The ruin field known as al-Najmi, situated to the west of al-Nu'maniyya in lower Iraq, is home to an enigmatic domed structure. In his survey of lower Mesopotamia, Louis Massignon mentioned that his local guide referred to the structure as Imam al-Najmi.1 Neither the function nor date of Imam al-Najmi is certain. However, its plan (a domed cube) suggests the function of a tomb or mausoleum, and its extensive use of architectural muqarnas suggests a date of at least the twelfth or thirteenth/sixth or seventh century AH.
The ruins of al-Najmi are one of the many remnants of settlements along the ancient canal known as Shatt al-Nil, which cut through the alluvial plain between the Euphrates and the Tigris, branching off the Sarat Canal system in the west and running east toward Nu'maniyya before turning south. Medieval descriptions of the canal echo the archaeological situation, as geographers mention that many villages lined its banks.2 In his survey of archaeological sites along the Tigris and Euphrates conducted in 1907-1908, German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld described the ruin field of al-Najmi as "... extensive, rising 1 to 1.5 meters in height, above which the remains of the tomb of a holy man protrude," and noted that one could still see the remains of numerous brick walls on the mound.3
The building consisted of a square chamber constructed of baked brick and gypsum plaster measuring 12.3 meters square and rising to a height of approximately 11 meters. The chamber had one entrance on its west side in the form of a pointed arched portal framed by a rectangular field and then again by a larger pointed arch. Each facade of the building was undecorated save for a row of five blind arches near the cornice on each face. As the images of the building included here show, the western wall with the building's entrance has collapsed since the time of Herzfeld and Massignon.
The interior of the building consists of a square chamber with walls finished with plaster. A sounding undertaken by Costa during his survey in 1966 uncovered a mihrab decorated with plaster cells on the southern wall.4 The dome of the building had collapsed by the time it was recorded by Herzfeld, but the zone of transition was mostly intact. The dome rested on eight broad muqarnas pendentives of several courses. These eight pendentives come together to form a many-sided polygonal base from which the vault then sprung. Eight windows admitted light into the vault.
Massignon, Mission, 55.
Guy Le Strange, The Lands of the Eastern Caliphate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1905), 73.
- Herzfeld, Archäologische Reise, 238.
- Costa, "Islamic Shrines," 10.
Costa, Paolo. "Islamic Shrines on the Šaṭ al-Nīl." Annali dell 'Istituto di Napoli 31 (1971): 1-16.
Massignon, Louis. Mission en Mésopotamie (1907-1908). Mémoires publiés par les membres de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire 28, p. 55 and pls. LIII-LVIII (Cairo: Imprimerie de Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1910).
Sarre, Friedrich, and Ernst Herzfeld. Archäologische Reise im Euphrat- und Tigris-Gebiet. Vol. 1, p. 238-239. 4 vols. Berlin: D. Reimer, 1911-1920.