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060. Samarra
— Al-Mutawakkil Mosque & Minaret al-Malwiya

Salah ad-Din Governorate. About 60 miles north of Baghdad, on the Tigris. Often called the largest archaeological site in the world, Samarra stretches more than 40 kilometers along the Tigris. The region dates from the Samarra period (5600-5000 BC) at nearby sites Tell es-Sawwan and Choga Mami and also became a major urban center under the Abbasid caliphate (9th century AD).

In 836 AD the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu't, wishing to escape conflict with the local population in Baghdad, moved to Samarra, which remained the seat of power for the Abbasids for next 56 years, a period during which the largest mosque in all of Islam was built at Samarra. The city served as home for eight successive caliphs until 892, when the capital was moved back to Baghdad.

While all of Samarra can be considered an archaeological treasure, these monuments stand out in particular:

Al-Mutawakkil Mosque (Great Mosque) & Minaret al-Malwiya

Variant names: Great Mosque of Samarra, Jami al-Mutawakkil

Client/Patron: Caliph al-Mutawakki
Dates: Abbassid period, 847-61 AD

Upon his succession to the Abbasid caliphate in the mid-ninth century Al-Mutawakkil ordered the construction of the Great Mosque of Samarra, the largest mosque in the world at that time.

The Archnet Digital Library describes the Al-Mutaqakkil Mosque and Minaert al-Malwiya at Samarra in the following manner: "While the outer wall still stands, little remains of the interior of the mosque today. This sizable rectangular structure measured approximately 38,000 square meters and was encompassed by an outer baked brick wall supported by a total of forty-four semi-circular towers including four corner ones. In its time, it was the world's largest mosque. One could enter the mosque through one of sixteen gates. It has been posited that featured over each entrance were several small arched windows. Between each tower, a frieze of sunken square niches with beveled frames runs the upper course of the entire structure. The outer wall included twenty-eight windows with twenty-four of them being on the southern face, one for each of the aisles in the inner sanctuary with the exception of the one with the mihrab. The roof of the mosque was supported by twenty-four rows of nine piers in the sanctuary, three rows of nine piers again in the riwaq to the north, and each side having twenty-two rows of four piers. A rectangular mihrab with two marble columns on each side could be found positioned in the southern wall of the mosque. Claims have been made that the Great Mosque of Samarra could be compared to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus as glass mosaics were pervasive throughout the site. Aerial photographs provide evidence that an expansive enclosed field measuring 376 x 444 meters (approximately 17 hectares) surrounded the mosque with a brick wall. This area is known as a ziyada, a widespread feature of Congregational mosques during this period. Within this ziyada was a smaller one that only encompassed the mosque on its north, west, and east sides.

Directly 27.25 meters from the center of the mosque's north face stands the Minaret al-Malwiya, approximately 55 meters high. Although round in shape, this minaret is influenced by a specific type of Mesopotamian ziggurat, square-planned and featuring stairs or an incline on the exterior of its façade while rotating several times until reaching the crown. The base or socle of the minaret measures thirty-three square meters and rises to a height of almost three meters. It supports a spiral ramp that winds counterclockwise five times up the minaret beginning on the side closest to the mosque. At the top of the tower rests a round vestibule, which is adorned with eight pointed-arched niches."

Source: ArchNet

Site Assessment: Pinnacle of the minaret was damaged April 1, 2005 by a bomb reportedly placed by insurgents in response to U.S. forces prior use of the minaret as a sniper's nest beginning in September, 2004; March, 2005, Iraq State Board of Antiquities ordered U.S. forces to vacate the Minaret.

See also: Ettinghausen, Richard and Grabar, Oleg. 1987. The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 86-88.


  34° 12' 21.0600"   
  34.20585º N
  43° 52' 46.2000"  
  43.8795º E

GoogleEarth satellite view
of the al-Mutawakki Mosque
and Minaret at Samarra
(external resource)