Before the foundation of Baghdad, the place where the Kazimiyyah shrine now stands was the location Shunayziyyah cemetery. After the establishment of Baghdad, al-Mansur used this cemetery as the burial ground for the caliph's family. In 799 Imam Musa, the seventh imam, died and was buried at the actual spot of the shrine. The shrine then became a pilgrimage site for the Shi'ite community, a status later reinforced by the subsequent burial in 835 of the ninth Imam who died in Baghdad.
The building as it stands today comprises an enclosure that houses the mausoleum of the two imams, and a mosque. The northern and southern sides measure of 131.2 meters while the eastern and western sides span 124 meters. The courtyard walls are constituted of small rooms opening onto the courtyard through pointed arches. Several doors puncture the enclosure among which: Bab al-Farhadiyyah including the Fatihah; Bab al-Mural and Bab el-Qibla in the southern enclosure wall facing the mausoleum.
The mausoleum is framed on three sides by tall tarimahs (an Iranian design found in palaces and shrines that composes a portico with a ceiling supported by thin wooden columns with a taller central part). The western tarimah called Tarimah Quraysh is 37 meters long and 6.5 meters wide. The eastern tarimah, 49 meters by 5.2 meters has its ceiling decorated with epigraphical texts and geometric motifs. The southern tarimah, on the qibla wall, measures 47.2 meters by 6 meters and is decorated with mirror mosaics.
The tomb chamber, situated in the middle of the rawdah (inner part of the sanctuary building), is composed of two related square spaces paved with marble slabs and covered with two domes. The walls display marble slabs running up to 1.4 meters, above which runs a line of Quranic inscription. In the middle of this inner room and below the two domes lie the two sarcophagi. An ambulatory composed of four riwaqs is decorated consistently with the rawdahs described above. It has six entrances displaying silver and golden decorations; they lead to the rawdahs. Six clerestory windows illuminate the inner rawdah.
Between the northern enclosure wall and the sanctuary itself stands a mosque consisting of a large hypostyle prayer hall with a low dome at its southern end distinguishing it from the two over the tomb chamber.
The Kazimiyyah shrine has seen several reconstructions and modifications. What comes to us is a Safavid building with some intrusions of local architecture sometimes derived from Ottoman decoration.
Under the Buwaihid Shi'ite dynasty, several restoration and addition works were executed. Abd ud-Dawlah first restored the sanctuary after the flood of 978 according to a contemporary description of the structure, the two tombs were described as topped by wooden domes and surrounded by an enclosure. In 1052 the building was described as having a large dome in the middle and minarets on the sides. Several restorations followed in 1097, 1159 and 1154. At that time the sanctuary was used as a madrasa and an orphanage.
During the Abbasid caliphate of al-Zahir the dome caught fire and was restored by al-Mustansir. From that time on the shrine was called al Maqbarah al Jadidah meaning the new tomb. It acquired greater significance as it was considered one of Baghdad's principal monuments from the thirteenth century onward. It is described as having a large dome, a library and an orphanage. The sanctuary was preceded by a wide courtyard probably surrounded by rooms and a façade with a large iwan similar to other Seljuq monuments of that same period. It was sufficiently damaged during the Mongol invasion and its first reconstruction dates back to Imad al-Din al-Qazwini. Ibn Battuta describes it in the fourteenth century as having a big enclosure and the tombs being of wood with a silver coating. In 1356, a second flood caused big damages to the shrine. It was then restored according to the previous plan layout with two minarets domes that are probably quite close in design to its current form.
In 1508 when the Safavid Shah Ismail entered the city he ordered a total reconstruction of the shrine. The rawdah was enlarged, marble was laid on the floor of the shrine, the sarcophagi were rebuilt of wood, and a Quranic inscription was carved on the outer walls. The minarets were increased to four in number in a way to resemble mosques of that period. One of the major changes to the overall site plan was the building of a mosque on the northern side of the shrine.
During the Ottoman period, when Suleiman the magnificent entered Baghdad in 1534, he decided to continue the works started by the Safavids: the northern minaret was thus completed in 1570. Baghdad was conquered in 1623 by the Safavid Shah Abbas who ordered the reconstruction of the shrine that suffered some damage during the Safavid expansion.
The corner minarets were in a later period completed by Aqa Muhammad al-Qadjari and a large courtyard that stands until the present date faces the haram. Muhammad Shah and Shah Fath Ali ordered the decoration of the domes and walls of the rawdah and the pinnacles of the four minarets from material made available from the sanctuary of Imam Hussain in Kerbala.
In 1864, when Shah Nassir ordered new restoration works to be carried on the complex the kashi tile decoration of the façade was added; the two tarimah before the haram on the southern and eastern sides had their walls covered with marble; and the eastern tarimah covered by a flat roof standing on twenty-two wooden columns was completed. In later years, he sponsored several other restorations and decoration works such as: the golden decoration on the iwan in the middle of the eastern tarimah; the silver applied on door between the rawdah and the southern riwaq; the second storey above the sahn galleries; and the laying of foundations for two clock towers on the eastern and southern sides. These works ended in 1884 and the expenses are said to have reached 200, 000 Ottoman liras.
In 1902-3 the mirror decoration in the southern and eastern riwaqs was completed and for the following six years the design was altered by the same decoration on the northern and western riwaqs. The last works carried out in the sanctuary were on the western tarimah that displays twenty columns and is decorated with mirror and floral motifs.
The Kazimiyyah shrine is now situated in a western neighborhood of Baghdad known as al-Karkh. In 1970 it was included in the master plan for the city of Baghdad that involved a rehabilitation project aiming to clear slums around the shrine to create spaces for gardens, landscaped squares, and to provide sites for public buildings. Demolition started in 1980 to the north and west part of the shrine. A mosque, baths and some fine houses were destroyed and in the cleared area new bazaars were built.
Strika V., Khalil J. The Islamic Architecture of Baghdad, Instituto Universitario Orientale, Napoli, 1987, 3-14.
Uluçam, Abdüsselam. 1989. Irak'taki Türk Mimari Eserleri. Ankara: Kültür Bakanligi, 37-41.