History of Samarra

The site of Samarra covered about 35 ha. in 1924, and circa 120 ha. in the 1970s. The district was only lightly occupied in antiquity.  Apart from the Chalcolithic Samarran Culture excavated at the rich site of Tell al-Suwwan, the city of Sur-marrati, refounded by Sennacherib in 690 BC according to a stele in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, may somewhat doubtfully be identified with a fortified site of Assyrian date at al-Huwaysh opposite to modern Samarra.  The ancient toponyms for Samarra are: Greek: 'Souma' (Ptolemy V c. 19, Zosimus III, 30), Latin: 'Sumere', a fort mentioned during the retreat of the army of Julian the Apostate in AD 364 (Ammianus Marcellinus XXV, 6, 8), and Syriac 'Sumra' (Hoffmann, Auszüge, 188; Michael the Syrian, III, 88), described as a village.

The region experienced an upturn in its fortunes with the excavation of the Qatul al-Kisrawi, the northern extension of the Nahrawan canal which drew water from the Tigris in the region of Samarra, attributed by Yaqut (Mu`jam s.v. Qatul) to the Sasanian king Khusrau Anushirvan (AD 531-578).  To celebrate this royal project, a commemorative tower (modern Burj al-Qa'im) was built at the southern inlet (modern Nahr al-Qa'im) south of Samarra, and a palace with a walled hunting park at the northern inlet (modern Nahr al-Rasasi) near to al-Daur.  A supplementary canal, the Qatul Abi al-Jund, excavated by the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, was commemorated by a city in the form of a regular octagon (modern Husn al-Qadisiyya), called al-Mubarak and abandoned unfinished in 796 (180 H).  The plan is based upon that of the Round City of Baghdad.

An aerial view of Mutawakkiliyya with the mosque of Abu Dulaf on the left.

Probably in 834-5 (220 H), the caliph al-Mu`tasim left Baghdad in search of a new capital.  The sources all report that the reason was conflict between the Caliph's regiment of Central Asian Turks and the population of Baghdad.  The Caliph apparently sought a residence for the court, and a base for the Abbasid army, outside of Baghdad, and was attracted by a region known for its hunting, but otherwise poor in natural resources.

The caliph's city was formally called Surra Man Ra'a ("he who sees it is delighted").  According to Yaqut (Mu`jam s.v. Samarra), this original name was later shortened in popular usage to the present Samarra.  It seems more probable, however, that Samarra is the Arabic version of the pre-Islamic toponym, and that Surra Man Ra'a, a verbal form of name unusual in Arabic which recalls earlier Akkadian and Sumerian practices, is a word-play invented at the Caliph's court.
Surra Man Ra'a was laid out in 836 (221 H) on the east bank of the Tigris around the pre-Islamic settlement, with the principal palace on the site of a monastery to the north.  This palace complex, called in the sources Dar al-Khilafa, Dar al-Khalifa, Dar al-Sultan, and Dar Amir al-Mu'minin, had two major sub-units, the Dar al-`Amma, the public palace where the caliph sat in audience on Monday and Thursday, and al-Jawsaq al-Khaqani, the residence of the Caliphs and their families, where four are buried.  The site of the palace (125 ha), excavated by Viollet (1910), Herzfeld (1911-3), and recently by the Iraq Directorate-General of Antiquities, has a square building, identifiable as the Dar al-`Amma, opening onto a garden on the Tigris, with a court behind, two basins excavated in the conglomerate for summer occupation, a polo maydan, and a second enclosed palace, probably al-Jawsaq.

It is not easy to reconstruct the plan of the original Surra Man Ra'a, because of later rebuilding. From the palace an avenue, later referred to by al-Ya`qubi as Shari` Abi Ahmad, extended south 3.5 km to the markets, the mosque of al-Mu`tasim (both now under the modern town), and beyond.  To the east of this avenue lay the cantonments of the Turk Wasif, to the west on the Tigris bank those of the Maghariba, a military unit apparently of Egyptian origin.  The cantonment of Khaqan `Urtuj was placed north of al-Jawsaq, and may be identified with one of two quarters in this area.  The two remaining military cantonments were located outside of Surra Man Ra'a, that of the Ushrusaniyya, under al-Afshin Khaydar b. Kawus al-Ushrusani at al-Matira, the village 4 km south of modern Samarra (modern al-Jubayriyya), and that of the Turks under Ashnas 10 km north at Karkh Fayruz (modern Shaykh Wali).  The area east of the city was walled as a hunting park (al-Hayr).

