What the Internet has brought the armchair archaeologist, with particular reference to Samarra

(Written partly offline on a train between Hanbury and Worcester, 18/04/2011)

If there are any of my students reading, could you look away for a moment? Thankyou. You see I have to confess something: teaching the range I was teaching last term involved prescribing more than a little reading that I myself had actually never read. There’s just never been time to cover everything that might be useful on these subjects I don’t primarily work on.1 I started making this time, however, and I’m making inroads on my overloaded to-read shelves, much of which I got hold of specifically to use in teaching in fact. Every one of these that can go onto the office shelves with me secure I have some idea what’s in it, I feel a bit less of a fraud, though there’s a long way to go on that front.

Cover of Richard Hodges's and David Whitehouse's Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe

Cover of Richard Hodges's and David Whitehouse's Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe

Okay: students, you can look again now. Have you ever read Richard Hodges‘s and David Whitehouse‘s Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of Europe? You absolutely should, it’s only short, it has the classic early Hodges flavour of attack where everyone else is wrong and we will all be led to the truth by the shining golden light of ARCHAEOLOGY, where Hodges was its prophet,2 but it also has a startlingly broad focus endowed it by the fact that Whitehouse had dug not just in Italy (where in the seventies they seem to have more or less turned Archeologia Medievale into a news-sheet for Brits to tell the Italians what bit of the local past they’d put spades into now), but also in more farflung locales like Africa and, most unusually, Iran before the fall of the Shah, after which, as we have remarked here before, it has been a little difficult to do much digging that doesn’t come up landmines.3 This means that the book is almost bound to tell even the most learned Westerner something they didn’t know about points east—it mentions Kilwa, for example, although in the period they are concerned with the big entrepôt on the East African coast actually was in Kenya, at Manda—and for me it was about Samarra.

The Birka da'Iriyya, a sunken basin in the palace complex of Caliph al-Mu'tasim, Samarra, Iraq, in use 836-c.895

The Birka da'Iriyya, a sunken basin in the palace complex of Caliph al-Mu'tasim, Samarra, Iraq, in use 836-c.895

I vaguely knew that Samarra was in old Persia somewhere, but that was about it. I had not gathered that it was the capital of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate between 836 and 882, in fact I’d never been aware that the ‘Abbasids left Baghdad, and I certainly hadn’t taken on board its scale. Hodges and Whitehouse say:

The works of al-Mansur at Baghdad were dwarfed by those of al-Mutasim and his successors at Samarra for in forty-six years they created a city which sprawled along the Tigris for 35 kilometres: from Woolwich, as it were, to Kew…. Al-Mutasim built a palace larger than Versailles in 836-42; al-Mutawakkil replaced it with another, almost as large, in about 849-59; al-Mutamid built a third in 878-82.

The emphasis is the authors’, but you know, fair enough.4 Now, that was 1983 and the scholarship has moved on at least a piece. In 1983 Hodges and Whitehouse could say, with amazement, “Astonishingly, no detailed description of the site has ever been published”, although they cite in the same note what appears to be a six-volume German site report so I’m not sure how much detail they wanted.5 But, and this is anything is the point, now we have the Internet, it’s so much easier to check this sort of thing. Even a clumsy Google might suffice, but a more targeted search of the Regesta Imperii OPAC brings up a few bits that that doesn’t.6 Where Google does come into its own though is in photography. We can’t get into this area on the ground in safety any more, but the eyes in the sky can report, and they do. Have a look at this for scale and desolation:

Okay, so here's a building. Now zoom out. Then zoom out. Then zoom out. Then zoom out...

Ozymandias just ain’t in it.


1. It’s astonishing how much patching of this you can get away with simply by going to seminars where the relevant people tell you what’s in their work instead, of course. This is the big secret reason for my high level of conference attendance.

2. If you haven’t met this strain of his work, you will find it writ large in R. Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement: archaeology and the beginnings of English society (London 1989). These days he is a bit less combative, though of course who knows what his Dark Age Economics: a new audit (London forthcoming) will be like. If, like me, you are waiting for that with bated breath (though once I own it, who knows when I’ll actually read it…) you may be excited to know that there is an article-length summary entitled “Dark Age Economics revisited” in a volume of his papers I only lately found out about, Goodbye to the Vikings: (London 2009), pp. 63-71, and that volume must join his Towns and Trade in the Age of Charlemagne (London 2000) on my to-read list. You see, this list never actually gets shorter, it just feels more up-to-date.

3. The part of the book I’m writing from here is R. Hodges, D. Whitehouse, Mohammed: Charlemagne & The Origins of Europe: archaeology and the Pirenne thesis (London 1983), pp. 123-157.

4. Ibid., pp. 151 & 157.

5. Ibid., p. 151 n. 29, citing Ernst Herzfeld, Ausgrabungen von Samarra VI: Geschichte der Stadt Samarra (Berlin 1948).

6. The most obviously useful thing that’s come out since Hodges and Whitehouse wrote is Chase Robinson (ed.), A Medieval Islamic City Reconsidered: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Samarra, Oxford Studies in Islamic Art 14 (Oxford 2001), but there is also now Alastair Northedge, The Historical Topography of Samarra, Samarra Studies 1 (London 2005) and a shortish introduction by Osman S. A. Ismail, “The Founding of a New Capital: Samarra'” in Clifford Edmund Bosworth (ed.), The Turks in the early Islamic world (Aldershot 2007), pp. 291-304. The latter two aren’t even on any reading lists I’ve set so I can confess I haven’t actually read these; the first, I shall have to stay circumspect about for a while longer…

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13 responses to “What the Internet has brought the armchair archaeologist, with particular reference to Samarra

  1. Pingback: What would a late-Carolingian bishop read? The will of Riculf of Elna « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. My God, that Birka da’Iriyya photograph is beautiful.

    • It’s a lovely site and an impressive building but I am a bit confused as to why it’s full of spoil heaps and what seems to be a truck unloading paving stones. The photo came off an archæological project’s site (which is linked through) but that doesn’t look like a dig at all, or even looting, and the site doesn’t explain.

      • Alastair Northedge

        Here’s an answer two years late: it’s because they were in the middle of restoring the building in 1989, when the photo was taken. The basin was actually poorly preserved. And in Saddam style, they were rebuilding it to match political desires. Cheers, Alastair Northedge

        • It’s still nice to have the answer, thankyou! Was it somehow done in a Baath-friendly style, then? I’m afraid I don’t know enough about Iraqi politics to know how Saddam would have wanted a building at Samarra restored.

  3. I wondered this also. Are they putting in plumbing, or restoring something somehow?

    • Parts of the site have been restored, although obviously what with it being three capital cities in a row, not all of it; but the site from which I pinched the photograph was last updated in 2005 and doesn’t make it clear if that was one of the bits. I can’t, therefore, rule out to my satisfaction that that ruin is actually now the structure I’ve focused the Google Map on…

  4. Speaking of medieval mapping and the internet… How cool is this site, (tho’ sadly lacking any Iberian info as yet)!? It’s a digital version of the Tabula Peutingeriana, the ‘Roman Roadmap’, c. 300 CE.

  5. I lived outside of Samarra (in the army) and can confirm that the pictures you posted and the google imagery are indeed of the same site. I lived on the opposite side of the river from this site and had a wonderful view of the Al-`Ashiq palace, which is also a beautiful building.

    • Thankyou for that! It’s a tremendous piece of restoration in that case, though I can’t help wondering how accurately the upper parts of the building can have been deduced from the remains. Is it open to visitors?

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