Sāmarrā is a town in Iraq. Itis located on the east bank of the middle Tigris in
Iraq, 125 km north of Baghdad. Between 836 (221 H) and 892 (279 H) it was the
capital of the Abbasid Caliphs.Samarra expanded to an occupied area of 57 km²,
one of the largest cities of ancient times, whose remains of collapsed pisé and
brick walls are still largely visible. Samarra is now one of the largest
archaeological sites in the world and, in 2002, had a population of some
The city is also home to the mausoleums of the Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-Askari,
the tenth and eleventh Shi'a Imams, respectively, as well as the shrine of
Muhammad al-Mahdi, known as the "Hidden Imam", who was the twelfth and final
Imam of the Shi'a. This has made it an important pilgrimage centre for Shi'a
History of Samarra
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), 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 theTigris around
the pre-Islamic settlement, with the principal palace on the site of a monastery
to the north.
Bab al-‘Amma, the formal entrance to the Caliphal
This palace complex, called in the sources Dar al-Khilafa, 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
With the death of al-Mu'tasim in 842 (227 H), Al-Wathiq (842 /227 H - 847 /232
H) chose to stay in Samarra, and the population reacted by turning what was
called a camp (`Askar al-Mu`tasim) into a real city. Al-Wathiq 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 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.
Under al-Mutawakkil the city centre, which developed on the site of 'Askar al-Mu'tasim,
seems to have reached its greatest extent.
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 or
al-Mahuza. 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. After the assassination of al-Mutawakkil in 861 (247 H) the city
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.
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) onwardsSamarra 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.