Back in 800 AD, Samarra rocked. What lies in store for it with ISIS’s rise?


THG9cBX-360Baghdad’s envoy to Washington has confirmed that the perimeter of Samarra’s al-Askari mosque was targeted by ISIS, the Sunni jihadist group.

What might lie in store for the ancient city now? It’s hard to imagine today, but back in 800 AD, Samarra, to use modern slang, rocked.

The city, which straddles the River Tigris north of Baghdad, had the Dar al-Khilafah palace, the caliph’s main residence and the ceremonial heart of the purpose-built capital. Its name was a shortened form of ‘Surra Man Ra’a’, which means “He who sees it is delighted”.

As Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s director, said in an episode of his wonderful BBC Radio 4 series, ‘A History of the world in a hundred objects’, Samarra’s importance can hardly be overstated.

Baghdad was destroyed by Genghis Khan but because Samarra was the new Abbasid capital for almost 60 years, “we can still get quite a good idea of what the Abbasid court looked like.” He adds that “… luckily, a lot of ancient Samarra survives, that lets us get much closer to this empire that dominated so much of the globe, 1,200 years ago.” Mr MacGregor said this in 2010. Four years on, Samarra’s future may not be so settled.

(Tomorrow: In 800 AD, Samarra was the unforgettable centre of the huge Islamic Empire) 

Jack Kerouac

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac