Al-Mutawakkil 'Ala Allah was the tenth Abbasid caliph and son of al-Mu'tasim Bi'llah, the founder of Samarra. Politically, he caused tremors at court by ousting the establishment of his predecessors and renouncing the theological doctrine of Mu'tazilism that they had supported. Although Mutawakkil was a strong-willed ruler, his reign ended early with his assassination at the hands of his son and several officials in the military.
Mutawakkil is known to architectural historians for his many commissions. In addition to rebuilding the Congregational Mosque of Samarra, he constructed several palaces and founded a new imperial city to the north of Samarra that he named Mutawakkiliyya. Notably, it was at Mutawakkil's court that poets such as 'Ali ibn Jahm and Buhturi flourished and produced a series of fantastic poems describing the palatine architecture of Samarra.1 His prolific building activities earned him a negative reputation among later Muslim historians who characterize him as overly ambitious and frivolous, and attribute numerous palaces to him.2Undoubtedly, the vivid descriptions of the palaces by the poets he supported kindled the imaginations of these later authors.
See Julie Scott-Meisami, "The Palace-Complex as Emblem: Some Samarran Qasidas," in Robinson, ed., A Medieval Islamic City Reconsidered, 69-78.
For example, Abu Mansur al-Tha'alibi, Adab al-muluk, edited by Jalil al-'Atiyya (Beirut: Dar al-Gharb al-Islami, 1990), 114-115.
Balkuwara (also spelled Barkuwara and locally known as Manqur) was a palace complex situated on the eastern shore of the Tigris River approximately 6 kilometers south of the contemporary city of Samarra. Historical sources attribute the building to the patronage of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil, and specify that the palace was built for Mutawakkil's son, the prince al-Mu'tazz. Construction would have begun on the building between 849-859, and appears to have never been completed. The palace today lies in ruins, and excavations have only covered a small portion.
The palace includes three courtyards, nine halls, residential suites, mosques, and quarters for infantrymen in an expansive, enclosed complex measuring approximately 1,250 meters per side and 15 meters in height. The entire rectangular complex is divided into three parallel lengthwise sections. The palace is situated in the southern half of the complex surrounded by an assembly of private houses each containing sixteen rooms around a central courtyard, while the northern half is composed of two central courts, one succeeding the other and the accommodations for the army, including bazaars, baths, a polo field, and small mosques.
Balkuwara would have been a magnificent experience from both its interior and exterior as this sizeable palace is composed on a strong linear axis with its most prominent section positioned on the highest elevated area of the site. A court and garden encompassed by a wall supported by pilasters stretches in front of the palace along the river. Overlooking this area, the palace's façade features a triple arcade with the central arch rising over the two side ones. It is adorned with green glass and mother-of-pearl mosaic over a gold background. This entrance leads into a group of four public audience halls organized in a cross around a central, square chamber. This cruciform pattern is influenced from the region known today as eastern Iran. Square-shaped suites of eight rooms ordered around small courtyards extend between these halls. Emanating from the Throne Rooms to the northeast on the central vertical axis are the Courts of Honor, a series of three courts each boasting monumental entrances. Standing at the main entrance of the compound this progression of gates commands attention to the axiality of the site design.
The predominant building material at the site is brick, baked and raw, with doors made of the finest lumber. Conventional for the times, vaulting was the established method for the ceilings. Decoration at the compound varies between stucco-work, frescoes, colored glass windows and niches sometimes, square, circular or quatrefoil. As a royal palace, Balkuwara represents a new building typology, previously unknown in Islamic building tradition.
al-'Amid, Tahir Muzaffar. The 'Abbasid Architecture of Samarra in the Reign of both al-Mu'tasim and al-Mutawakkil, 193-202. Baghdad: al-Ma'aref Press, 1973.
Creswell, K. A. C. A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture, 364-7. Rev. ed. Allan, James W. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1989.
Herzfeld, Ernst. Erster vorläufiger Bericht über die Ausgrabungen von Samarra. Berlin, 1912.
Leisten, Thomas. Excavation of Samarra. Volume 1: Architecture. Final Report on the First Campaign, 81-104. Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, 2003.
Northedge, Alastair. The Historical Topography of Samarra, 198-200. London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 2005.
Northedge, Alastair and Derek Kennet. Archaeological Atlas of Samarra, 1: 144-6. 3 vols. London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 2015.
طاهر مظفر عميد. العمارة العباسية في سامراء في عهدي المعتصم والمتوكل, 165-173. بغداد: الجمهورية العراقية و وزارة الاعلام, 1976