The Enigmatic Six Kings of the Earth Fresco Uncovered
Discovered in a crumbling desert castle located in modern-day Jordan, a fresco known as the “Six Kings of the Earth” provides a curious glimpse into the early medieval Islamic world . It is especially important due to the fact that ancient Islamic art is largely underrepresented, even though Islam was the main religion of one of the world’s largest empires during its golden era.
These empires were known as caliphates. Starting in 631 AD and ending in 1517 AD, there were three major caliphates in the world. They were vast multi-ethnic empires, spanning across continents and incorporating numerous peoples, cultures, and religions. As such, the art that emerged as distinctly Islamic was greatly influenced by all the peoples within the caliphates.
The Six Kings of the Earth fresco in Jordan dates back to the Umayyad Caliphate and is testament to the fact that the Caliphs had good understanding of the world around them, and that they greatly valued art. But who are these six kings of the Earth? And why do they adorn the walls of an Islamic desert castle?
The Qasr Amra frescos in Jordan, with the Six Kings of the Earth just right of the center. (David Bjorgen / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Getting to the Bottom of the Six Kings of the Earth
The painting of the “Six Kings of the Earth” was quite an enigma when it was found. It lay for centuries in the abandoned ruins of a once-sprawling desert castle of Qasr Amra, also known as Quseir ‘Amra . The site once belonged to the ruler of the Umayyad Caliphate, which was the second Islamic caliphate to arise after the death of their prophet, Muhammad.
The Umayyad Caliphate - a vast and highly powerful empire - was ruled by the eponymous Umayyad Dynasty for roughly a century, before being overthrown by the rivaling Abbasid Dynasty. Still, even in such a short span, the Umayyad Caliphate achieved a great many things. They expanded on the conquests of their predecessors, and laid down the formative foundations of the emerging Islamic Art.
After their defeat at the hands of the Abbasids, the Umayyads went on to establish the Caliphate of Cordoba in the Iberian Peninsula . In the following years, this city became a flourishing center of Islamic art, philosophy, and teaching. But the painting of the Six Kings of the Earth dates back to before the Umayyad fall, and is situated in their heartland - in modern-day Jordan.
The Umayyad desert castle Qasr Amra. ( Radek Sturgolewski / Adobe Stock)
Qasr Amra: The Ancient Umayyad Desert Castle
Qasr Amra, also known as Qusayr 'Amra or Quseir Amra (قصر عمرة / Qaṣr ‘Amrah) , is a ruin of a desert castle from the Umayyad times, situated some 85 kilometers (53 miles) east of Amman (the capital of Jordan) and 21 kilometers (13 miles) southwest of the Azraq Oasis in modern-day Jordan. The name translates as the “little palace of Amra”, and is typical of Umayyad desert castles.
What remains today is actually just a part of a larger complex. Ruins and foundations of numerous other buildings were discovered through archeological excavations. It is likely that there was an actual castle surrounding the palace, possibly with little military function. This means that the whole complex was meant as a royal retreat for the caliph.
The Painting of the Six Kings is a fresco found on the wall of Qasr Amra, a desert castle of the #Umayyad Caliphate, now #Jordan. Four of the six have inscriptions identifying them as the Byzantine emperor, King Roderic of Hispania, the Sasanian emperor, and the Negus of Aksum. pic.twitter.com/Em0sB1wIw9
— Marcus (@Marrioend) May 24, 2018
Either way, the most important part of the complex survived, and that is the Qasr Amra palace and its frescoes. Due to its exceptional importance and age, the site has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site , and has been described as a "masterpiece of human creative genius", "unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition" and "an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history.”
From the outside, Qasr Amra doesn’t look all that fascinating. But once you step within, you are greeted by an abundance of marvelous and exceptionally well-made frescoes that quickly captivate your attention. These frescoes depict various scenes, of craftsmen at work, nude women bathing, of hunting, and of rulers. While frescoes once covered all the walls, they now remain mainly on the ceilings.
