Ar Raqqa – University of Copenhagen

Ar Raqqa

Historical & archaeological value

The city is located in north central Syria, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates (ca. 160 km to the east from Aleppo). During the Bronze Age, the region of Ar Raqqa was mentioned in the royal archive of the kingdom of Mari. The archive describes political and economic links with the kingdom of Tuttul, which corresponds to the modern archeological site of Tell Bi’a near the modern city of Ar Raqqa. Ar Raqqa was founded during the third century BC (Seleucid period) and was known in pre-Islamic sources under three different names: Nicephorion, Callinicum, and Leonstopolis.

The city surrendered by treaty (sulḥ) to one of caliph Umar b. al-Khattab’s generals in 639 CE. Thanks to its position on trade routes, it enjoyed a strategic importance under the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. In 728-29 CE, the Umayyad caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik  ordered the construction of Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi; a proto-urban settlement on the road between Ar Raqqa and Palmyra. The palace or the castle was located in an area of the hinterlands of Ar Raqqa. Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi  was apparently used as a military and hunting outpost for the ruling family. The flourishing period of Ar Raqqa started with the Abbasids rulers, namely Caliph Al-Mansur and his son Harun Al-Rashid. Al Mansur (714-775 CE) ordered the construction of a city called ”Al Rafiqa” (the companion) to the west of the Ar Raqqa. “Al Rafiqa” was a garrison city and in periods functioned as the residence of Harun Al Rashid. The layout of “Al Rafiqa” showed a massive defense system composed of two horseshoe-shaped walls with watching towers and gates constructed of mud-brick. The “Baghdad Gate” is the most known of them for its ornamentation. Later, under Harun Al Rashid’s rule (796-809 CE), Ar Raqqa enjoyed a high degree of urban development, where palaces, mosques and water management system were constructed. Al Rashid ordered the construction of Qasr al Banat (Castle of the Ladies), which in the 12th century became a major workshop for artistic production. During the Ayyubid period, the Abbasid palace was used to produce a specific type of local glazed ceramics. This beautifully decorated pottery is known as “Raqqa ware”. After the invasion of the Mongols in 1258 CE both cities were destroyed and never regained importance.

Ar Raqqa region includes important archeological sites such as the “Qalat Jabar” and the site of “Rusafa”. The site of “Qala'at Jabar” is named after a castle dated to the Zengid period (12th century CE), although the hilltop of Jabar is mentioned in pre-Islamic sources as well. The castle hosts a museum known as “Qalat Jabar Museum”, which displays collections gathered from the excavations carried out in the region and including sites such as: Tell Sabi Abyad, Tell Bi'a, Tell Chuera, Tell Munbaqa. Moreover, diverse artifacts dating back to Roman and Byzantine times, as well as more recent objects from the Islamic period were also part of the collection.

The site of Rusafa, located ca. 30 km to the south east of Ar Raqqa, was in Roman times known as Sergiopolis. In later periods, the site expanded and was fortified (5th century CE), it also became the seat of a bishop and several basilicas were erected. The Umayyad Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik established his residence in Rusafa, where he ordered the construction of a mosque and a market, as well as other public buildings. Rusafa was described is historical sources as a Muslim and Christian city where inhabitants cohabited peacefully. The town was destroyed with the Mongol invasions in, 1258 CE and never reinhabited. 

Finally the museum of the city of Ar Raqqa, which has been established in a historic building in the 80s, is one of the city’s trademarks. It gathered valuable items dated to all periods of the city with a focus on the Bronze Age and on the material culture belonging to local Bedouin inhabitants of the city.

Due to its outstanding value, the city of “Al Rafiqa” including the earlier Umayyad palace of “Qasr al-hayr al-Sharqi” and the later Abbasid palace of “Qasr al Banat” was included in the UNESCO tentative World Heritage List in 1999.