One of the largest floor mosaics in the world has been unveiled after five years of restoration in Hisham’s Palace, an 8th century royal compound three miles north of the occupied West Bank city of Jericho. Covering 9,000 square feet and composed of more than five million tesserae made from colorful local stone, the mosaic features a dizzying array of geometric and floral designs of kaleidoscopic intricacy.
Hisham’s Palace was built in the first half of the 8th century, one of the desert castles the Umayyad dynasty. The palace complex covers 150 acres and includes a bath house and a hayr, an enclosed horticultural area that served as both park and kitchen garden supplying food for the palace. It remained in use until around 1000.
The remains were first discovered in 1873, but the site wasn’t archaeologically explored until Palestinian archaeologist Dimitri Baramki excavated it for 14 years between 1934 and 1948. It was in one of those excavations that an ostracon with the name “Hisham” scratched on it was discovered, which led archaeologists to speculate that the palace was built by Umayyad caliph Hisham ibn ‘Abd al-Malik. The name has stuck, but there is no direct evidence of which member of the dynasty first built and occupied the palace.
Mosaics have been found throughout the complex in an array of different designs. One of bath house floors has an exquisite Tree of Life mosaic with two gazelles grazing under the left side of the tree while a lion attacks another gazelle on the right side. The contrasting animal scenes represent war and peace.
Under threat from Jericho’s sprawl and the expansion of farming over unexplored areas of the complex, in 2010 Hisham’s Palace was listed as one of the 10 most endangered sites by the Global Heritage Fund. Five years ago, the popular tourist destination was closed to the public for emergency conservation work funded by Japan to the tune of $12 million. That work is now complete and the site reopened to visitors.