associate professor in Islamic archaeology at the University of Chicago who conducted further excavations in the area in recent years and wrote several publications on the topic.

THE MAGNIFICENT features of the building and its grounds included some 150 acres of gardens irrigated through an aqueduct, a great hall, a bath and an entry 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, rebuilt and remained in use until the end of the 13th century.

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

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

The great mosaic in the main hall presents geometric shapes and floral patterns in bright vivid colors.

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

Another mosaic adorns a smaller room.

“This room was devoted to the private pleasures of the kings,” Kapitaikin noted. “Here we can see a mosaic featuring a lion attacking a gazelle. In the past, it was interpreted as a symbol of war – of Islam vanquishing its enemies – but the current opinion among scholars is that it represents Islamic poetry, which focused on the pleasures of love and hunting. The room might 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 represented, and Islam prohibits doing so, but while in religious and public buildings this prohibition was upheld; 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 across cultures, but few mosaics dating back to the Umayyads survive, among them the ones in the Dome of the Rock and in the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

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