It is no surprise that Iraq today, despite all the destruction and conflicts inflicted upon it over the centuries, is still brimming with fascinating archaeological and world heritage treasures.
Historically known as Mesopotamia, the region was called the cradle of civilisation for a reason as it was the home of numerous empires and civilisations since the sixth millennium BC; from the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian civilisations, to a great many Muslim empires and caliphates.
One such treasure is the ancient capital city of Samarra, founded by the Muslim Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutasim in the ninth century.
Samarra was the second capital of the Abbasid Caliphate after Baghdad, ruling over the provinces of the Abbasid Empire which extended from Tunisia to Central Asia, and it continues to be the only surviving Islamic capital which has preserved its original plan and architecture.
The name Samarra is derived from the Arabic phrase “Surra man ra’a”, meaning “A joy for all those who see it”.
Home to the Great Mosque of Samarra with its iconic Malwiya (Arabic for “twisted”) Minaret, the Samarra Archaeological City was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.
The Great Mosque, constructed in 848–852 during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakil, was the largest in the world for over 400 years before it was destroyed in 1278 following Mongol ruler Hulagu Khan’s invasion of Iraq. Today, only the outer wall of the mosque and the malwiya minaret remain.
Originally connected to the mosque by a bridge, the minaret is characterised by a distinctive ascending spiral conical design which rotates counter-clockwise from the bottom up. A spiral staircase leads to the top of the minaret, where a muadhin would recite the Muslim call to prayer.
One of the most prominent architectural structures in the historical city, the minaret stands at 52 metres high and 33 metres wide at the base. It is believed that its design was intended as a a strong visual statement of the presence of Islam in the Tigris Valley, as it is visible from a distance in areas around Samarra.
The monument, which proudly features on Iraqi banknotes today, once drew visitors from around the world who would come to ascend its towering path for panoramic views of the city and admire its unusual design which has survived for over 1,000 years.
After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, American soldiers used the minaret as a watchtower and the site became a theatre for clashes and military operations. The top of the minaret was bombed by insurgents in 2005 and left partially destroyed.
After the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, the historic site was subjected to more armed conflict and sectarian violence which was exacerbated by Daesh militants taking control over large parts of the Saladin Governorate, which includes Samarra.
In the eyes of many of the city’s residents, Samarra no longer reflects the phrase “Surra man ra’a” (A joy for all those who see it) but rather “Sa’a man ra’a” (A sadness for those all who see it), a phrase which is now commonly used amongst Iraqis.
But despite the devastation that befell Iraq over the centuries and the turmoil which continues to engulf the country today, the minaret of the Great Mosque where up to 80,000 worshippers once gathered to pray has endured. Its remarkable, imposing form stands defiant as a testament to Iraq’s extraordinary architectural heritage and innovative design which was ahead of its time.