A view of the city of Samarra and the Great Mosque (Malwiya)

Saving Samarra, a city caught between its past and present

This article outlines the religious and archaeological importance of Samarra, a city north of Baghdad that currently faces the loss of its architectural heritage to poorly done reconstruction projects and unsupervised development.

Sitting on the east bank of Tigris River 125 kilometres north of Baghdad is Samarra, an important city in Iraq and the Islamic world for its rich religious and archaeological history: it was once a power seat of the Islamic Empire that ruled over the provinces of the Abbasid Caliphate extending from Tunisia to Central Asia for almost a century, and many historians identify the modern day city of Samarra as the city of Sur-Marrati in the pre-historic era, which was founded by the Assyrian emperor Sennacherib in 690 BC.

Although the Abbasids had been ruling from Baghdad since 762, chaos had erupted across the city between the newly formed Turks regiments and the residents of the city. Thus came the decision by Al-Mu’tasim (r. 833-842) to find a new capital to house these troops in 835 and depart from Baghdad. Samarra, which had seen an increase in population, particularly during the time of caliph Harun al-Rashid, as well as the construction of a new fort in the shape of an octagon (Husn al-Qadisiyya) just south of the city, appeared to be an appropriate choice for the relocation of the Abbasid throne.

Map of Samarra

Originally called Surra Man Ra’a (or, ‘he who sees it is delighted’) and later shortened to Samarra, the city was laid out in 836 with a mega complex, known as Dar al-Khalifa, or simply al-Khilafa (meaning Palace of the Caliph), which had two major parts: Dar al-‘Amma for the public audience where the caliph sat and Jawsaq al-Khaqani, the residence of the caliph and his family.

The caliph Al-Wathiq (r. 842-847) chose to stay in the city and expand it from what was a military camp into a real city. He did so by building a new palace called Al-Haruni on the banks of the river. During the 1950s, this palace was partly damaged by flooding made with the barrage of Samarra.

Al-Wathiq’s successor, and a lover of architecture, Al-Mutawakkil’s reign (847-861) was fruitful for the appearance of the city, and produced many new projects, including more than 20 palaces and Samarra’s Great Mosque. The latter became famous for its snail shell-shaped minaret that reached 52 metres high and measured 33 metres wide at the base. Its shape, some historians say, was likely influenced by the Sumerian Ziggurats.

Al-Mutawakkil went further and built a whole new capital for his empire north of Surr Man Ra’a in 859. The city was called Al-Mutawakkiliyya, which some historians refer to as Al-Ja’afariyya, and it contained a main palace called Al-Ja’afari. The city’s plan featured a central avenue leading to the new mosque of Abu Dulaf, defined by its a spiral-shaped minaret, which was smaller than that of the Great Mosque of Samarra, but architecturally notable nonetheless.

After the assassination of Al-Mutawakkil in 861, Samarra was abandoned and entered a period of political turbulence marked by short-lived reigns of caliphs and army interventions. Al-Mu’tadid, seeking stability, returned the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate to Baghdad in 892, leaving Samarra empty but dotted with buildings that expressed its once cultural and architectural peak.

“Samarra has the best preserved plan of an ancient large city, being abandoned relatively early and so avoiding the lifecycles of longer lasting cities,” said Dr Haider Naji, an expert of Islamic architecture and a professor at the University of Karbala. He added, “Samarra was the second capital of the Abbasid Caliphate after Baghdad. After the loss of many monuments of Baghdad, Samarra represents the only physical trace of the [Abbasid] caliphate at its height.” 

For Dr Naji, and many others, the buildings of Samarra represented a new artistic concept in Islamic architecture, particularly the mosques of Al-Malwiya (the Great Mosque) and Abu Dulaf and their unusual minarets. The city was also home to the largest palaces in the Islamic world (the Caliphal Palace Qasr al-Khalifa, al-Ja’fari, al Ma’shuq and others), illustrating the strength and might of the growing Abbasid dynasty.

Al-Askari Shrine. Public domain image

What is also worth highlighting is the al-Askari Shrine, which contains the mausoleums of Imams Ali al-Hadi (d. 868) and al-Hasan al-‘Askari (d. 874), and the Sardab (cistern) of Al-Mahdi, where the 12th Imam is believed to have disappeared in 874.  The tomb was first built in 944-945 by the Hamdanid Nasir al-Dawla, and subsequently by the Buyids.  Throughout the history of the shrine, the double shrine continued to be rebuilt frequently, with one notable reconstruction occurring in 1209-1210 by the Abbasid Caliph al-Nasir li-Din Allah, whose work was commemorated by an inscription in the Sardab. The present appearance of the shrine is to be attributed to work by the Qajar Nasir al-Din Shah in 1868.

