Quoted from Jacob Lassner in The Dictionary of the Middle Ages: J.R. Strayer Editor in Chief; Charles Scribner’s Sons, N. York; pp 641-3.
[Samarra was] the second great capital of the Abbasid caliphate. It was situated along the Tigris some sixty miles (ninety-seven kilometres) north of Baghdad. The city was founded by the Caliph al-Mu'tasim (r. 833-841) in 835 and continued to serve the Abbasids as the administrative centre of their realm until the caliph al-Mu'tadid (r. 892- 902) returned to Baghdad in 892. Two years after becoming caliph in 833, al- Mu'tasim left his palace in the Mukharrim section of East Baghdad in search of a new capital. The most apparent cause for this venture was the hostility of the city population to the caliph's Turkish guard, a regiment that he had introduced, and on which he had increasingly come to rely. The caliph thought of alleviating the situation by establishing an administrative centre in a less settled area of the city, and even just beyond the city, but he ultimately decided to leave Baghdad altogether.
This was a momentous step, for in doing so, he gave up a strategic and geographic location that could not be duplicated. Following the course of the Tigris, the caliph ordered preliminary soundings at several sites, but for a variety of reasons, each was found unacceptable. In the past, the Abbasid caliphs preferred to develop their administrative centres a short distance from a commercially important settlement.
The site ultimately chosen by al-Mu'tasim along an expansive plain, did not, however, offer any commercial, geographic, or even strategic advantages. It was ten miles from the nearest town of any importance and thirty miles from Uqbarah, which lay in the centre of a fertile and commercially relevant district. Why the caliph should have chosen this place to build a major city is difficult to ascertain.
The foundation lore suggests that the site of the new capital had been settled at various periods going back to the most ancient of times, and that it had previously been considered for settlement by the Abbasids. It is thus reported that Samarra was built for Sam (Shem), the son of Noah, in postdiluvian times, thereby also explaining the etymology of the name. Other statements indicate it to be an ancient city of the Persians. Regarding the Abbasids, there is a tradition that al-Saffah (r. 750-754), the founder of the dynasty, was disposed to build at Samarra before he settled near al-Anbar. Similarly, it is said that his successor, al-Mansur (r. 754-775), actually began construction at Samarra but abandoned the effort in favour of Baghdad. Harun al- Rashid (r. 785-809) reportedly built a palace at Samarra opposite the ruins of a great Sasanian monument, and he is credited as well with digging the Qatul canal, where the original settlement of later times was established.
There is also a legend which explains that al-Mu'tasim built his city in fulfilment of an ancient prophecy.
Samarra, like Baghdad, was formed by the successive occupation of a variety of sites within a very wide general area. However, unlike the built-up area of the older capital, whose width and length were of nearly equal dimensions and densely occupied, Samarra was characterized by a series of somewhat more isolated settlements extending like a ribbon for some twenty miles along both banks of the Tigris, and bounded by the Qatul to the east and the north, the Yahudi to the south, and the Ishaqi to the west.
There were in addition centres of lesser occupation outside the perimeter of the city proper and on the west bank. The original plans to build at the junction of the Qatul and Tigris were shelved because the terrain was found unsuitable, and the land was not sufficient to meet the caliph's needs. A second parcel of land was then purchased near the village of al- Matirah. This was an open expanse devoid of buildings and inhabitants except for a single monastery. The site was called Surramanra'a, but this name soon gave way to Samarra, the name which came to indicate the greater urban centre which developed all around. Al-Mu'tasim built three palaces, of which the most famous was the Jawsaq al-Khaqani, whose ruins remain today. Extensive dwellings were also built for the caliph's retinue and army, as well as a viable economic infrastructure to handle supply and services. A market area was thus built surrounding a Friday mosque.
The task of construction required the formation of a large and diversified labour force recruited from among the skilled and unskilled workers of the surrounding areas and regions still further removed. In addition to considerable archaeological evidence, knowledge of Samarra is derived primarily from the geographer and historian Ya'qubi, who preserves a detailed topographical account describing the general localities of the city in relation to one another. His description is, however, terse and offers little information which suggests clear patterns of change within the areas described. It is therefore difficult to construct a detailed chronological history that illustrates shifting patterns of settlement. Some general patterns are nevertheless evident. Samarra was subject to meticulous planning. Careful attention was devoted to the placing of various ethnic groups in set quarters which were arranged in several thoroughfares running almost the entire length and breadth of the city.
It was, however, impossible to keep large areas of settlement isolated from basic services. The settlements were thus provided mosques, bathhouses, and markets called suwayqat, which were, in effect, distributive outlets dealing in basic commodities, specifically, foodstuffs such as grains and meat and other unspecified necessities.
