In this new series by Round City, Paris-based Iraqi architect Turath Jamil explores the architecture and history of one of Iraq’s last preserved cities: Najaf.
Najaf city is located in southern Iraq, about 160 kilometres south of Baghdad. It is the capital of Najaf governorate. Geographically, the city is located at the edge of a raised plateau about 70 metres above sea level, between the desert to the west and the valley of the Euphrates River to the east. Below this plateau to the west, a large lake has formed and is named Bahr al-Najaf, or ‘Najaf Sea’.
Najaf emerged as a small town encircling the tomb of the caliph, Imam Ali. The foundation period is not clear in historical sources, but we can estimate the first settlements were developed between 791 and 895. After the arrival of the caliph Harun al-Rashid in 786, the tomb became a mausoleum and ever since, it is the heart of the city.
To understand Najaf better, we have to take a larger look at its surroundings. Before its foundation, the region was dominated by Kufa, the capital of the Islamic world during the reign of Caliph Ali; it was founded in 638 by the Muslim army leader Saad ibn al Waqas after taking control of Iraq from the Persian Empire. The location of Kufa is about 10 kilometres to the east of Najaf, on a branch of the Euphrates River. At its peak, Kufa was the capital of language and culture, and was a metropole for different populations. Kufa itself was situated about five kilometres to the northeast from another capital city, al-Hira. Najaf, al-Kufa and al-Hira are different cities founded at different times in one region, and together, they formed a triangle locally known as ‘The Cultural Triangle’.
Al-Hira was the capital of the Lakhmid Dynasty, and was founded by the Arab king Omar bin Adi in the third century. The city was a melting pot of different cultures, art and religions governed by a king who was surrounded by many advisors of different origins and religions, among which Christianity was one. In the sixth century, the most famous king of the dynasty, Numan ibn al-Munthur, adopted Christianity, which led to the conversion of the city into a capital of churches and monasteries. Arabic sources mention more than 50 monasteries and churches completing the city’s make up.
We do not have a clear vision of the form and size of al-Hira, but the ruins found in that area depict an open city without any protective walls and scattered across a very wide area.
Architecturally, the city was famous for being home to several well-built palaces. Although, very few descriptions of those places exist, they became, through Arab poetry, a reflection of beauty and perfection. The most famous of these palaces are al-Khawarnaq and al-Sadir.
Multiple excavations have also provided us with some information concerning two churches, built in an oriental architecture style.
Al-Hira had a very important economic and political rule. Politically, the city played a diplomatic role between the Persian Empire and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. The Lakhamid Dynasty ruled with the cooperation and as an agent of the Persian Empire, acting as a buffer zone for the peninsula with an influence that stretched from al-Hira to Bahrain and Yemen.
The appearance of Islam in the seventh century led to deep modifications of the organisation in the peninsula. The Arabs became a force driven by their goal to spread their new message, which coincided with the weakening Persian Empire and a brutal removal of the Lakhamid dynasty from al-Hira. Not far from there, new arrivals reached Iraq and founded al-Kufa, which sits a few kilometres from al-Hira. The former continued to exist with peaceful rule and as a suburb of al-Kufa until it eventually faded out.
As mentioned, the city of al-Kufa was founded in 638 and became the capital of the Islamic caliphate during the fourth caliph, Imam Ali. The city acted as the Arab portal to east, and it was the second to be founded by the Muslims.
After its founding, the city was fully planned by defining the core of the city, which housed the main mosque, the market and bait al-Imara, or the palace of the governor. Outward from that core, several boulevards were defined and led to the edges of the city, and, enclosing among them, areas given to different tribes, forming al-Kufa’s neighbourhoods. Other areas and plots where planned for different functions, including houses of the elites, mosques, graveyards and other functions.
Kufa was different from al-Hira; it was designed and planned before naturally expanding in accordance with that planning, while its predecessor, al-Hira, grew naturally without any formal framework.
Architecturally, al-Kufa was famous for its palace and the main mosque, which still stands today, after several rehabilitation efforts and its likely rebuilding. From different excavation missions, we know that the existing mosque stands in the same footprint of the one first built.
Other missions discovered the palace next to the mosque, which can be visited to see the remaining ruins that offer proof of the glory the city once reached. Other than these two landmarks, there is not much other physical evidence of the rest of the city. All the information mentioned this far is gathered from historical and traditional texts.
Al-Kufa played a very important role in the region – even the establishment of Bagdad did not affect its good standing. And along with Basra, the three cities became important regional centres that attracted poets, linguists and scientists. In al-Kufa, the most famous Arabic writing, Kufic script, was created, along with the creation of al-Kufa school, which rivalled Basra and Bagdad.
A few kilometres to the west of al-Kufa and around the eighth century, a small village began to emerge, carrying the name of al-Najaf. Around the 10th century, al-Kufa started to fade out after losing its main rule over the Arab portal to Asia and its central government proved weak in the face of multiple invasions, leading to its ultimate abandonment.
With this historical context, we can understand that Najaf is merely the result of a natural continuation of development in the area. Architecturally, we are certain of links that connect the three cities of al-Hira, al-Kufa and al-Najaf, as they overlapped and are reflected in the few historical buildings that still stand today in Najaf downtown.
From here, we will examine one of the last preserved cities in Iraq: Najaf. An example of the mutation that all Iraqi cities are suffering from, Najaf is stranded between the needs of modernity and the social conservatisms that have long prevailed in the area.
The risks lie in the rapid and unstudied manner that this mutation is happening, thus resulting in a chaotic organisation of the city’s urbanism and a deformation of the architecture in a way that many predict we will never recover from. Through the series ARound: Najaf, we are going to explore Najaf through its architecture followed by an urbanistic comparison analyses of the three cities with a concentration on Najaf city.
This article was written by Turath Jamil, a Paris-based architect originally from Baghdad, Iraq, and is originally part of his ongoing PhD thesis research. He works with Fevre et Gaucher / 5-cinq, and is a PhD candidate in art history at Sorbonne University. He is also a coordinator for Tamayouz Excellence Award and oversees the Iraqi Graduation Projects Award.