I still hear that kings build according to their acumen
And I know that the intellects of men are judged through their traces
For the Byzantines have what the ancients built,
And the Persians have the heritage of their nobility . . .
You built, advocating for the Muslims over the apostates and unbelievers,
Innovations that the Persians have not seen, or the Byzantines
Courts through which eyes wander,
exhausted by the extent of their spaces
The dome of dominion—it is as if the stars
are bending close to it, sharing their secrets
Embassies fall to the ground before it in prostration
when it overwhelms their sense of sight
When it sparkles, their eyes can make out
in its sheen the roots of their eyelashes
And if its fire is kindled in Iraq
the gleam of its fire would light the HijazAli ibn al-Jahm (d. 863)
The quotation above comes from a poem by Ali ibn al-Jahm celebrating one of the many palaces built in the city of Samarra, the capital of the Abbasid Empire from 836 to 892 C.E.  The Abbasid caliphs spared no expense to build a palatial city of grand buildings and sprawling residential complexes, defined by their monumental scale and extensive decoration. By exploring Samarra’s unparalleled remains, we can understand the wealth and artistic creativity of the early Islamic period.
The Abbasid caliph al-Muʿtasim Bi’llah founded the city in 836, although there is also some evidence of pre-Islamic settlement. The Abbasid court had previously been centered in Baghdad, but tensions between the imperial army and the urban population, as well as the caliph’s desire to build, led him to found Samarra.
Al-Muʿtasim’s new city, which contemporary writers sometimes called “Surra Man Ra’a” (Happy is He Who Sees It), contained residential areas for the imperial army, various government bureaus, a congregational mosque, and an imperial palace known as the Dar al-Khilafa (see the plan below). The Dar al-Khilafa opened on its west end through a three-arched gate that overlooked riverfront gardens, and adjoined a polo ground, horse-racing track, and massive game park on its east end. Within the walls were audience halls, courtyards, pools, fountains, and more secluded residential quarters.
The city expanded under Muʿtasim’s successors. The caliph al-Mutawakkil constructed a new congregational mosque and a large palace complex, called Balkuwara, for his son al-Muʿtazz. He then founded an entirely new imperial city called Mutawakkiliyya immediately to the north of Samarra.
Mutawakkil’s assassination in 861 marks a turning point in Samarra’s history. The sources suggest that the court quickly abandoned Mutawakkiliyya after its founder died, returning to the main site of Samarra. The following three decades were characterized by intrigue and instability, with no less than five caliphs reigning. Upon the death of the caliph al-Muʿtamid in 892, the court left Samarra altogether, returning to Baghdad. Samarra shrank drastically but remained an important spiritual center for Shia Muslims. Because the city never regained its former prominence, much of its architecture was never built over and was visible when excavations started in the 1910s.
Scale and symmetry
The plans of Samarra’s palaces, mosques, mansions, and gardens reflect the Abbasid empire’s enormous wealth and resources. New palace complexes of unprecedented sizes were built, vastly larger than the palaces of their predecessors, the Umayyad caliphs, and (perhaps of even more importance to their patrons), equal or larger than those of their rivals in Constantinople, the Byzantine emperors. Their designs utilized horizontal scale, as well as axiality and symmetry to make a visual impact. They often contain repetitions of elements like gateways, iwans, and halls whose practical function was to produce a sense of incomprehensible vastness and harmonious order.
The plan of the Balkuwara Palace, for example, leads the visitor through three courtyards, each preceded by a monumental gate, culminating in a grand iwan that in turn opens onto a cross-shaped hall made of four smaller iwans around a dome. The sequence of gate, courtyard, iwan, and dome is familiar from earlier Islamic palaces, but here the courtyard is tripled, and there are four iwans (rather than the more traditional single structure) beneath the final dome. The repetition of large open spaces conveyed a sense of monumentality without focusing attention on any one element of the building—and without depending on expensive materials such as marble.