Other paintings include the recently discovered “Cycle of Jonah”, as well as a marvelous celestial painting discovered above a bath chamber . The latter was painted on the hemispherical ceiling, and represents the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere accompanied by the signs of the Zodiac, with the Great Bear (Ursa Major) and the Little Bear (Ursa Minor) painted in the adjacent hot room. This is considered the first known representation of heaven (celestial sky) on a hemispherical surface.
The Northern Hemisphere fresco painted on the domed ceiling of a bath chamber, believed to be the first known representation of heaven on a hemispherical surface. (flowcomm / CC BY 2.0 )
Drawing showing the constellations on the domed fresco at Qasr Amra. (Davide Mauro / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Depiction of the Subjugated Monarchs – The Six Kings of the Earth
But undoubtedly the most important of all the frescoes within Qasr Amra is the painting known as the “Six Kings of the Earth”. Not only is it a marvelous work of Islamic art, but it also serves as a source of information, helping researchers date the creation of the frescoes and the palace.
The famed Six Kings panel depicts six rulers of the world, standing facing the viewer in two rows of three. Interestingly, each ruler has his palms turned upwards, with hands stretched out and pointing slightly towards the left.
In the adjacent alcove, opposite the painting of the kings, is the painting of a man seated on a throne, with a blessing written above his head. It is certain that the whole string of frescoes depicted the Umayyad Caliph seated on his throne, with the six kings of the earth gesturing toward him in supplication, or obedience. This indicates the caliph’s power and prestige as the mightiest of all the rulers of the (known) world.
Fresco depicting the Six Kings of the Earth at Qasr Amra in modern-day Jordan. ( Public domain )
Who Are the Six Kings of the Earth?
So who are these enigmatic Kings? Sadly, not all of their identities are known. The painting suffered damage over the ages, and due to its age, many of the frescoes are missing their crucial details. Each of the six kings is depicted in his own garments, which has helped with the identification to a certain extent.
Furthermore, each king has inscriptions in both Greek and Arabic above the head. Written in bold white letters on a blue background, they served to identify the supplicant rulers. Sadly, only four inscriptions are legible today, leaving the identities of two kings unknown and open to interpretation. Those that are identified are:
Preliminary sketches and descriptions made by Western explorers in 1898 helped with the identification of the Six Kings of the Earth. ( Public domain )
A Glimpse into Early Medieval History
The depiction of the Visigothic King Roderic was instrumental in dating this site. Roderic, popularly known as “the last King of the Goths”, ruled just briefly, from 710 to 711 AD. He was the last of the Visigothic kings to rule from the capital of Toledo.
Roderic’s ascension in 710 was disputed, and his reign was soon brought to an end as Roderic had to face the Umayyad Invasion of the Iberian Peninsula that began in 711. In that very same year, Roderic died in the Battle of Guadalete , the first major battle of the Umayyad conquest.
This means that the frescoes could not have been made prior to 710 AD, and no later than 750 AD, when the Umayyad Caliphate was overthrown by the Abbasids. Of course, the identification of King Roderic of the Visigoths has also helped experts to understand who the other depicted “Kings of the Earth” are.
By using the starting point of 710 AD, we can try and pinpoint the name of the Byzantine Emperor. Alas, this is substantially more challenging, since the Byzantine Empire of that time was embroiled in the Twenty Years’ Anarchy period, with many emperors changing on the throne.
At the time, in the late 600s AD, Arabs and Byzantines waged a series of vicious wars. A possible candidate is Justinian II , known as Rhinotmetos, who reigned twice: from 685 to 695 AD, and again from 705 to 711 AD. During his reign, the Umayyad Arabs made several victories against the Byzantines.
Most notable was their victory at the Battle of Sebastopolis, where the Byzantines were thoroughly decimated. Following this victory, the Umayyads conquered all of Armenia. Justinian II’s inclusion into the painting of the six kings would be logical, making him one of the rulers defeated by the Arabs, just like Roderic.
The image of Khosrow, the Sassanian Emperor, has a similar insinuation. This likely depicts Emperor Khosrow II, known as the Victorious, the last notable “King of Kings” of the Sassanian Empire . Khosrow’s rule was quite eventful, and marked with internal feuds.
