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The Great Mosque of Samarra | Architecture and Religion

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 2805 words Published: 18th May 2020

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The great mosque of Samarra also known as the mosque of al-Mutawakkil began construction in 848/49 CE, with The Caliph Al-Mu’tasim moved the Abbasid capital from Baghdad to Samarra, and finished in 852 CE. The great mosque of Samarra is a representative building in Samarra has huge high artistic, historical and cultural value.

Samarra was the capital of the Abbasid empire in a short time, Samarra was built a city from a small village on the banks of Tigris in 833 CE as the administrative capital and the basement of the Caliph’s Turkish guards. The Caliph Al-Mu’tasim planned to build magnificent palaces and gardens in Samarra aimed to present the power of the Abbasids caliphate. In that period of Samarra, the structure and the number of buildings were had significant growth. Samarra included most of the largest buildings in the world in that period. To construct those buildings Calipha had to adopt the conscription system to concentrated the labour of resources of the Abbasid Empire that make sure they have enough workers and supplies to build those complex buildings. Additionally, Due to the concentrated power of the Abbasid Empire, the structures and decorations had a huge innovation in the period of construction of Samarra. For example, a large number of surfaces decoration were applied, like stucco, paintings, mosaics, and in some important buildings, they even used imported marble.

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However, Samarra had a serious problem on water supply, Samarra could not become a large settlement. Furthermore, the problem of water supply also led to an unusual form of Samarra. Samarra extended along the Tigris River to 35km long but only 5 km wide. Meanwhile, the water supply problem caused the Caliph al-Mutamid moved the capital city form Samarra back to Baghdad after 55 years. After the short time as the capital city of Abbasids caliphate, Samarra dropped into decay. [1]

As a representative building in Samarra, the great mosque of Samarra was the largest mosque in the world in a long period. Simultaneously, to become the largest mosque in the world, the innovation of the construction technique is necessary. In addition, the great mosque of Samarra influenced by the second wave of Abbasid Great Mosques. [2]This revolution changed the form and decoration of the Great Mosque of Samarra. The great mosque of Samarra has adopted an Arabian pattern but use Iranian technical and stylistic undertones.

Samarra was inhabited in a short time, that led to most parts of the great mosque of Samarra only could be built by earthen material hurriedly. That is the reason why the great mosque of Samarra did not survive well.  

The outer walls

The great mosque of Samarra was built as a part of the great urban program of Samarra. It was one of the most magnificent imperial projects ever undertaken.  The great mosque of Samarra was immense dimensional urban complex. The great mosque of Samarra was used symmetrical layout. And its enormous dimension made the great mosque of Samarra still one of the biggest mosques today.

The great mosque of Samarra was 240 meters long from the north to south 156meters wide from east to west. The total area is more than 40000 square meters. That included an open courtyard – 110m*130m. The great mosque of Samarra has a rectangular shape with a central axis pointing towards the direction of Mecca. This kind of shape of the courtyard was an innovation in Islamic architecture history. Traditionally, enclosure of the mosque should be a square, that was The most distinctive form in Arab. But in the great mosque of Samarra that was abandoned. The outer walls were built by the burnt brick. They are all load-bearing wall. Its architectural form and basic appearance became a template of the mosque at that time. The entire mosque is surrounded by tall, heavy brick walls with a semi-circular tower arch every 15 meters on the wall the long side of the enclosure had 12 semicircular towers and the short side have 8 semicircular towers and 4 towers on the 4 corners of the outer wall. These towers stood on the rectangular basements of courses of brick. This kind of architecture technology supported the tower strongly. Moreover, the foundation of the wall and tower were separate, the outer walls and the towers could not influence each other.  These towers were decorated square panels on the top and with a round medallion in the centre the lined with stucco.

The mosque has a total of 13 gates and five on each of the long sides and three on the entrance side. The main entrance is to the north. There is a wooden frame on each door hole, and the arch on the girders is decorated with reliefs.

The great mosque of Samarra is an Iraqi type. An innovation of the layout of the Muslim architecture was found in the great mosque of Samarra that is the great mosque of Samarra no longer connected the government palaces.


To suitable with the size of the huge enclosure, the haram was nine bays deep, and the Riwaq consisted of four rows along the long side of the courtyard. Moreover, the short side (the entrance side) only had three rows. There is a side-circle courtyard in the middle. It is 145 meters long and 100 meters wide. The side hall is oriented towards Mecca. That was designed depending on the Qur’an, believers must head towards Mecca.  Samara located north of Mecca. So, the centre of the entire mosque, the temple of worship is located on the south side of the monastery. The size of the temple is also the largest in the world.

