Sunday, November 20, 2005

Samarra: a forgotten imperial site



The mosque of Mutawakkil in Samarra, the largest in the Islamic world, with its renowned Malwiyya (above); the site of Samarra: 57 Km2 (below)

One of the paradoxes of early Islamic architecture is the limited number of major monuments from the central region of the Caliphate during the most important phase in Islamic architecture that is the early Abbasid period (750-1000 AD).... this is when the Islamic empire reached its most expanded geographic space... when Islamic cities around the centeral space of the Abbasid Caliphate, mainly Iraq with Baghdad as the capital, were the most populated cities in the world... It's a paradox we don't have visible remnants from this space during this exceptional time of urban growth... It's true we have "Abbasid monuments" from other regions like in North Africa where parts of the Ribat of Munastir or the Mosque of Qayrawan date from the second half of the 8th century... but they are mostly originated after the orders of local dynasties like the Aghlabids in these two cases and not by a close supervision of the imperial centre at Baghdad...

A contrast can be made, for exmaple, with the Classical imperial Roman phase (from I Ad to IV AD) from which we have in Rome the capital of the empire, visible until today, the most spectacular Roman monuments...

One of the reasons of this paradox is due to the simple fact of the building materials: at the centre of the empire, Iraq or Mesopotamia, since the earliest times of architectural activities(including the Sumerian and Assyrian times), huge buildings were not made out of cut stones but rather out of softer materials such as bricks... This was the way Assyrian and Abbasid sites (Nineveh and Baghdad alike) were built...

Still our human limitations are part of the reasons: one of them is that we are unable to dig in still populated sites like Baghdad, which is a successfull urban project since it continues to be one of the major cities at least in the region....

But another human reason is that some sites could be forgotten... political circumstances could affect our ability to "remember" them... Samarra is a good example of such forgotten sites...

An imperial Abbasid project that survived only 3 quarters of a century (the 9th century AD) it was meant to move the Abbasid capital from Baghdad to its north western region... The failure of the project provides an unusual opportunity of recovering major data about one of the very important moments of Islamic imperial architecture... The site is impressive in its vastness: 57 Km2... really an imperial site...

Recently (1980s) a Samarra Archeological Survey has been undertaken (by Prof Northedge from Paris I and Dr Kennet from University of Durham)... and now it's in its publication phase... It should bring new important insights about the imperial Islamic urban experience...

See the website of the project with interesting pics:
http://www.dur.ac.uk/derek.kennet/samarra.htm

3 Comments:

At 3:16 AM, Blogger Alastair said...

Thanks very much for the mention of our work. You may be interested to know that our first major volume, "The Historical Topography of Samarra" is coming out in a month or two.

Anyway congratulations on your new blog. I hope you will be controversial, and there will be a lot to debate.

Alastair Northedge

 
At 9:39 AM, Blogger [dee] said...

thanks so much for making an article about this. Thsi really helps my paper on Islamic archaeology. *lol* :)

hugs,
Dee

 
At 10:32 AM, Blogger Tarek Kahlaoui said...

Happy to help... what's your field? ... and I'm really interested to know: do you have a course in Indonesia on Islamic archeology? or is it part of a general course on Asian archeology?

 

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