Samarra: "A Joy for All to See"

By Highet, Juliet | The Middle East, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Samarra: "A Joy for All to See"


Highet, Juliet, The Middle East


As the acrid dust dies down from the war in Iraq, and bullets cease to reach their human targets, it's time to discover what remains of its unique archaeological heritage--and sadly--which sites have been damaged. 2013 is the 100th anniversary of excavation of the legendary royal city of Samarra, hardly touched except by conflict since then. In fact UNESCO states that 80% remains to be revealed.

The name Samarra has two similar meanings translating from Arabic, one being: "a joy for all to see"; the other from the former name of the city Surra Man R'a'a: "he who sees it is delighted." From 836-892 C.E. Samarra was the government capital of the powerful Abbasid Caliphate, built on both sides of the Tigris, some 130 km north of Baghdad.

However, its early history vastly predates the Abbasid Empire, and indeed the far more famous Mesopotamian civilisation of the Ubaid period. A prosperous settlement known as the Chalcolithic Samarran Culture flourished between c. 5500-4800 B.C.E. at the site of Tell Sawwan. It had a highly organised 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 stylised figures of animals and birds, as well as geometric designs.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Almost a thousand years passed until the name Samarra surfaces again. In 531 C.E. 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."

Once again Samarra's fame fades into obscurity, this time for 300 years until the Caliph Al Mu'tasim moved his court and capital from Baghdad to its locality, reputed to be rich in hunting prospects, though apparently little else. The reason for the move was a population rioting under oppression by the Caliphate's Turkish soldiers, the Mamluks. However, a palace had already been built for the Caliph in 833 C.E. anticipating the move, and by 848 Samarra had a population of 300,000, whereas 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 a splendid residence, which opened onto a garden on the Tigris, complete with a polo maydan. As before, in the 6th 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 one was built, and then a fourth called the Palace of Daughters, 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 residences of favoured 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 accommodating 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 50 km.

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