Originally published in conjunction with the Max van Berchem Foundation, the BISI/BSAI has re-published with some revisions Alastair Northedge’s Historical Topography of Samarra in a paperback version with a new preface commenting on Samarra’s recent tragedies. This is the first fundamentally new work to come out in half a century on one of the world’s most famous Islamic archaeological sites: Samarra in Iraq. This capital of the Abbasid caliphs in the 9th century is not only one of the largest urban sites worldwide, but also gives us the essence of what the physical appearance of the caliphate was like, for early Baghdad is long lost. It was known not only for its famous spiral minarets, but also for its Golden Dome over the tombs of the Imams, and its long avenues of mud-brick architecture – the latter still visible, although the Golden Dome was horrifically destroyed in a bombing in February 2006 and its two remaining minarets in another bombing in June 2007. With the end of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, there is renewed interest in the Abbasid caliphate “the Golden Age of Early Islam”, rightly seen as the foundation of modern Iraq.
Northedge sets out to explain the history and development of this enormous site, 45 km long, using both archaeological and textual sources to weave a new interpretation of how the city worked: its four caliphal palaces, four Friday mosques, cantonments for the military and for the palace servants, houses for the men of state and generals. Samarra is particularly strong on the archaeology of sport: polo grounds, courses for horse-racing, and hunting reserves. After treating the origins of the Abbasid city under the Sasanians, the author then analyses each sector of the city, and explains why it was abandoned at the end of the 9th century. The volume is abundantly illustrated with aerial photographs of the site. This is the first of a series of Samarra Studies; in the second, The Archaeological Atlas of Samarra (2015), the archaeological remains are catalogued, and in the third, Pottery from Samarra, the ceramic finds from the archaeological survey will be published.
Alastair Northedge is Professor of Islamic Art and Archaeology at Université de Paris 1. He has worked in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and conducted projects at Amman in Jordan, and Ana in Iraq, in addition to Samarra. He is the author of Studies on Roman and Islamic Amman, and joint author of Excavations at Ana, with Andrina Bamber and Michael Roaf.