The main thoroughfare of al-Mu'tasim's city was the "Great Road", called al-Sarijah. This road extended the entire length of the city. With later extensions it ran some 20 miles (32 kilometres) and was reported to have been 300 feet (91metres) wide at one point. The part of the road which still exists, although somewhat narrower (240 feet or 73 meters), nevertheless testifies to dimensions that were indeed staggering.
The great government buildings, the Friday mosque and the city markets were all situated along al-Sarijah. It was throughout the entire history of the city the main line from which most of the city's traffic radiated toward the Tigris and inland. A description of the locations that bounded al-Sarijah and the other thoroughfares of the city is found in Ya'qubi.
To summarize him: Moving inland from the river, the first two thoroughfares contained the major institutions of the city. The next five contained no public buildings, no commercial centre, and, with the exception of a group of public officials occupying the extremity of the Abu Ahmad Road, no Arab settlement. They were heavily occupied by military contingents.
The great roads all ran the length of the city. The absence of similar thoroughfares bisecting the width of the city suggests a deliberate effort to discourage traffic between the major sections of settlement. Considering also the absence of major markets in the five inland sections, it is clear that Samarra was essentially series of military camps kept separate from one another. Al-Mu'tasim also developed the west bank of the Tigris.
The area across the river had a certain bucolic quality and was characterized by some twelve villages situated along major water channels. The evidence would seem to indicate a flourishing agriculture, including excellent cash crops. The taxes earned on the west bank properties appear to represent some 60 percent of the entire tax base for the city. In addition the caliph established pleasure palaces, gardens, and parks... His effort was emulated by various of his retainers, thereby driving up real-estate prices for west bank properties. Following the death of al-Mu'tasim, Harun al-Wathiq (r. 842-847) became caliph.
The city grew substantially, with a particular emphasis on the development of new palaces and commercial facilities on the east bank. The new caliph, seeking an identity of his own, moved his residence to a newly constructed palace along the Tigris, which he named, after himself, al-Haruni. The market areas were enlarged and the port facilities expanded as part of an energetic program that included the refurbishing and strengthening of already existing structures.
The new development affected only the first two sections inland from the water; the other five sections retained their character as military settlements. The third caliph at Samarra, Ja'far al-Mutawakkil (r. 847-861), initially resided at his predecessor's palace along the Tigris shore, while his three sons were given new palaces of their own. One of these palaces, known as Balkuwara, was situated on a new location to the southeast. More significant were the developments taking place along three of the inland thoroughfares, areas hitherto reserved exclusively for military occupation.
On an expansive area at the limit of the section called al-Hayr, the caliph undertook the construction of a second Friday mosque to replace the earlier building of al-Mu'tasim. The new mosque was an enormous structure leaving no doubt that was intended not to supplement but to replace the earlier place of worship, which was subsequently levelled.
Since the new mosque was to serve the entire population of Samarra (which resided for the most part along the first two thoroughfares inland), three major traffic areas had to be constructed along the width of the urban area. Each artery was reported to have been about 150 feet (46 metres) wide so as to handle the enormous traffic. Each artery was flanked by rows of shops, representing all sorts of commercial and artisanal establishments.
The arteries were in turn connected to ample side streets containing the residences of the general populace. The approaches to the mosque were settled by members of the scribal corps, generals (without troops?), notables, and others. For the first time commercial establishments and public buildings were allowed beyond the Great Thoroughfare.
The result was a second market district and area of civilian settlement that altered the balance between civilians and the military. The new settlement also put a strain on the existing water supply. Previously, water was brought by pack animals. Now, feeder channels which flowed year-round were extended from the river. Although the new development may not have affected the character of occupation in old areas, Samarra increasingly took on the features of a fully integrated city and less those of a military camp (askar). Pinched in by a rising tide of humanity, al-Mutawakkil undertook an ambitious building project five miles north of the city limits. He began to build a new palace precinct called al-Ja'fariya al- Mutawakkilya. In addition to the caliph's palace, there were residences for his sons, fiefs for various scribes, the military, and elements of the general populace. A magnificent Friday mosque was built to serve the worshipers. The Great Thoroughfare was extended from the outer limits of Samarra.
Feeder channels that brought drinking water flanked both sides of the road. In a short time the area between al-Mutawakkil's centre and the original settlement at Samarra was filled in with a continuous line of occupation. The growth of al-Mutawakkiltya required the development of yet another major market area to provide services and supplies. The markets were, however, kept distant from the military and government areas so as to preserve some semblance of security. The vast project did not take into consideration the enormous costs as well as certain technical problems.
When the caliph was murdered, the entire complex was abandoned. His successor, al-Muntasir (r. 861-862), returned to the older settlement at Samarra. The development of al-Mutawakkilya was to be the last great building scheme in the general area. In 892 Samarra was abandoned by the caliph al-Mu'tadid. The city declined rapidly thereafter.
by: Quoted from Jacob Lassner, Sun 21 July, 2002