The Economic Role of the Umayyad Qusur

→ Zakariya N. Na’imat

The rural landscape of the southern Levant in the Umayyad (661-750 AD) era is characterized by the presence of dozens of majestic edifices commonly referred to as “Desert Palaces”. These are a group of palaces, châteaux, baths and lodges dotting various physiographic sub-niches of the region. To date, research has focused on the architectural, artistic and, to a lesser degree, chronological/temporal aspects of these imperial monuments, and has just started to investigate the potential economic role of these imperial buildings. This study draws on the archaeological evidence to document signs of any economic activities, including production, marketing-transportation and consumption, which could have taken place in these buildings and in their physical hinterlands, and to place these large buildings in their inter/intra-regional economic setting. That the qusur played an economic role is indicated by their physical-geographic position in agricultural areas and/or on trade routes, their economic infrastructure (dams, channels, terraces, cisterns, storage facilities, wine presses and water mills), botanical remains retrieved from some of these palaces (suggesting market-oriented agricultural production), and the appearance in some qusur of exotic items that indicate commercial interaction. The basic argument here is that the buildings represented “economic institutions/communities or units” within the state economy of the Umayyad caliphate, and that they functioned as magnets of social and economic activity.

The Umayyad period witnessed profound social, political, economic and cultural changes. The southern Levant experienced fundamental economic changes that had a demonstrable impact on the rural landscape. The Umayyads developed fiscal systems resulting in changes to land tenure that contributed to the revival of rural life. Medieval historians report that such systems contributed to the increased income of agricultural lands. Could the qusur be the administrative centers of private estates, thus material manifestations of such fiscal systems? It is noted that the qusur are located in different physiographic niches, with different economic potentials, whether agricultural or commercial or both. The wide distribution of these building in the Levant may have aimed at the most extensive exploitation of natural resources, which could have, in part, produced what may be called the palace-economy, an important component in the structure of the larger Umayyad economic system. It is hoped that this study will eventually provide a theoretical explanation for rural economic developments during the Umayyad period.


Figure left: Central medallion of the Belvedere in Shuqayra al-Gharbiyya in west central Jordan

Figure in the centre: Geographic distribution of the qusur


Supervisors: Prof. Dr. Bethany Walker, Prof. Dr. Claudia Sode