Nevertheless, in 628 Khosrow was assassinated, which resulted in a devastating civil war in the already frail Sasanian Empire. In the end, his eight-year-old grandson, Yazdegerd III, inherited the throne, but to no avail. In 651 AD, the Arabs conquest of Iran began and brought an end to the venerable Sassanid realm.
However, the inclusion of Khosrow on the fresco at Qasr Amra is enigmatic. The Arab conquest of Iran was done by the preceding Rashidun Caliphate, some 50 years before the supposed creation of the palace. Still, an Arab conquest of a powerful world ruler still counts as an achievement worthy of inclusion on the palace walls.
Analysis of the evidence presented within the Qasr Amra frescos leads experts to believe that Al-Wallid II ordered the construction of the desert palace. (Taha b. Wasiq b. Hussain / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Realms Laid Bare by the Umayyad Caliphate
The fourth and the last identifiable ruler is supposedly Armah, King of Axum. He was also known as Aṣḥamah (Arabic: أَصْحَمَة) and Najashi, and reigned from 614 to 630 AD. However, the Rashiduns, or the Umayyads never had lasting conflicts with the Axumite Kingdom. In fact, it was likely King Armah that gave shelter to the first Muslim emigrants into his lands.
Still, the Rashiduns took control of the Red Sea and Egypt by 646 AD, pushing Axum into economic isolation. Further conflicts continued when Axumite pirates managed to invade the Hejaz region in modern-day West Saudi Arabia, occupying the city of Jeddah in 702 AD. In response, the Umayyad Caliph retaliated, and went on to conquer the Dahlak Archipelago from Axum.
The other two kings whose faces and names are damaged beyond repair, are believed to possibly represent the Emperor of China, the ruler of India, or a Turkic Khan. These three theories are all possible, since the Umayyads waged war against all of them.
With the Chinese, the Umayyads fought in the Battle of Aksu in 717 AD, although they lost. With the Indians, the Umayyads had lasting conflicts that began as early as 636 AD, and were at their height from 700 AD and onwards. They also warred with the Turkic tribes. So, the rulers of these empires are probably depicted on the fresco.
All of this tells us that the palace of Qasr Amra and its fascinating frescoes were likely created during the reign of the Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid II. Although Al-Walid II reigned for just one year, from 743 until 744 AD, but the palace could have been created sometime between 723 and 743 AD.
Although not a caliph at the time, Al-Walid II was an heir to the throne, and thus had great influence and wealth. His dominance in the region was notably rising during this period. Al-Walid II was well known as a great patron of arts, poetry, sex, singing, drinks, verse, horse races, and similar things.
Furthermore, a fresco within the palace is identified as Al-Wallid II, in his time as a prince. All of this points to the fact that it was Al-Wallid II who ordered the construction of the palace, as a lover of all things artistic and lavish, and that the seated caliph to whom the “Six Kings of the Earth” are subordinate is his father, Caliph Yazid II.
Alois Musil in 1901, a Czech scholar who “discovered” the Six Kings of the Earth panel at Qasr Amra. ( Public domain )
Accidental Damage by European Explorers
The ruins of the desert castle and the fresco were long known to the bedouins of the region. The first time they were discovered by Westerners was in 1898, when a Czech scholar Alois Musil visited the site, accompanied by Alphons Leopold Mielich, a noted Austrian painter.
When the two of them arrived, the fresco and its inscriptions were already quite fragile. Mielich thankfully made some preliminary sketches and descriptions, which helped with the identification of the kings later on. Alas, the two explorers attempted to clean the fresco and remove it from the palace, which caused great damage to this irreplaceable work of art.
Even so, the “Six Kings of the Earth” at Qasr Amra remain as one of the defining relics of the early Islamic art whose foundations were laid down during the reign of the Umayyads. The fresco and the rulers depicted allow us to glimpse into history, providing a key to understanding the numerous wars and campaigns undertaken by the Umayyad Arabs.
Top image: Drawing of the Six Kings of the Earth fresco at Qasr Amra. Source: Public domain
Fowden, G. 2004. Qusayr ‘Amra: Art and the Umayyad Elite in Late Antique Syria. University of California Press.
Unknown. 2000. The Umayyads: The Rise of Islamic Art. AIRP.
Various. 1971. The Encyclopedia of Islam. BRILL.