The prayer hall

The great mosque of Samarra had a deep prayer hall. The prayer hall had twenty-five naves supported by the octagonal pillars and marble columns at the four corners.  At the same time, there are no arches connected to the pillars. Meanwhile, they used the wooden beams as the timber framework in the prayer hall to support the roof. The flat root was of teakwood beams, there are still standing on the outside of the facade.  The main prayer room contains twenty-five aisles and these all perpendicular to the qibla wall. The central aisle was a little wider than the others. And surround the Sahn (the courtyard) were Riwaqs had different depths, on the eastern and western sides there are four aisles and, on the north, only three. All enclosing walls, including that of the qibla, had sixteen doors totally. Because of the immensity of the mosque area. Large square piers of the burnt brick were totally destroyed, they were used to support a wooden roof. On the east, west and north the mosque was surrounded by courtyards, (Ziyadas) and the whole complex thus obtained was again placed within a larger enclosure of great dimensions.

The Mihrab

In the centre of Mecca facing the other side, there is a small god as a symbol, called “Mihrab.” The mihrab was a rectangular niche (a characteristic of the early Mesopotamian mosques) – defined by superposed arches supported by marble columns. Mihrab was in the centre of the Mosque, that was only a little bit wider than others. The mihrab was richly decorated, and it formed the fragments of gold mosaic on the spandrels. In the Great Mosque of Samarra, the Mihrab adopt rectangular shape instead of the round shape.  Furthermore, it supported by two pairs of rose colour marble columns from Aintab. They were put on the clock shape bases and two concentric arches set in a rectangular frame had the same height as the mosque.  And the spandrels had traces of gold mosaic.


Although, the great mosque of Samarra was destroyed. We still can find the wreckage of the columns in the plan of the great mosque of Samarra. Through that, the layout of the great mosque of Samarra replaced from a square shape to regular.  In the interior of the Great Mosque of Samarra, the ceiling height is 11m.  And the single row of the windows on the wall may give enough illumination supply. The roof is flat rectangular shape supported by the larger baked bricks. These baked bricks were connected with each other. Half of the Great Mosque of Samarra is covered by a wooden roof supported by 464 pillars. The pillars of the temple are complex, with marble octagonal brick columns and a pilaster on each side. The column directly supports the flat roof of the wooden structure. The mosaics originally set on these wooden tops and walls. In the construction method also had a huge change in the Great Mosque of Samarra. To increase the stability, the row of pillars was connected by a continuous brick slab on the foundation level. The foundation of the walls situated on and supported by the solid rock. both had large central peg holes in which bronze or iron pegs connected the stacked segments. the gap between both supporting surfaces had also been filled with molten lead and a number of smaller peg holes on the outside of the base showed that the joint between two shafts was stabilized by a metal ring. In the great mosque of Samarra applied load-bearing wall system.


In the great mosque of Samarra, the minaret is the most famous and spectacular building. The minaret has already become one symbol of the great mosque today. The unique spiral shape of the minaret is the most eye-catching features. It has a high artistic value and historical and cultural value. The minaret of the great mosque was constructed in 848-852. The minaret of the great mosque of Samarra, also known as the Malwiya Minaret stands in the square of the great mosque of Samarra. The minaret stands apart from the north wall, located 90 feet from the north side of the mosque and faced to the gate. Its axis coincides with the mosque. And it connected the mosque by a bridge originally. The total Hight of the minaret more than 165 feet. The basement of the minaret is a square shape 30 meters long for the side length and two floors high. On the upper platform of the basement, there is a huge cylindrical tower, which is thinner as it goes up. The spiral stairway around the circle to the small round hall at the top of the tower. This unique shape of minaret combined the architectural style of the Assyrian temple tower and influenced by the observatory built by the Sumerians. That revealed a pristine ancient beauty and reappears the ancient Mesopotamian tower. Meanwhile, the spiral shape of the minaret was designed for an external spiral ramp and modelled on the Babylonian ziggurat. On the top of the minaret was a cylindrical shape room with niches, and supported by the wooden pavilion.  The spiral shape of minaret of the great mosque is unusual in Islamic architecture. Additionally, it is the first time in Islamic history, a new style reflecting the contribution of external influences was created.