With the death of al-Mu`tasim in 842 (227 H), came a point of decision: would Samarra be abandoned on the death of its founder, as many other princely settlements, or would it become a more permanent Abbasid capital?  Al-Wathiq (842 (227 H) - 847 (232 H)) chose to stay, and the population reacted by turning what was called a camp (`Askar al-Mu`tasim) into a real city.  According to al-Ya`qubi (Buldan, pp 264-5), al-Wathiq made some changes to the military disposition, but concentrated on the economic development of the city.  He built a new palace called al-Haruni, which has been identified on the banks of the Tigris at al-Quwayr, an unexcavated site partly flooded since the 1950s by the barrage at Samarra.  Al-Haruni continued to be the residence of al-Mutawakkil, and was occupied during the 860s by Turkish units.


The avenue leading up to the palace of the Turkish general Ashnas

The reign of al-Mutawakkil (847 (232 H) - 861 (247 H)) had a great effect on the appearance of the city, for he seems to have been a lover of architecture.  In a list of his building projects which appears in several different versions, the new Congregational Mosque and up to 20 palaces are mentioned, totalling between 258 and 294 million dirhams.  The new Congregational Mosque, with its spiral minaret, built between 849 (235 H) and 851 (235 H), formed part of an extension of the city to the east, extending into the old hunting park.  Two new palaces with hunting parks were built in the south, at al-Istablat, identified as al-`Arus, and al-Musharrahat (not securely identified).  A further palace, Balkuwara, excavated by Herzfeld in 1911, was built on the Tigris bank south of al-Matira, surrounded by a military cantonment for a new army corps under al-Mutawwakil's second son, al-Mu`tazz.

Three courses for horse-racing were built east of the main city.  Two have an out-and-back course 80m wide and 10.42 km long with a spectators pavilion at the start, and the fourth a pattern of four circles around a central pavilion (5.3 km).
Under al-Mutawakkil the city centre, which developed on the site of `Askar al-Mu`tasim, seems to have reached its greatest extent, and was described in its hey-day by al-Ya`qubi after the death of al-Mutawakkil (Buldan, pp 260-3).  There were seven parallel avenues.  The avenue adjacent to the Tigris, Shari` al-Khalij, accommodated the quays for the river transport which was the principal means of supplying the city, and the cantonments of the Maghariba.  Although Herzfeld supposed that the alignment had disappeared, it now seems that the trace of the avenue lay inland from the river-bank, and still survives in part.

The principal avenue of al-Ya`qubi, al-Shari` al-A`zam or al-Sarija, appears to be identical with the alignment of the ancient road from Baghdad to Mosul, following an irregular line from al-Matira to beyond the Dar al-Khilafa.  Later called Darb al-Sultan, the alignment can be followed to the north to al-Daur.  Towards the southern end stood the tax registry, the Diwan al-Kharaj al-A`zam, probably outside the limits of the city in the time of al-Mu`tasim, and therefore possibly a replacement of an earlier building.  To the northwest in succession lay the stables of the Caliph, the slave market, the office of the police, the great prison, and the main markets around the old congregational mosque of al-Mu`tasim.  The avenue passed to the west of the Dar al-Khilafa, and terminated with the residences of the great palace servants, which may have stood on the site of the earlier cantonments of Khaqan `Urtuj.

The second avenue, Shari` Abi Ahmad, was the original avenue of the time of al-Mu`tasim, narrowed from 60 to 10 metres, and ended at the south gate of the caliphal palace, called Bab al-Bustan or Bab Itakh.  Outside this gate stood the palace of al-`Umari, and the residences of the leading Turks of Samarra: Itakh, Barmash, Sima al-Dimashqi, Bugha al-Kabir, and Bugha al-Saghir.

The remaining avenues, Shari` al-Hayr al-Awwal, Shari` Barghamish al-Turki, Shari` al-Askar, and Shari` al-Hayr al-Jadid, paralleled the Shari` Abi Ahmad to the east.  These avenues were the quarters of military units: the Shakiriyya, the Turks, the Faraghina, the Khazar, and the Khurasanis.