Samarra has become a pilgrimage town due to its many religious sites, and its history long coloured the efforts of its development, like in 1834, when the city wall was built from the Abbasid era bricks.  Samarra attracted attention again in the early 20th century because of an excavation campaign launched by German archeologists. The excavations were continued by the Iraqi government during the 1930s and later on the 1960s, with most of the restoration works done between 1980 and 1990.

The architectural style of Samarra has influenced many modern-day architects: Philip Johnson’s design of the Chapel of Thanksgiving in Texas, USA in 1976 is just one example of the many references made to the spiral-shaped monumental praying space.  

Samarra was the second capital of the Abbasid Caliphate after Baghdad. After the loss of many monuments of Baghdad, Samarra represents the only physical trace of the [Abbasid] caliphate at its height.

Dr Haider Naji
A public plea to protect Samarra’s architectural history

In more recent times, Samarra has been dealt a number of heavy blows, despite procedures put in place to protect the city in 2003. Such incidents include the 2005 bombing, which was detonated at the top of the minaret of the Great Mosque, as well as the February 2006 attack by an Al-Qaeda affiliated group (according to international reports), which targeted the Askari shrine and destroyed its golden dome. In June 2007, insurgents attacked the shrine again and destroyed the two minarets that flanked the dome’s ruins.

With its historical sites in devastation and regional politics at play, Samarra has unfortunately seen its architectural heritage fall vulnerable to the demands and risks of rapid development happening all over Iraq. This can be seen with the ongoing reconstruction of the Askari shrine, as well as the new commercial and residential developments encroaching onto the city’s heritage sites.

Al-Askari Shrine, before and after the attacks. Public domain images

In late 2007 and early 2008, a major reconstruction campaign was launched in association with UNESCO to rebuild the Askari shrine; however, reports soon surfaced claiming that the UNESCO experts team was removed from the project, and replaced by a contractor named Mohammed Ali Shahristani along with a team of engineers from Iran.  

Shahristani is better known in Karbala where he gained influence and attention for the roofing of the Sahn (courtyard) of the Imam Hussain shrine. The project was infamous for contradicting the Islamic architectural design of courtyards, which calls for a central opening to the sky surrounding the mass of the tomb. Following the Karbala project, and likely because of his reported ties to local clergy, he was put in charge of the reconstruction of the Askari shrine.

In Samarra, his approach to rebuilding the Askari shrine received criticism from the Iraqi architecture community for not following the common local construction techniques used in the past, and which were largely advised to be implemented in the reconstruction efforts by UNESCO. Because of the modern build work which was disconnected from the historical architectural language of the area, the dome failed to meet the requirements for inclusion in Samarra’s archaeological site on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2007.

According to one insider, a local engineer who has worked on several of Samarra’s projects and who spoke on the basis of anonymity, the shrine’s reconstruction has yet to finish although several problems have already surfaced from a lack of clear planning by local authorities. He described one such issue as “a problem with verticality facing one of the two newly rebuilt minarets.”  

The engineer also confirmed that authorities have designated plots of land along the river for new construction projects, despite the area’s inclusion in the listed archeological site where excavation work has yet to be undertaken.

The red borders indicate the areas currently being developed by the shrine authority into a storage area, fuel station, services, residential development and electricity station

Additionally, housing developments have expanded north of the modern-day city toward the site that once housed the polo races for the Abbasid Caliphs, an area close to the north gate of the Great Mosque. The project was reported by the local government and municipality of Samarra, and, according to conversations with the local architectural community had by the author of this article, it is assumed that the process of housing received the approval needed to build on that land from the Directorate of Antiquities itself.   

This is an open call to the Iraqi Government and the Directorate-General of Antiquities to take full responsibility of protecting and preserving the site of Samarra for what it represents, not only for the history of Iraq but also the world. An opportunity lies here to invest in the archaeological significance of the area as well as the religious tourism to a city that once ruled half of the known world.

This article was written by Mohanad A. Alwash, a practicing architect based in Baghdad, Iraq. Mohanad is also an entrepreneur and a coordinator for Tamayouz Excellence Award.