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The spiral minaret and the great mosque of Samarra made a huge contrast, made the tower more upright. But the material and the decoration used in the minaret were consistent with the entire mosque. It made harmonious and unified. High and low, peaceful, chaotic and magnificent, strange and regular, contrasting and contrasting, made the Samara Grand Mosque extraordinary and magnificent, showing the great appeal and cohesion of Islam. Perhaps this design also means that the caliphate at the time declared the ambition of establishing a world-wide empire hegemony. And the reason for the unique spiral shape of the minaret is the minaret of most mosques in the world was built the stairs interior, but the stairs of the minaret of the great mosque of Samarra was built outside of the minaret and hovering up. This unique shape also came form is the embodiment of the fantasy of the desert people.

The Decoration

The decoration used in the great mosque of Samarra can be seen as experimentation of architecture. Some decorations were used in the great mosque of Samarra that was first time appearance in Muslim history.  This new style of decoration mixed foreign sources, no longer purely local tradition, created a kind of special decorative style in the great mosque of Samarra. For the decoration in the great mosque of Samarra, they used stucco and carved wood to decorate the mosque. These decorations used in residential buildings widely before, but practically not found in Muslim architecture. The Stucco decoration was found to be used in the mihrab and the exterior facades in the great mosque of Samarra. The walls between the semicircular buttress have a large frieze which made by a recessed square with a shallow saucer-shaped medallion. And covered with stucco and elaborate detailing.

In Samarra, a special kind of stucco decoration was being used and that known as the “Samarra style”. This kind of Stucco decoration is more deserve to Islamic. The technic of making the “Samarra style” stucco was different from the other two styles. The “Samarra style” stucco was made with the model and carve. The carving aimed to produce sloping margins known as bevelled carving. In addition, the vegetal theme was popular in the “Samarra style” stucco decoration like acanthus leaves, blossoms, twining tendrils. The “Samarra style” spared to the whole central Asia by the massive presence of Turks in the army of the Abbasid caliphs. The “Samarra style” influenced central Asia by the Abbasid culture.

simultaneously, in the excavations of the great mosque of Samarra, archaeologist found a large amount of the application of mosaic. The mosaic decoration of the great mosque of Samarra could contend that of the great mosque of Damascus. Some of the decoration in the great mosque of Samara can be used as important evidence in the development of the Islamic aesthete.


However, the dimension of the great mosque of Samarra was immense, it was the largest mosque in the world. It was used a primitive form of the earlier mosques of Iraq. Meanwhile, the innovation of layout was used in the great mosque of Samara. The great mosque of Samarra adopted the new rectangular shape. At the same time, the appearance of the rectangular shape layout influenced the mosque in future. Additionally, the decoration applied in the great mosque of Samarra can be used as strong evidence to excavation the decoration development in the Muslim architecture in the Abbasid Caliphate period. The geometric pattern and mosaic used in the great mosque of Samarra. And a large amount of mosaic, gold, marble used in the mosque. Even today, the survived minaret was the first-time spiral shape used in Islamic architecture history. Moreover, this also can be seen as a result of the architecture influenced by the changing of society and the location. The materials used in the great mosque of Samarra mixed sun-dried brick and baked brick, and the roof was made by wood. In the mihrab used marble and gold.  Furthermore, from the study of the Great Mosque of Samarra also proved how the decoration spared to the other parts in the world.


  • Creswell, K.A.C, “The Great Mosque of Samarra”. In A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture, revised and supplemented by James W. Allan, Scolar Press, 1989, 359-365.
  • Frishman, Martin. Khan, Hasan-Uddin. Al-Asad, Mohammad, “The Central Arab lands”, The mosque: history, architectural development & regional diversity, New York: Thames and Hudson, c1994,77-99.
  • Kuban, Doğan, “The Early ‘Abbasids’.  Muslim religious Architecture Part 1 The Mosque and Its Early Development, Leiden, Brill, 1974, 12-24.
  • Leisten, Thomas. “Mosques and Tombs: The Great Mosque of al-Mutawakkil in Samarra.” In Excavation of Samarra, Volume I, Architecture, Final Report of the First Campaign 1910-1912, Germany: Philipp von Zabern, 2003, 33-55.
  • Scerrato, Umberto, Ettinghausen, Richard. “Architecture of The Abbasid Empire”, monuments of civilization Islam. London: Cassell, 1976, 31-38.

[1] Umberto, Scerrato and Richard, Ettinghausen. Islam. (London: Cassell, 1976). 31-38

[2] Martin, Fishman. Hasan-Uddin, Khan. And Mohammad, Al-Asad. (The mosque: History, Architectural Development & Regional Diversity (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994). 77-99


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