In 245/859 (245 H) al-Mutawakkil began a new project to replace Surra Man Ra'a with a new Caliphal city to the north of al-Karkh, called, according to its coinage, al-Mutawakkiliyya, although written sources call it al-Ja`fariyya (al-Ya`qubi) or al-Mahuza (Tabari, series III, p. 1438).  A canal was dug from a point 62 km north to supply the new city, crossing by an aqueduct over the Qatul, and running on both sides of the avenue, but the levelling was badly calculated, and little water flowed.  The main palace, al-Ja`fari, is located at the inlet to the Qatul al-Kisrawi, and is modelled on the Dar al-Khilafa of Surra Man Ra'a.  The city plan is organised around a central avenue leading south past the Abu Dulaf mosque to the cantonments of al-Karkh, thus similar to that of Surra Man Ra'a.  The Sasanian hunting park north of the Qatul was reworked with a viewing platform at Tell al-Banat close to modern al-Daur.  After the assassination of al-Mutawakkil in 861 (247 H) the city was abandoned.

The reign of al-Mutawakkil was fundamental to the history of Abbasid Samarra.  The expenditure on architecture, a high but not precisely calculable percentage of the state budget, stimulated the economic development of the city.  But the drain on the treasury also played a role in the decade of troubles following al-Mutawakkil's death, which led to the making and unmaking of four caliphs, and military action in Samarra in three phases in 862-3 (248 H), 865-6 (251-2 H), and 870 (256 H).  Perhaps more significant was the isolation of the Caliph with his army in Samarra, which left the Caliph exposed to forceful attempts by the soldiery to ameliorate their lot.

At any rate, during the decade after the accession of al-Mu`tamid in 870 (256 H), the army was removed from Samarra by Abu Ahmad al-Muwaffaq, although Samarra continued to be the official residence of the caliph until 892 (279 H), when al-Mu`tadid re-established Baghdad as capital.  Al-Mu`tamid is not known to have revisited Samarra after 884 (269 H), but he was buried there in 892 (279 H).  Between 887-8 (274 H) and 894-5 (281 H) there are several reports of looting the city, after which Samarra ceases to be mentioned frequently in the chronicles; one presumes therefore that a major depopulation occurred at this time.

Nevertheless the area round the markets continued to be occupied, together with the outlying towns of al-Matira and al-Karkh.  Al-Muktafi attempted to refound Samarra in 903 (290 H), but found al-Jawsaq a ruin.

The two Imams `Ali al-Hadi (died 868 (254 H)) and al-Hasan al-`Askari (died 874 (260 H)) had a house on the Shari` Abi Ahmad, probably adjacent to the mosque of al-Mu`tasim, and were buried there.  The twelfth imam disappeared nearby in a cleft commemorated by the Sardab al-Mahdi in 874 (260 H).  The tomb was first developed in 944-5 (333 H) by the Hamdanid Nasir al-Dawla, and subsequently by the Buyids.  According to al-Shaykh Muhammad al-Samawi, "Washa'ij al-Sara' fi sha'n Samarra", a verse composition of the 19th century (13th century H) on the history of the shrine, the double shrine continued to be rebuilt frequently, notably in 1053-4 (445 H) by Arslan al-Basasiri and in 1209-10 (606 H) by the caliph al-Nasir li-Din Allah, whose work is 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 1868-9 (1285 H) and other more recent work.
From the 10th century (4th century H) onwards Samarra became a pilgrimage town.  In the 13th century (7th century H), the displacement to the east of the course of the Tigris south of Samarra led to the transfer of the Tigris road from Baghdad to Mosul to the west bank of the river, and a consequent loss of trade.  Samarra was not apparently walled until 1834, when a wall was built out of Abbasid bricks, as a result of a charitable donation.

In the 1950s a barrage was constructed on the Tigris, in order to divert the spring flood waters down Wadi Tharthar, and end the disastrous flooding of Baghdad.  The lake formed behind the barrage drove the farming communities of the flood plain onto the steppe-land among the Abbasid ruins, and enlarged the town, which remains the market centre of its district.

Return to Samarra Archaeological Survey