Saving Iraq's Treasures

As archaeologists worldwide help recover looted artifacts, they worry for the safety of the great sites of early civilization.

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Hunting also drew one caliph who lived in Baghdad three centuries later. In A.D. 834 Caliph al-Mu’tasim left behind the rich but crowded city and moved northwest to the open spaces of Samarra, a word meaning “he who sees it is delighted.” But his move wasn’t just for the hunt. His troops, composed in part of rowdy Turks from central Asia, were causing trouble in Baghdad, and the move eased the tension.


For the next two years, a frenzy of construction overtook the plain adjoining the TigrisRiver. Vast boulevards stretched for miles to provide easy movement of the caliph’s military force of more than 50,000 Turks, Egyptians, Iranians and Arabs. Soldiers brought their wives and families, and traders brought their wares. Al-Mu’tasim and his successors built palaces with huge courtyards and fountains. Poets, some of whom are famous even today in the Arab world, flocked to the new pleasure gardens to write about the glory of Allah and of love and beauty. Others such as Abu al-’Anbas al-Saymari praised wine and wrote enthusiastically about erotic pleasures and aids to digestion. Artisans created fantastic stucco friezes with abstract designs. Glazed tiles, which became a staple of Islamic buildings, were first made here. Blue glass panels—a great novelty—decorated the walls of the central mosque, and pilgrims marveled to see one another through this magical material.


Unlike Louis XIVat Versailles, Al-Mu’tasim didn’t drive the state into bankruptcy in constructing Samarra. Archaeologists and historians estimate that a fifth or less of the state’s annual revenues went to the project. Lavish parties consumed a large share of state funds: one of the most elaborate palaces in Samarra, for example, cost only a quarter of what was paid for one especially elaborate circumcision party for a prince. A portion of Al-Mu’tasim’s palace has been restored by Saddam’s government. Arched chambers radiate out from a round pool 215 feet in diameter, whose waters must have provided a welcome sanctuary for courtiers during the intense summer heat. But after A.D. 860, succession disputes, assassinations and troop unrest brought an end to Samarra.


“This is one of the great Islamic creations,” says Northedge. Sadly, some of Samarra’s spectacular artifacts were in the NationalMuseum when it was looted in April and might be lost forever. But much of the city remains unexcavated. Archaeologists can only hope that the remaining examples from this era of Iraq’s rich artistic and intellectual life are safely hidden.

Tracking the Plunder


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