The Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil commissioned the
construction of a new congregational mosque for the city of Samarra after his
succession to the throne in the mid-ninth century/third century AH. This mosque
replaced the congregational mosque constructed by Mutwakkil’s predecessor al-Mu‘tasim, whose traces are
unidentified but would have been located nearby. Mutawakkil’s mosque, known as
Jami’ al-Mutawakkil or Masjid al-Jami’ (The Great Mosque) was completed circa
860/245 AH. The outer walls of its massive prayer hall still stand, as does its
famous spiral minaret, known as Malwiyya. Its size and the form of its minaret
gave the mosque notoriety during the time of its construction and to this day.
The remains of the mosque are located northeast
of the modern city center of Samarra, which overly the core of the Abbasid
city. At the time of its construction, it would have stood just outside the
limit of the built up city, abutting a large enclosure used for hunting known
as al-Hayr. Residents accessed the mosque via three broad parallel lanes that ran
parallel to one another from the main avenue east toward the western boundaries
of the mosque complex. These access lanes were lined with markets1.
The mosque complex consisted of a rectangular building
measuring 239 x 156 m surrounded by an outer enclosure (ziyada)
occupying an area of 374 x 443 m. The minaret rises from a square platform in
the outer enclosure on the mosque’s northeastern side (opposite the qibla). At
the time of construction, it was the world's largest mosque.
The structure and purpose of the ziyada is
not entirely clear, although aerial photography suggests that it was divided
into various open areas and covered hypostyle spaces (the latter presumably
used for prayer).
The main building is encompassed by an outer
baked brick wall supported by a total of forty-four semi-circular towers
including one at each corner. Between each tower, a frieze of sunken square
niches with beveled frames runs the upper course of the entire structure. The
outer walls included twenty-eight windows with twenty-four of them being on the
southeastern (qibla) face, one for each of the aisles in the inner sanctuary
with the exception of the one with the mihrab.
Sixteen doors provided access to the building:
six on the east, five on the west, two on the south (qibla) flanking the mihrab,
and three on the north. The interior of the mosque comprises a large central
courtyard surrounded on all sides by covered aisles (riwaqs). The riwaq on
the north side was three aisle deep, the riwaqs on east and west were four
aisles deep and the prayer hall on the south side was nine aisles deep.
The prayer hall featured a monumental mihrab. The
mihrab niche took the form of a pointed arch supported by two sets of engaged
columns on either side. Framing the arch was a rectangular molding.
The courtyard’s fountain was domed was
elaborately decorated with mosaics and marble paneling. Arab historians claim
that the basin used for the fountain was dragged by elephants from the Haruni
Palace (built by caliph al-Wathiq along the Tigris). It is said to have been
carved from a solid block of stone and called kasat al-fir’awn (pharaoh’s
cup). Herzfeld believed this basin to be equivalent to a large basin made of
syenite he found in the Dar al-Khilafa. This basin is now in the courtyard of
Abbasid Palace (Qasr al-‘Abbasi) in Baghdad.
Very little architectural ornament remains from
the palace but the Arab historians describe its walls as being coated with
glazed or glass panels. Excavations undertaken by the Iraq DGA seemingly
confirm this description, as broken pieces of dark blue glass slabs were found
in the mosque’s prayer hall area.2
Directly 27.25 meters from the center of the
mosque's north face stands the mosque’s spiral minaret, which rises approximately
55 meters high. The base of the minaret measures thirty-three square meters and
rises to a height of almost three meters. It supports a spiral ramp that winds
counterclockwise five times up the minaret beginning on the side closest to the
mosque. At the top of the tower rests a round vestibule, which is adorned with
eight pointed-arched niches.
The top of the minaret was destroyed in a bombing in 2005. In 2015
UNESCO and the Iraqi government announced an agreement regarding the
conservation of the Samarra archeological site, which will include restoration
of the mosque.
Northedge, Historical Topography, 122-124.
Northedge, Historical Topography, 123.
Creswell, K. A. C. A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture. Edited and
revised by James W. Allan, 358-365. Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1989.
Thomas. Excavation of Samarra, Volume I: Architecture. Final Report of the
First Campaign, 1910 – 1912. Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, 2003.
Alastair. The Historical Topogaphy of Samarra. London: British School of
Archaeology in Iraq, 2005.
"UNESCO and Iraq Launch Project for Conservation of
World Heritage Site of Samarra." UNESCO World Heritage Centre. July 29,
2015. http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1330/ [Accessed
November 12, 2015].