City walls of Rafiqa (Raqqa) and the Baghdad Gate
Hegira 155–158 / AD 771–5; additions AH 180–92 / 796–809 and renovation some time during the 5th/11th century
Unknown, although master-builders and craftsmen were probably transferred from the building of the new capital city of Baghdad to Raqqa.
The Abbasid Caliph Abu Ja'far ‘Abdallah ibn Muhammad al-Mansur (r. AH 136–58 / AH 754–75); later additions under Harun al-Rashid (r. AH 170–93 / AD 786–809).
In AH 155 / AD 772 the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur ordered the building of a new garrison town called Rafiqa, meaning 'the companion', next to the city of Raqqa. He commissioned his son and successor, al-Mahdi (r. AH 158–69 / AD 775–85), to oversee its construction. Later additions, such as the outer wall, were carried out under al-Mahdi's son, Harun al-Rashid (r. AH 170–93 / AD 786–809). The place served as a garrison town on the border with the Byzantine Empire to protect Abbasid territories. It was also situated at the crossroads of important caravan routes at the confluence of the River Euphrates with the River Khabur.
The city wall surrounding Rafiqa has a diameter of approximately 1,300 m. Its massive wall-structure is almost 5,000 m long, and encloses a space of 1.47 sq km. The city plan, a closed horse-shoe shape, was influenced by the famously circular layout of the new capital, Baghdad, which was completed only a few years earlier.
The city's perimeter is fortified by multiple defensive layers including a 15.9 m-wide moat, an outer wall, and a massive inner wall based on a stone foundation. The inner wall, made of mud-brick and a layer of fired brick on both sides, is further fortified by 132 round towers arranged nearly equidistantly along its length (about 25 m to 28 m apart). Each tower has a circumference of 15 m to 16 m, and a depth of up to 5.35 m. At their original height, they probably rose to 18 m, and the two corner towers may have risen higher than the rest. The outer wall is lower and less massive than the inner one. It is made of sun-dried bricks and does not have a stone foundation.
Originally the city wall had three entrances: the small western gate; the bulky northern gate that is 4 m wide (remains of iron door posts still survive); and located at the south-eastern corner of the city wall, the stately Baghdad Gate. The southern and eastern walls are preserved up to a height of 11 m and the portal of the Baghdad Gate is made of fired bricks that are built into the outer city wall. Assuming that the façade of the Baghdad Gate was symmetrical, it must have measured 18 m x 14.5 m.
Visually the façade of Baghdad Gate is divided into two parts: the lower part contains the great archway and two blind panels, while the upper part, measuring about 4.40 m-high, is decorated with a series of three-lobed niches and extensively stilted keel-arched frames resting on engaged colonnettes. Eight of the 11 niches have been preserved. The delicate features of the gate, lack of defensive elements, and its location in the weaker exterior wall all indicate that it was not erected for its impregnability but might have been used as a showpiece for ceremonial receptions into the city.
The date of the Baghdad Gate remains unclear. Based on stylistic criteria, such as the form of the pointed arches, unrecorded before the 10th century, and the eastern-inspired technique of the brick decoration, resembling 11th century Iranian architecture (i.e. the towers of Kharraqan), the Baghdad Gate is unlikely to be earlier than the early 4th / 10th century.
Built and fortified by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur in AH 155 / AD 772 as a garrison against the threatening Byzantines, the town became the capital of the empire by order of his grandson Harun al-Rashid (r. AH 170–93 / AD 786–809). He built a massive encircling city wall, nearly 5,000 m long and consisting of a thick inner and outer layer. Of note is the richly decorated gate on the southeastern corner, which was not built as a defensive structure but rather as a ceremonial gate. Mesopotamian stylistic features are also very apparent, both in ornamentation and in the use of mud-brick as building medium.
The historian al-Tabari (d. 310 / 923) attributes the foundation of Rafiqa to the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur, second half of the 9th century. The historian Ibn Shaddad (d. 684 / 1285) reports extensions to the first city wall by Harun al-Rashid (d. 198/908), while Mikhail the Syrian (d. 596 / 1199) describes the Harun al-Rashid's construction of the second city wall. Beyond these indications, the exact date of the Baghdad Gate remains unclear. An attribution to Nur al-Din Mahmud bin Zangi (d. 565 / 1174), who conducted several restorations in the city, is unlikely after the most recent stylistic analysis, conducted by L. Korn (2004).
Korn, L., “Das Bagdad-Tor”, Raqqa III, Baudenkmäler und Paläste I (V. Daiber and A. Becker, eds), Mainz, 2004, pp.11–18.
Heidemann, S., “Die Geschichte von ar-Raqqa/ar-Rafiqa – ein überblick”, Raqqa II, Die islamische Stadt, (S. Heidemann and A. Becker, eds), Mainz, 2003.
Hillenbrand, R., “Eastern Islamic Influences in Syria: Raqqa and Qalcat Jacbar in the Later 12th Century”, The Art of Syria and the Jazira 1100–1250, Oxford Studies in Islamic Art 1 (ed. J. Raby), Oxford, 1985, pp.21–48.
Khalaf, M., al-. “Die cabbasidische Stadtmauer von ar-Raqqa/ar-Rafiqa,” Damaszener Mitteilungen, 2, 1985, pp.123–31.
Meinecke, M., “al-Rakka”, Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. VIII, Leiden, 1995, pp.410–14.
Verena Daiber "City walls of Rafiqa (Raqqa) and the Baghdad Gate" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2019. 2019. http://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;sy;Mon01;29;en
Prepared by: Verena DaiberVerena Daiber
Verena Daiber has been a researcher at the German Archaeological Institute in Damascus since 2002, where she is preparing her Ph.D.thesis on 'Architectural and cultural history of Damascus in the 18th century'. She graduated from the Free University of Berlin where she studied Near Eastern archaeology and Arabic literature. In 1990 she obtained her MA degree with a study of medieval pottery from the citadel of Aleppo. She participated in numerous excavations in Sheich Hamad and Aleppo in Syria and Baalbek, Lebanon. She edited the third volume of the 'Raqqa' series, a compilation of studies conducted by several scholars on the site. Her latest publication is a study of the fine medieval pottery from Baalbek. In addition to her research she works as a translator for German and Arabic.
Copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: SY 36
Islamic Dynasties / Period
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Abbasids | Al-Raqqa: Caliph Harun al-Rashid’s Capital in Syria
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