Experiment and Innovation: Early Islamic Industry at Al-Raqqa, Syria

By Henderson, Julian; Challis, Keith et al. | Antiquity, March 2005 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Experiment and Innovation: Early Islamic Industry at Al-Raqqa, Syria

Henderson, Julian, Challis, Keith, O'Hara, Sarah, McLoughlin, Sean, Gardner, Adam, Priestnall, Gary, Antiquity


The city of al-Raqqa in north central Syria is located close to the confluence of the river Euphrates with its tributary the Balikh (Figure 1). The origin of settlement at the location occupied by al-Raqqa probably lies in the third century BC with the foundation of a Hellenistic city usually identified as Nikephorion. This city was enlarged by Seleucus II Kallinikos (246-226 BC) and renamed Kallinikos/Callinicum after him. Destroyed in AD 542, Callinicum was rebuilt by the emperor Justinian (AD 527-565) and formed part of the fortification of the Byzantine border along the Euphrates. Callinicum was overcome in AD 639/640 by the Muslim army under 'Iyad b. Ghanm and given the Arabic name al-Raqqa.


In AD 771-772 the caliph al-Mansur built a new walled city to the west of al-Raqqa in order to protect the border with the Byzantine Empire. Called al-Rafika ('the companion') this new city served as a garrison town, housing troops from Khurasan in eastern Iran. For a brief period (AD 796-808), the 'Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid lived in al-Rafika and was responsible for the construction of an extensive imperial city (Meinecke 1996) that served as the administrative centre for the Islamic Caliphate--an empire stretching from North Africa to Central Asia. Although Harun al-Rashid returned to Baghdad in AD 808 where he died a year later, al-Raqqa/al-Rafika, remained the capital of the western Islamic provinces. From the 'Abbasid period onwards the city was associated with extensive industrial activity including the production of fine glass and ceramics. The eponymous al-Raqqa ware, widely distributed in the Islamic world was produced until shortly before the eventual abandonment of al-Raqqa in the face of Mongul incursions in the mid-thirteenth century. Following its abandonment, al-Raqqa experienced a long progressive decline with written accounts dating to the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries being testimony to the city's ruined and deserted nature (Ainsworth 1888; Mason 1943; Fedden 1946). Rapid urban development since the 1960s means that today much of al-Raqqa has been lost with only scattered remnants of the Byzantine and Islamic cities surviving.

The Raqqa Ancient Industry project

Since 1994 the Archaeology Department at the University of Sheffield, and since 1996 at Nottingham, under the direction of Julian Henderson, has undertaken a programme of excavation and survey at a number of locations within the early Islamic industrial complex at al-Raqqa. These excavations have revealed extensive stratified industrial deposits with evidence for the manufacture of a variety of materials, including glass, glazed and unglazed pottery and metalwork (Henderson 1996; Tonghini & Henderson 1998). Work has focused on identifying production sites, the scientific analysis of materials recovered from the site (Henderson 1995, 1999, 2000; Henderson et al. 2004), reconstructing the spatial organisation of the industrial complex and determining resource exploitation for industrial use. In this paper we report the findings of the excavation and scientific analyses of early Islamic glass and ceramic production at al-Raqqa. The investigations are the most comprehensive of any Islamic production complex.

Al-Raqqa/al-Rafika: the cities and their environs

Al-Raqqa is situated on an east-west spur of land, rising between 9 and 13m above the floodplain of the Euphrates, 5kin west of its confluence with the Balikh (Figure 2). A remnant of the middle Pleistocene terrace of the Euphrates (Van Liere 1960) is breached by the Balikh where it flows south to join the Euphrates. The spur provides elevated land unaffected by seasonal flooding, and is an ideal site for settlement, taking advantage of communications along the strategically important Euphrates and Balikh valleys. A low-lying marsh to the north of the terrace has formed as a result of the backing-up of the Balikh during periods of high flow in the Euphrates and it is possible that the presence of this marsh may well be the origin of the name al-Raqqa, which translates as the morass (Le Strange 1966).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Experiment and Innovation: Early Islamic Industry at Al-Raqqa, Syria


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?