The city of Samarra was the ninth-century capital
of the Abbasid caliphate of Iraq for nearly fifty years. It is doubly
significant as the site of an early Islamic capital and as one of the largest
archaeological ruins in the world: the traces of the Abbasid city stretch for
some forty kilometers along the Tigris. Modern Samarra is much smaller than the Abbasid site and so a large portion remains open to
excavation and analysis. The ruins of Samarra thus offer an unparalleled glimpse of one version of an
early-Islamic imperial city plan.
Several important excavations and surveys have
taken place at Samarra. Henri Viollet undertook a series of sondages in the
Main Caliphal Palace in 1909 (Viollet 1910). Ernst Herzfeld conducted the first large
excavations at the site between 1910 and 1913 (Herzfeld 1912 and 1914).1 Herzfeld’s excavations
included portions of the Main Caliphal Palace, The Congregational Mosque of
Mutawakkil at Samarra, the Balkuwara Palace, the Qubbat al-Sulaybiyya, and a
number of residential structures near the historic city center (Herzfeld 1912
and Herzfeld 1914). The Iraq Department of Antiquities has undertaken a number of
excavations from the 1930s (Iraq DGA 1940) through the 1980s, including
portions of the Main Caliphal Palace and numerous residential structures.2
Neither Herzfeld nor the Iraq DGA fully published the results of its excavations,
so our understanding of even the excavated portions of the site remains partial.
In recent years, scholars have used the data from these excavations to offer
more extensive reports on the architecture (Leisten 2003) and topography of the
site (Northedge 2005). At the time of writing, the most recent contribution is
a catalog of the archaeological remains at the site (Northedge and Kennet 2015).
Landscape and site:
The land around the site is mostly steppe. The
Tigris runs swiftly and cuts a deep channel through the region, meaning that situation irrigation and agriculture difficult. Before the foundation of Samarra, the
Abbasid caliphs may have used this area for hunting, if textual sources are
correct. Traces of a large walled enclosure dating before the rise of Islam at
the north end of the site suggest that the Sasanian kings used the land for
Foundation and history of occupation:
The imperial Islamic city of Samarra was founded
in 836/221 AH by the Abbasid caliph al-Mu‘tasim Bi’llah. The origin of the name
Samarra is uncertain and likely predates its foundation, but the Abbasids
adopted the folk etymology surra man ra’a, Arabic for “happy is he who
sees it,” referring to the city by this compound name. Many pre-Modern writers also
refer to Samarra by this name.
The impetus for Samarra’s foundation remains uncertain.
The most popular explanation is narrated by the historian Ya‘qubi (d. early
tenth century/fourth century AH), who saw Samarra himself. He claims that
Mu‘tasim founded the new capital in order to alleviate Baghdad of the sizable
and increasingly unwieldy imperial army, composed at the time of soldiers from
across the Islamic world. Ya‘qubi mentions that a number of non-Arabic speaking
soldiers of Turkic origin angered the residents of Baghdad who retaliated
against them, compelling the caliph to protect his imperial guard by creating a
new city with ample space.4 As compelling as this explanation is, one should consider
other factors for Samarra’s foundation, such as boosting the economy through architectural
patronage or the precedent of founding new imperial cities (Harun al-Rashid,
for example, founded a palace-city outside Raqqa just decades after Mansur
Historical development and decline:
The original city plan consisted of a
congregational mosque (no longer standing), markets, military cantonments, and
the large Main Caliphal Palace complex or Dar al-Khilafa. A wide arterial avenue
connected the markets and mosque on the southern end of the site with
the palace complex to the north. The cantonments lay between mosque and palace complex.5
After al-Mu'tasim's death in 842, his successor al-Wathiq chose to
stay in Samarra. He built a new palace al-Haruni, or al-Quwayr, on the banks of
the Tigris that served his successor al-Mutawakkil until 860.
The next caliph to reign at Samarra was al-Mutawakkil ‘Ala-Allah (r.
847-861/232-247 AH), who dramatically altered the form of the city. His first
major contribution was the new congregational mosque whose enclosure walls and
spiral minaret still stand today. South of the center of the city, he
commissioned a new palace known as Balkuwara (Manqur) for his son al-Mu‘tazz.
Mutawakkil’s largest contribution to the Samarra area was in fact
to found an entirely new imperial city just to the north of the limits of Mu‘tasim’s
foundation. He named this city al-Mutawakkiliyya, and constructed a grand congregational
mosque (Jami’ Abi Dulaf), markets,
cantonments, and a new imperial palace (al-Ja‘fari). Mutawakkil’s untimely death in 861/247 AH resulted in the abandonment
of Mutawakkiliyya and the court’s transfer back to Samarra and its Main
The decades after Mutawakkil’s death were marked by political
chaos and the increasing power of the army, with three caliphs placed on the
throne and killed by 870/256 AH when al-Mu‘tamid assumed the throne. His brother,
who controlled the army and took the regnal title of al-Muwaffaq although he
was not caliph, moved the imperial army back to Baghdad, leaving Mu‘tamid in
Samarra as a figurehead. Upon Mu‘tamid’s death in 892/279 AH, the court
abandoned Samarra completely and reestablished itself at Baghdad.