In the Balkuwara, the materials become finer as one moves closer to the heart of the complex—the great iwan opening onto the third courtyard. The outermost retaining walls and the walls of the first and second courtyard were built of pisé (rammed earth), the first and second gates were made of unfired mud brick, and the third gate, courtyard, great iwan, and all surrounding rooms were made of fired brick. This selective use of finer, more durable materials in the areas of greatest significance enabled the vast scale of these buildings. It also suggests the Abbasid caliphs preferred larger palace complexes to smaller but more permanent ones.
Samarra’s congregational mosques are also breathtakingly large. The Great Mosque of Mutawakkil (at 37,440 square meters) is over twice the area of the Great Mosque of Damascus (15,642 square meters) built by the Umayyads. The Great Mosque of Mutawakkil was surrounded by an exterior enclosure, known as a ziyada. The ziyada included a dar al-imara (a small palace used by the caliphs or their representatives to prepare for Friday prayer) and the famous freestanding minaret that towered 50 meters above the mosque.
Ingenuity and experimentation
The Abbasid period was an era of intellectual and technological advancement, fueled by the wealth of the caliphate and the resulting magnetic pull that Baghdad and other cities exerted on scholars, artisans, and artists. The artistic achievements of the period are evident in Samarra’s architecture, especially in the ornamentation of interior spaces.
Samarra is particularly famous for its carved stucco ornament, which adorned dadoes (the lower half of walls). Ernst Herzfeld, who excavated the site between 1910 and 1913, identified three distinct styles of carving in the stucco dadoes: (1) geometric fields filled with repeating vine leaves arranged in rows; (2) a wider variety of vegetal forms rendered in a flat manner and surrounded by more complex geometric frames; and (3) sinuous, spiraling lines combined to form highly abstract vegetal motifs. Herzfeld called this last style the “First Style” because it was so prevalent at the site; it is also known as the Beveled Style due to the sloping edges of the incised lines.
The abstract and repetitive nature of these carving styles may be partially due to the costs of the massive building projects. In addition to the economic efficiency of repeating patterns, these styles are well suited to the large spaces that define Samarra’s buildings. They are most stunning, and the rhythms of the flat, textile-like patterns are clearest, when seen from a distance. This ornament, which conveys a sense of harmonious order, is exploited most powerfully in the palaces where patterns sometimes repeat across multiple spaces. In the Dar al-Khilafa (the imperial palace), just four patterns were used to decorate a dozen rooms around the four audience iwans. The iwans themselves were decorated with marble revetments, also featuring the same four patterns.
Samarra’s private houses also used symmetry in their design. Like the palaces they were designed around courtyards; sometimes two iwans would face each other across a single courtyard. The houses also featured extensive and exuberant stucco dadoes in the same styles. In these residences, repetition of patterns seems less important. In one of the houses excavated by Herzfeld, over a dozen surface patterns were recorded in as many rooms, suggesting a different approach taken in smaller, more informal spaces.
The presence of at least three styles of carved vegetal ornament at Samarra suggests an interest in the variety of the decoration and a willingness to experiment with new forms. Two rare technologies were used as architectural ornament at Samarra: polychrome luster-painted tiles and millefiori glass tiles, neither of which is widely attested in the archaeological record of early Islam. Millefiori (or mosaic) glass is an ancient technology but was mostly used in the early Islamic period for vessels. Luster painting was a recent innovation in ceramic technology developed in Iraq.
Other ingenious forms of glass ornament have been excavated at Samarra, including shaped inlay pieces that resemble small jewels, opaque purple tiles, and even the fragments of an inscription in glass—perhaps recalling inscriptions in glass mosaic in Umayyad buildings like the Dome of the Rock. The ingenious use of extant forms of glass and the application of novel glazing technologies in the architectural ornament of Samarra’s palaces reflects the status of Iraq in the early Abbasid period as the center of a major world empire with a robust economy and thriving intellectual culture.
The Great Mosque of Mutawakkil at Samarra may have featured a different type of ornament. The mosque’s prayer hall was paved with marble slabs. Octagonal brick piers, probably covered in plaster painted to imitate marble, supported the roof. Engaged colonnettes made of a variety of colored marbles framed these piers. Unlike the palaces and houses, carved stucco was limited to border patterns framing the mihrab and other specific features.
