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Samarra, Iraq

Samarra, about 124 km north of Baghdad, is one of the four Islamic Holy Cities of Iraq, and is considered as the largest ancient city known in the whole World with its majestic ruins which extends about 9 km horizontally and 34 km vertically along the eastern bank of the Tigris.

The famous Spiral of Samarra (Al-Malweyya)It was built by Caliph Al-Mu'tasim in 836 AD to replace Baghdad as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, and abandoned by Caliph Al-Mu'tamid in 892 AD. Despite the short sojourn of the Abbasid Caliphate in Samarra, the city's artistic, literary, and scientific splendors have remained a legend in Arab history.

The Great Mosque
A dominating, magnificent structure that was once the largest mosque in the Islamic world built by Caliph Al-Mutawakkil in 852 AD using bricks and clay.

It has a rectangular plan measuring 240x160 m with walls 10 m high and 2.65 m thick, supported by 44 towers. The courtyard was surrounded on all sides by an arcade. The greatest part of which was the one facing Holy Mecca.

The Mosque's minaret is the famous Spiral (Al-Malweyya), which rises 27 m away from the northern side of the Mosque to a height of 52 m. Some historians believe that it pre-dates the Mosque and that Caliph Al-Mu'tasim built it.

The Caliph's Residence
Built by Caliph Al-Mu'tasim in 835 AD to overlook the Tigris river with 700 m long front. Of its remains, nowadays, you can see a group of 3 ewans (arched facades), the central one measuring 17.5x8 m, with a height of 12 m. These ewans were called Bab Al-'Amma (The Commoners Gate): the Caliph would sit there to hear the people's complaints and suggestions, as Muslim Caliphs always took personal interest in their citizens' affairs.

Al-Askareyya Shrine
Al-Askareyya Shrine embraces the tombs of the 10th and 11th Imams, Ali Al-Hadi who died in 868 AD and his son Hassan Al-Askari who died in 874 AD and was buried next to his father. It is a sort of memorial also to the 12th Imam, about whom a superstition lingers that he will return as the Mahdi to establish peace on earth.

Al-Askareyya Shrine has a golden dome that dazzles the eye. With a circumference of 68 m wide and more than 72,000 golden pieces, it is one of the biggest domes in the Islamic world. Each one of its two golden minarets is 36 m high.

Looking in at the main gate you see a wonderfully light facade of uncluttered white and blue and turquoise patterns, and the dome, golden-scaled, grows out of it like a tree. The minaret is gold all the way up, and there is also a gold-painted clock tower. The courtyard is wide and its white walls are framed with small sea-blue tiles. The whole effect of this mosque is unfussy and fresh. And even outside it there is as yet hardly anything to confuse the eye.

Al-Askareyya Shrine

Abu Duluf Mosque
Samarra was penetrated by a very long axial street called Al-Adham (the Greatest), at the end of which, 22 km away north of the modern city, are the remnants of a large mosque still mostly extant, with its beautiful courtyard and a small 19 m high spiral minaret. It was built by Caliph Al-Mutawakkil in 860 AD as a smaller version of the Great Mosque and its Spiral minaret.

Al-Ma'shouq (the Beloved) Palace
Located on the east bank of Tigris about 10 km to the north west of Samarra. A large brick-built palace laying on a high platform, with arches supporting the roof. A spiral path leads to the palace chambers, which are ornamented with clay arabesques. On the exterior are arches and pillars stuck to the walls.

This palace, sometimes called Al-Ashiq (the Lover) Palace, was built in 889 AD by Caliph Al-Mu'tamid, the last ruled in Samarra, before leaving to Baghdad.

"An appointment in Samarra", an old story:

Death speaks: There is a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to buy provisions from the market and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.

She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city to avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.

The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?

That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.


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