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.
al-Sulaybiyya is a domed octagonal pavilion at Samarra in Iraq. Scholars have
dated the building to the last quarter of the ninth century/third century AH
based on the material used to build it: a sort of artificial stone made from
clay also used in the nearby Qasr al-‘Ashiq, dated to the reign of Abbasid
caliph al-Mu‘tamid (870-892). Although the building eventually served as a
monumental burial site for three unidentified people, the original function of
the structure is still ambiguous. The building as it stands today is the
product of restoration and rebuilding after an archaeological investigation in
is situated in what was once a zone of palaces and gardens on the west bank of
the Tigris, northwest of what was the Abbasid city.
At the center
of the building is a square domed chamber whose outer walls are beveled to form
an octagon. This central room is surrounded by an ambulatory whose outer walls
are also octagonal. The square chamber had four openings, one in each side. The
exterior walls of the octagonal ambulatory communicating with the outside have
one arched opening in each face. The central square chamber was sparsely
decorated, with blind niches flanking each of its four openings. An octagonal
transition zone with squinches supported a dome over this room.
in the 1970s revealed that the octagonal pavilion in turn sits on a platform
that extended 5 meters from the outer edge of the pavilion and was raised 2.5
meters above ground level. Four broad ramps gave access to the platform. Under
the platform, a series of chambers seem to have provided storage.
burials were uncovered in the central square chamber. Ernst Herzfeld, who first
excavated the building, interpreted it as the mausoleum of three Abbasid
caliphs. Thomas Leisten, who published the final report of Herzfeld’s
excavation, disagreed, suggesting that it began as a garden pavilion and was
later repurposed as a tomb. Alastair Northedge offered a second
interpretation of the building as a model of the Ka’aba, based on a passage in the
tenth-century geographer al-Muqaddasi’s description of the city that mentioned
such a monument.
Excavation of Samarra, 78.
Excavation of Samarra, 74.
Excavation of Samarra,76-7.
Northedge, “Qubbat al-Sulaybiyya.”
Ernst Herzfeld, DieGeschichte der Stadt Samarra, Hamburg, 1948.
Thomas Leisten. Architektur für Töte: Bestatigung in architektonischem Kontext in den Kernländern der islamischen Welt zwischen 3./9. und 6./12. Jahrhundert, 252-3. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1998.
Thomas Leisten, Excavation of Samarra. Volume 1: Architecture. Final Report on the First Campaign, 72-8. Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, 2003.
Northedge, Alastair. "The Qubbat al-Ṣulaybiyya and its Interpretation,” in Sifting Sands, Reading Signs: Studies in honour of Professor Géza Fehérvári, ed. Patricia L. Baker and Barbara Brend, 71-82. London: Furnace Publishing, 2006.
March 9, 2020 (AKDC Staff): updated data (added alternate names, edited construction date to "ca. last quarter 9th/3rd c. AH" based on new sources); edited description; added new references.