Mosaic tesserae were also found in limited quantities, particularly around the mihrab and the pavilion covering the mosque’s courtyard fountain. These elements point to a powerful yet more conservative ornamental program that draws on the well-established tradition of imperial mosque and cathedral architecture of the eastern Mediterranean, defined by the use of uncarved marble paving and revetments showcasing the natural qualities of the stone, combined with carved vegetal friezes and mosaics. The walls of the mosque and its minaret were made of fired brick, a design choice that suggests an effort to create a building that would endure.
Besides stucco and glass ornaments, some rooms in the palaces and private houses of Samarra featured wall paintings. Only fragments of these paintings remain, but these suggest an array of iconographic subjects, including courtly and poetic themes.
In addition to locally produced glass and ceramic products, examples of fine pottery imported from China were found at Samarra. These included plain porcelain and green-splashed white ware, both extremely rare in the early Islamic Middle East and likely brought to the region through the port of Basra, the terminus of a flourishing trade network between Mesopotamia, South Asia, and East Asia.
Samarra in the literary and architectural imagination
Although the Abbasid court only invested in Samarra for a short time, its architecture had a lasting impact on the architectural imagination of Arabic-Islamic society. The mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo (completed 878/79) has a spiral minaret and ziyada that seem to reference the Great Mosque of Mutawakkil. The city’s palaces had a vaguer but longer-lasting impact through their depiction in literary sources, especially poems. Using vivid imagery, they describe pools of water with fountains that reflect the color of striped marble pavements, dazzling domes embellished with golden and glass mosaics whose light causes the viewer to squint, and courtyards so large that the wind blowing through them becomes tired and fizzles out.
These poems served both as a way to convey the majesty of cities like Samarra and as a warning to future rulers about the vicissitudes of time: after all, Samarra was grand but fell to ruin quickly. Both the grandeur and impermanence were sources of wonder to medieval audiences and made for good, memorable subject matter, increasing the aura surrounding the once-glorious-then-ghostly caliphal city.
Samarra Today: Legacies and Inheritances
During the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Samarra inspired some of the most important works of modern architecture and urban planning in the Middle East. In a 1912 essay, the Syrian author and literary critic Muhammad Kurd ʿAli argued that Samarra was a primary example of an “Arab city” and used it as an example to counter the tendency of modern Western scholars to ignore the contributions of Arabs to the history of urban civilization. Both the ruins and the poetic descriptions of Samarra inspired two of the modern architects that helped transform Iraq’s built environment in the mid-twentieth century: Rifat Chadirji (d. 2020) and Mohamed Makiya (d. 2015), who designed the Baghdad State Mosque (which was never built). For these writers and architects of the postcolonial Middle East, Samarra served not only as a source of national pride, but also as an archive of indigenous architectural knowledge.
In recent years, the site of Samarra has suffered some damage. Both the recent American invasion of Iraq and the subsequent sectarian violence resulted in damage to several standing monuments, most notably to the Shrine of the Two Imams in the center of the modern city. In addition, the expansion of the city and surrounding farmland has resulted in some remains of the Abbasid city being built over. Samarra is currently listed on UNESCO’s list of sites in danger. For more information about endangered cultural heritage across the globe, visit Smarthistory’s ARCHES project.
Notes: This translation is by Matt Saba. For the original Arabic, see Ali ibn al-Jahm, Diwan, ed. Khalil Mardam (Damascus, 1949), pp. 28–31.
Gülru Necipoğlu, ed., Ars Orientalis 23, A Special Issue on Pre-Modern Islamic Palaces (Ann Arbor, MI: Department of the History of Art, University of Michigan, 1993).
Chase F. Robinson, ed., A Medieval Islamic City Reconsidered: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Samarra (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Thomas Leisten, Excavation of Samarra, Volume 1. Final Report on the First Campaign, 1910–1912 (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 2003).
Alastair Northedge, The Historical Topography of Samarra (London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 2005).