Situated on the left bank of the Euphrates, east of where it meets the Balikh River; 45 km west of Raqqa, Raqqa region, Syria
Hegira first half of the 5th–mid 7th century / AD first half of the 11th– mid-13th century
Seljuq, Zangid, Ayyubid
The only patron known by name is Nur al-Din Mahmud bin Zangi (r. AH 541–69 / AD 1146–74).
While occupied since the Byzantine period, the site gained considerable strategic significance during the AH 5th / AD 11th century as a major crossing point on the Euphrates River. The site was acquired by an individual called Ja'bar ibn Sabiq al-Qushayri (d. AH 464 / AD 1071–2), after which it is presently named Qal'at Ja'bar. Between AH 458 / AD 1065 and AH 564 / AD 1169, Jabar remained under the rule of the Uqailids – a local dynasty nominally responsible to the Seljuq amirs of Aleppo while maintaining important alliances with the newly created Crusader states to the west.
A turning point in the Crusaders' advance was the appearance of Atabeg Imad al-Din Zangi, ruler of Mosul. After Imad al-Din's death, the Zangid lands were divided among his sons Sayf al-Din Ghazi, who held Mosul, and Nur al-Din Mahmud, who became lord of Aleppo. Nur al-Din took over Jabar from the Uqailids in AH 564 / AD 1168, making the fortress an extension of the Aleppine emirate. In AH 593 / AD 1193, the site passed to Salah al-Din's brother al-Adil, who ruled in al-Jazira. From then on, it became an Eastern-oriented fortress constituting a key area of the Ayyubid state against the antagonistic Zangids of Mosul. In AH 657 / AD 1258–9 the fortress was largely destroyed by the Mongol raids under Hülagü and left as a ruin in subsequent times.
The fortress stretches 320 m from north to south and 70 m from east to west, surrounded by two curtain walls with arrow slits, both provided with more than 35 salient towers of semi-circular, semi-octagonal or rectangular ground plan. The entrance at the southwest corner of the wall is topped by a small arch, guarded by two towers. A large vaulted building with a particularly well-preserved brick decoration rises immediately above the entrance.
A cylindrical minaret on a 5-m-high square base rises from the middle of the fortress. The upper part is marked by an inscription band that mentions Nur al-Din, flanked by two bands of continuous saltire crosses, which are topped by dogtooth moulding. Sitting above the inscription band, at the top of the minaret, are four arched windows connected by a single row of pearl design, alternated with inlaid lozenges of patterned brick. The cylindrical shape of the minaret marks a decisive break with the tradition of square minarets in Syria, as seen at the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo, and the Great Mosque of Ma'arrat al-Nu'man just outside Aleppo. Meanwhile, the shape of the minaret at Qalat Jabar is seen predominantly in Iran and illustrates the Eastern influence on the architecture of the area, as does the building material: mud brick, most commonly used in Iraq and Iran.
The dating of the site as we see it today is not entirely clear. It is known that Nur al-Din ordered vast restoration works after the earthquakes of AH 552 / AD 1157 and AH 565 / AD 1170. In addition to the minaret and the mosque he commissioned, he was probably also the patron of the fortification walls.
The citadel was a strategic key post at a major crossing point on the River Euphrates. First serving as a military stronghold against the Byzantines, during Zangid and Ayyubid rule the fortress was enhanced and more oriented towards the east against the rivaling Zangids of Mosul. Although it is the easternmost outpost under Aleppine rule, its architectural and decorative features are less Aleppine and more far more strongly Mesopotamian and Eastern-inspired. Most striking today is the cylindrical minaret built by Nur al-Din in the late AH 6th / AD 12th century, a shape that is not recorded in western Syria.
Contemporary historical sources report that major restoration and construction works were undertaken by Nur al-Din Zangi. The minaret is provided with an inscription of Nur al-Din.
ابن شدّاد, عز الدين أبو الحسن علي الحلبي (توفي 1285 م). الأعلاق الخطيرة في ذكر أمراء الشام و الجزيرة. دمشق 1953.
[Ibn Shaddad, Izz al-Din (d. 1285), Al-A'laq al-Khateera fi dhikr Umara al-Sham w al-Jazira [The Crucial Core in the Mention of the Rulers of Greater Syria and the Jazira, Damascus, 1953.]
Tonghini, C. and Franken, H. J., Qalat Jabar Pottery: A Study of a Syrian Fortified Site of the Late 11th–14th Centuries, Oxford–New York, 1998.
Hillenbrand, R., “Eastern Islamic Influences in Syria: Raqqa and Qalat Jabar in the later 12th century”, The Art of Syria and the Jazira 1100–1250, (J. Raby, ed), 1985.
Verena Daiber "Qal'at Ja'bar" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2022. 2022. https://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;sy;Mon01;38;en
Prepared by: Verena DaiberVerena Daiber
Verena Daiber is an historian of Islamic art an archaeology. She studied Near Eastern Archaeology and Arabic Literature at the Free University of Berlin. After her employment as research associate at the German Archaeological Institute in Damascus she obtained her PhD at the University of Bamberg in 1991 on the public architecture of Damascus in the 18th century. Since 2017 she is the curator of the Bumiller Collection / Bamberg University Museum of Islamic Art that holds Islamic metalwork from the Persian world. After publishing on ceramics, architecture and imagery of the central Arabic lands, she works on the development and publishing of the Bumiller Collection.
Copyedited by: Mandi GomezMandi Gomez
Amanda Gomez is a freelance copy-editor and proofreader working in London. She studied Art History and Literature at Essex University (1986–89) and received her MA (Area Studies Africa: Art, Literature, African Thought) from SOAS in 1990. She worked as an editorial assistant for the independent publisher Bellew Publishing (1991–94) and studied at Bookhouse and the London College of Printing on day release. She was publications officer at the Museum of London until 2000 and then took a role at Art Books International, where she worked on projects for independent publishers and arts institutions that included MWNF’s English-language editions of the books series Islamic Art in the Mediterranean. She was part of the editorial team for further MWNF iterations: Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean Virtual Museum and the illustrated volume Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean.
True to its ethos of connecting people through the arts, MWNF has provided Amanda with valuable opportunities for discovery and learning, increased her editorial experience, and connected her with publishers and institutions all over the world. More recently, the projects she has worked on include MWNF’s Sharing History Virtual Museum and Exhibition series, Vitra Design Museum’s Victor Papanek and Objects of Desire, and Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s online publication 2 or 3 Tigers and its volume Race, Nation, Class.
MWNF Working Number: SY 28
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Atabegs and Ayyubids | War and Horsemanship
DownloadAs PDF (including images) As Word (text only)