The court’s abandonment of Samarra meant the end imperial support for
the city, and it shrank dramatically to a more sustainable size.6 Although
the decline in population must have happened quickly, the fact that coins were
still minted at Samarra during the tenth century suggests that the city
remained an important regional center.7 By the end of the tenth century,
however, the Arab geographers considered Samarra to be a shadow of its former
self. The author al-Muqaddasi, for example, wrote in about the 980s/370s AH
that Samarra had “gone to ruin, so a man may walk for two or three miles and
not come upon an inhabited place.”8
While significantly depopulated compared to its heyday in the ninth/third
century AH, Samarra remained an important provincial center after the tenth/fourth
century AH due to the presence there of the tombs of the tenth and eleventh Shi’a
imams, Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-Askari. They had resided in a house in Samarra
and were buried under their floors. In the 940s/330s AH, the Hamdanid Dynasty,
a Shi’a family with local clout in Central Iraq, constructed the shrine known
as Marqad al-Imamayn on the site of the house,
and the town became a pilgrimage center for Shi’a Muslims.
In the 1950s a barrage was built on the Tigris to divert the
spring water ending Baghdad's flooding. The lake behind the barrage caused the
inundation of farming communities' lands. Peasants took refuge in the Abbasid
ruins. Consequently, the town was enlarged and survived as the market center of
--- Matthew Saba, Visual Resources Librarian for Islamic Architecture, AKDC at MIT, November 2017
Jens Kröger, “Chronik der Ausgrabungen von Samarra 1911-1913,”
in Gonnella, ed., Beiträge, 234-346.
T. al-Jannabi, “Islamic Archaeology in Iraq: Recent Excavations,” World
Archaeology 14 (1982): 305-327.
Northedge, Historical Topography, 74.
Northedge, Historical Topography, 267.
Northedge, “‘Askar al-Mu‘tasim: the Central City of Samarra,” in
Gonnella, ed., Beiträge, 39.
Northedge, Historical Topography, 259.
Treadwell, “Notes on the Mint at Samarra,” in Robinson, ed., A
Medieval Islamic City Reconsidered, 141-156.
Muqaddasi, The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions,
translated by Basil Anthony Collins (Garnet: Reading, 1994),111.
Julia, Rania Abdellatif, and Simone Struth, eds. Beiträge zur Islamischen
Kunst und Archäologie. Vol. 4. Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert, 2014.
Herzfeld, Ernst. Erster vorläufiger Bericht über die
Ausgrabungen von Samarra. Berlin: D. Reimer, 1912.
Herzfeld, Ernst. “Mitteilung über
die Arbeiten der zweiten Kampagne von Samarra.” Der Islam 5 (1914): 196-204.
Leisten, Thomas. Excavation of Samarra, Volume I: Architecture.
Final Report of the First Campaign, 1910 – 1912. Mainz am Rhein: Philipp
von Zabern, 2003.
Balkuwara was constructed on the shore of the Tigris River (approximately 6 kilometers south of contemporary Samarra), by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil for Prince al Mu'tazz between 849-859. It includes three courtyards, nine halls, residential suites, mosques, and quarters for infantrymen in an expansive fortressed complex measuring approximately 1,250 meters per side and 15 meters in height. The entire rectangular complex is divided into three parallel lengthwise sections. The palace is situated in the southern half of the complex surrounded by an assembly of private houses each containing sixteen rooms around a central courtyard, while the northern half is composed of two central courts, one succeeding the other and the accommodations for the army, including bazaars, baths, a polo field, and small mosques.
Balkuwara would have been a magnificent experience from both its interior and exterior as this sizeable palace is composed on a strong linear axis with its most prominent section (the Throne Room) positioned on the highest elevated area of the site. A court and garden encompassed by a wall supported by pilasters stretches in front of the palace along the river. Overlooking this area, the palace's façade features a triple arcade with the central arch rising over the two side ones. It is adorned with green glass and mother-of-pearl mosaic over a gold background. This entrance leads into a group of four public audience halls organized in a cross around a central, square chamber. This cruciform pattern is influenced from the region known today as eastern Iran. Square-shaped suites of eight rooms ordered around small courtyards extend between these halls. Emanating from the Throne Rooms to the northeast on the central vertical axis are the Courts of Honor, a series of three courts each boasting monumental entrances. Standing at the main entrance of the compound this progression of gates commands attention to the axiality of the site design.
The predominant building material at the site is brick, baked and raw, with doors made of the finest lumber. Conventional for the times, vaulting was the established method for the ceilings. Decoration at the compound varies between stucco-work, frescoes, colored glass windows and niches sometimes, square, circular or quatrefoil. As a royal palace, Balkuwara represents a new building typology, previously unknown in Islamic building tradition.
Creswell, K. A. C.1989. A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture. Rev. ed. Allan, James W. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 364-367.
Ettinghausen, Richard and Grabar, Oleg. 1987. The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 82-86.