Abu Ishak Muhammad ibn Harun al-Rashid, given the regnal title al-Mu'tasim Bi'llah, was the eighth Abbasid caliph and founder of the imperial capital city of Samarra. Before ascending to the throne, Mu'tasim had been a military commander, and some historical sources suggest that he founded Samarra in part to accommodate the growing army that he had amassed as a form of protection.
Main Caliphal Palace at Samarra, known in Arabic as Dar al-Khilafa (Abode of
the Caliphate) or Qasr al-Khalifa (Palace of the Caliph), functioned as the primary
residence of the Abbasid caliph al-Mu’tasim and several of his successors for a
period of nearly fifty years during the middle of the ninth century/third century
AH. Construction began on the site circa 836/221 AH. Aside from its importance as an
imperial palace, Samarra’s Dar al-Khilafa is of double significance as one of the
largest and most extensively excavated Abbasid palaces, although only a tiny
fraction of the site has been uncovered.
commissioned the complex as part of his de novo palatine city that included
barracks for the army, administrative bureaus, horseracing courses, grand
avenues, and a congregational mosque. During its period of imperial occupation,
changing functions, tastes, and general maintenance required renovations and
alterations to the building’s form. By 892/279 AH, the court ceased to reside at
the Dar al-Khilafa of Samarra, having returned to Baghdad under the caliph
al-Mu‘tadid. The occupation history of the building after this point is unclear
and needs further archaeological research, but there is no indication in the
historical sources at least that the Abbasid court continued to reside in or
upkeep the complex after 892/279 AH.1
Dar al-Khilafa is located on a natural bluff overlooking the Tigris and its
floodplain. The palace lies at the north end of the original city founded by Mu‘tasim
in 836/221 AH, its southern boundaries coming into contact with the end of two
of Samarra’s large arterial avenues, although the connection between these and
the palace complex remains unclear. The Abbasids may have chosen its site for
aesthetic rather than practical reasons. Far removed from the center of town,
the palace would have been difficult to reach but enjoyed sweeping views over
the river and surrounding agricultural landscape.2 Its situation at a remove
from the congregational mosque also represents a significant departure from the
early Islamic model of placing the palace on the qibla side of the
Dar al-Khilafa of Samarra is many times larger than other early Islamic places
and is really a complex of palatial buildings grouped together. Ernst Herzfeld,
who conducted the first extensive excavations on site, estimated the total area
of the palace to be 125 hectares.4
to Herzfeld, the general plan of the palace consisted of a series of components
arranged on a strict west-east axis. Furthest west, near the river, a basin
suggested the outline of a large reflecting pool set within a garden. From
here, Herzfeld proposed that a ramp or flight of stairs led from riverfront
garden up to the top of the escarpment where the ruins of a monumental, three-arched
gate still stand. This gate, which he called the “Bab al-‘Amma,” leads onto a
series of entryways and courts that culminate in a cruciform building centered
on what may have been a domed chamber. The walls and foundations of this part
of the palace were still quite clear during Herzfeld’s excavation, and he
interpreted this area as the audience hall and the area immediately to its
south as the “harim” or private quarters of the palace.
of the cruciform audience hall is a large rectangular courtyard measuring 350
by 180 meters. The courtyard once had at fountain. On the far eastern side of
the courtyard is another complex centered on a sardab or well surrounded by rooms
used to keep cool in the summer. Further east still is a polo ground and
racecourse. To the north of the courtyard is a square enclosure centered on a
massive round pool. This pool, which Herzfeld called the “large sardab,” although
it is not technically a sardab, is surrounded by iwans and adjoins a bath
of the pool is another large rectangular enclosure that remains unexcavated.
Alastair Northedge proposed that this northern enclosure could be interpreted
as the private residence of the caliphs, equivalent to the toponym “Jawsaq
al-Khaqani,” while the axially arranged buildings on the southern end of the
complex described above could be interpreted as the Dar al-‘Amma or halls of
public audience where the court conducted its public ceremonies.5
main building material for the Dar al-Khilafa was brick, both baked and
unbaked. Ceilings would have presumably been wooden, and there are indications
of wooden beams on the back of the Bab al-‘Amma. The palace was also lavishly
decorated. The primary medium for wall decoration was carved stucco, followed
by wall painting, wooden panels, marble revetments, and glass.6 The stucco
ornament and wall paintings were partly inventoried by Ernst Herzfeld in his
Samarra excavation series and remain a foundational text for our understanding
of architectural ornament during the Abbasid period, although crucial new
studies of this material are underway.7Ernst Herzfeld's original
watercolors of the wall painting fragments excavated at the site can be seen among the Ernst Herzfeld Papers collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
--Matthew Saba, Visual Resources Librarian for Islamic Architecture, AKDC at MIT, November 2017
Northedge, Historical Topography, 242.
Northedge, Historical Topography, 258.
Millwright, “Fixtures and Fittings,” and Saba “Restricted Gaze.”
Herzfeld, Wandschmuck and Herzfeld, Malereien.
al-'Amid, Tahir Muzaffar. The 'Abbasid Architecture of Samarra in the Reign of both al-Mu'tasim and al-Mutawakkil, 91-120.. Baghdad: al-Ma'aref Press, 1973.
Herzfeld, Ernst. “Mitteilung über die Arbeiten der zweiten Kampagne von Samarra.” Der Islam5 (1914): 196–204.
Herzfeld, Ernst. Der Wandschmuck der Bauten von Samarra und seine Ornamentik. Berlin: D. Reimer, 1923.
Herzfeld, Ernst. Die Malereien von Samarra. Berlin: D. Riemer, 1927.
Millwright, Marcus. “Fixtures and Fittings: The Role of Ornament in Abbasid Palace Design.” In A Medieval Islamic City Reconsiderd: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Samarra, edited by Chase Robinson, 79–109. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.