The name “Samarra” has two similar meanings in Arabic, one being “a joy for all to see.” The other comes from the former name of the city, Surra Man R'a'a: “he who sees it is delighted.” From 836–892 CE, Samarra was the government capital of the powerful Abbasid Caliphate, built on both sides of the Tigris, some 130km north of Baghdad.
However, its early history vastly predates the Abbasid Empire, and indeed the far more famous Mesopotamian civilization of the Ubaid period. A prosperous settlement known as the Chalcolithic Samarran Culture flourished between c. 5500–4800 BCE at the site of Tell Sawwan. It had a highly organized social structure, one of the first to become so proficient in irrigation techniques that it sustained a large population and enabled flax production. Ancient Samarra is best known for its finely made pottery, which it exported throughout the region. Dark-fired backgrounds are illuminated by stylized figures of animals and birds, as well as geometric designs.
Thousands of years passed before the name Samarra surfaced again. In 531 CE, it experienced a marked upturn in its fortunes and a swift population explosion due to the extension of a canal to draw water from the Tigris to the region by a Sassanian king. To celebrate this royal project, the first of many palaces was built, with a walled hunting park called a “paradise.”
Samarra’s fame faded into obscurity once again, this time for 300 years. An Abbasid caliph, Al-Mu'tasim, moved his court and capital from Baghdad to Samarra’s locality, which was reputed to be rich in hunting prospects and apparently little else. The reason for the move was a population rioting under the oppression of the Caliphate’s Turkish soldiers, the Mamluks. A palace at Samarra had already been built for the Caliph in 833 in anticipation of the move, and by 848 Samarra had a population of 300,000; Paris of the day had just 30,000.
A new palace complex built in 836 had two major arenas—one in which the caliph sat in audience for his people; the other was a splendid residence that opened onto a garden on the Tigris, complete with a polo square or maydan. As in the sixth century, the area east of the city was walled as a hunting park, and three horseracing courses were added.
The caliphs of Samarra appear to have been particularly passionate about palaces. A third, smaller, enclosed palace was built, followed by a fourth called the Palace of Daughters that was inhabited, served and guarded exclusively by women. The first two palaces were provided with lavish banqueting halls, camel stables, arms stores and cellars to store Abbasid treasure. The architecture of both the palaces and the residences of favored court officials was influenced by the Iranian/Syrian style, with internal courtyards in which melodious fountains gently splashed into pools.
Samarra had one of the most sophisticated city plans in the world at that time, with seven parallel avenues; the one adjacent to the Tigris accommodated quays for river transport, the principal means of supplying the city. It is also one of the best-preserved sites, since it was abandoned relatively early, and so avoided the constant rebuilding of longer-lasting cities. With its gigantic palaces, mosques, hunting parks, polo fields and horseracing courses, it stretched to an astonishing length of almost 50km.
At its height, Samarra was one of the most important centers of the Muslim world, and is still considered in Iraq to be one of its four holy cities. In 847, a magnificent Great Mosque was built—then the largest in the world—supported by forty-four towers, with seventeen aisles and walls paneled with dark blue mosaic. The Great Mosque is uniquely famous for its vast, spiraling cone-shaped minaret, the Malwiyah Tower, which is 52 meters high and was inspired by Babylonian spiral Ziggurats. Another mosque, the Al-Askari, became known as the “Golden Mosque” due to its dazzling golden dome and golden minarets, and contained important mausoleums and shrines for imams. It is still held in high esteem by both Shi'a and Sunni Muslims.
In 2007, UNESCO designated Samarra as a World Heritage Site in Danger. The reasoning is that the city is “the finest preserved example of the architecture and city planning of the Abbasid Caliphate, extending from Tunisia to Central Asia, and one of the world’s great powers of that period. The city preserves two of the largest mosques (Al-Malwiya and Abu Dulaf) and the most unusual minarets, as well as the largest palaces in the Islamic world (the Caliphal Palace Qasr Al-Khalifa, Al-Ja'fari, Al-Ma'shuq and others).” UNESCO adds that Samarra innovated architectural and artistic concepts that spread to other regions of the Islamic world and beyond, in particular a new aesthetic technique in its architecture that was carved into stucco and became known as the Samarra Style. In addition, lusterware, a type of ceramic finish imitating gold and silver, was created there.
The reign of Al-Mutawakkil (847–861) was effectively to ring the death knell for Samarra. This caliph was obsessed with expanding his city, commissioning twenty more palaces, new military cantonments and a great prison, amongst many other building projects. At first, it stimulated Samarra’s economic development, but became such a drain on the treasury that a decade of disasters followed his death. Four caliphs followed each other in rapid-fire succession, and military action exploded in three phases. The army was eventually removed from Samarra in 870, although the city remained the official residence of the caliph until 892, when Al-Mu'tadid re-established Baghdad as the capital. Then Samarra was repeatedly looted, most people left, and in the thirteenth century the course of the Tigris shifted away from the city, with consequent loss of irrigation and trade.
The fame of Samarra has become tragic infamy due to the Iraq war. As the Associated Press reported in 2003, “Amid the destruction of this war . . . this elegant city was left largely untouched . . . the city’s elders capitulating to American forces before any real fighting took place. ‘Maybe they didn’t want their beautiful city destroyed,’ said a visitor.” Although apparently, Saddam Hussein “had a 9th century mosque refurbished to look like a cross between a 16th century Persian house of worship and a Las Vegas casino.”
In 2005, a bomb allegedly planted by Al-Qaeda sheared off the top of the famous spiral minaret, the Malwiya Tower, provoked by US troops who had been using it as a sniper position. Then in 2006, a powerful explosion shattered the golden dome of the Al-Askari mosque, igniting reprisal attacks against the Americans—whom rioters believed had been responsible—that claimed hundreds of lives. The coup de grâce was delivered in 2007, when suspected Al-Qaeda militants attacked the same mosque, destroying the two golden minarets that flanked the ruined golden dome.
An exhibition entitled Samarra—Centre of the World at the Pergamon Museum for Islamic Art, Berlin, celebrates the 100th anniversary of excavations of the site. Exhibits include fragments of murals, stucco carving and wood paneling from palaces, lusterware ceramics, Chinese porcelain illustrative of the city’s far-reaching trade links, and also original excavation photographs. The exhibition closes on May 26, 2013. www.smb.museum