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Samarra – the Abbasid Capital in Iraq


Samarra is now recognized as the largest archaeological site in the world and stretches for over 40 km along the banks of the Tigris. Although there were settlements in the area of Samarra before the Abbasid period, it was not established as capital until 836 CE when the Abbasid caliph al-Mu’tassim decided to set up a new city following clashes between his troops and the local population of Baghdad. The city remained capital for fifty-six years and was home to eight caliphs, until 892 when the capital was moved back to Baghdad.

The predominant building material in Samarra was mud brick and pise with baked brick reserved for more important structures (i.e. the Great Mosque and the Bab al-Amma). Houses and palaces were decorated with carved and moulded stucco panels, and Samarra provides the earliest examples of bevelled stucco decoration. Some of the palaces were also decorated with wall paintings and glass mosaic although none of this remains in situ.
The modern town of Samarra is located approximately in the centre of the Abbasid city. Immediately to the north-west of the city, on the west bank of the Tigris, is the Jausaq al-Khaqani which for most of the time was the caliph’s palace and was always his official residence. It was built by one of al-Mu’tasim’s Turkish generals and reflects features of Central Asian influence such as wall paintings with Bactrian camels. The palace is a vast complex, including a mosque, a polo ground and a horse- racing track. On the west side of the palace, facing the river, there is a monumental gateway or portal known as the Bab al-Amma, or public gate. This structure was probably an official entrance and a place for public audiences. Directly to the east of the palace is the Great Mosque of Samarra with its spiral minaret (the Malwiyya). Measuring over 240 by 160 m this is one of the largest mosques in the world. It is built entirely of baked brick although marble columns on brick piles originally supported the roof. The outer wall of the mosque is supported by four corner towers and twenty semi-circular bastions resting on square bases. The curtain wall is entirely plain except for a frieze which runs between the bastions, each section consisting of six bevelled squares with shallow concave discs in the centre. The Malwiyya, or spiral minaret, is 52 m high and may have been influenced by earlier Mesopotamian ziggurats.



In the north of Samarra are the remains of an extension to the city built by Caliph al-Mutawakkil in an attempt to found a new city. This new area had a palace, garrisons and a congregational mosque known as the Abu Dulaf. The Abu Dulaf Mosque is a smaller version of the Great Mosque and has a spiral minaret 19 m high. On the west bank of the Tigris is the Ashiq Palace, one of the last buildings made before the capital was relocated in Baghdad. The palace is built on a vaulted substructure or terrace so that it can overlook the Tigris. The building forms a high rectangle with the outer walls decorated by a series of blind niches. One of the distinctive features of the palace is the use of the four- centrepoint arch for the first time in Islamic architecture.

South of the modern town of Samarra are a number of major structures, including the palaces of al-Istabulat, al-Balkuwara and Musharrahat. In addition, there is a huge octagonal enclosure, each side of which is half a kilometre long, known as the octagon of Qadisiyya. This probably represents the remains of an unfinished city started by Harun al- Rashid in the eighth century.


Further reading:
A.Northedge, ‘Planning Samarra’, Iraq 47: 109-28, 1985.
‘The Palace of Istabulat’, Archeologie islamique 4: 1993.
A.Northedge and R.Falkner, ‘The 1986 survey season at
Samarra’, Iraq 49: 143-74, 1987. A.Northedge, T.J.Wilkinson and R.Falkner, ‘Survey and excavations at Samarra 1989’, Iraq 52: 121-48.

About the Author
Dr.Andrew Petersen is Director of Research in Islamic Archaeology at the University of Wales Lampeter. He has carried out fieldwork in many parts of the Islamic world including Iraq, Oman, Jordan, Palestine, UAE and Qatar. His current research interests include Islamic urbanism, pilgrimage routes and fortifications. For the last two years he has been working on the archaeology of coastal settlement in northern Qatar in collaboration with the Qatar Museums Authority and the Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage project.
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