In 806, the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid and his troops rode west from north-central Syria to conquer the key Byzantine city of Heradea, in southwestern Anatolia. In the eyes of the 10th-century historian al-Tabari, the 13th-century geographer Yaqut al-Hamwi and—those scholars wrote—of Harun al-Rashid himself, the victory was the greatest of many in a career that marked both the zenith of Abbasid power and the beginning of its gradual decline.
The caliph and his troops had departed from Raqqa, near the banks of the Euphrates, whose Islamic city had been founded by al-Rashid's grandfather, Caliph Abu Ja'far al-Mansur.
Raqqa had been a provincial center until al-Rashid, at age 30, moved his capital there from Baghdad in 796.
With Abbasid trade routes stretching all the way from China to North Africa, the 47-year-old empire was wealthy enough to begin to challenge the Byzantine Empire at its eastern fringes. But it was near those borders, too, that al-Rashid faced disputes among rival Arab factions. His move to Raqqa was also intended to put a lid on those quarrels. Each summer, his armies marched from the new capital at Raqqa to mount, in the name of Islam, the border campaigns that brought al-Rashid much of his fame.
Following his great victory at Heraclea, al-Rashid commissioned the building of a structure that he called Haraqlah. Its purpose has been a mystery until recently. Only two years after his victory, al-Rashid quit Raqqa for Persia, where uprisings in the eastern empire threatened its unity. Baghdad once again became the Abbasid capital, and al-Rashid died a year later, in 809.
More than a millennium was to pass before a German traveler, Ernst Sachau, became in 1856 the first Westerner to set eyes on al-Rashid's monumental structure. The first archeological survey of Haraqlah was undertaken five decades later, in 1907, by E.D. Herzfeld, who theorized that it was an unfinished fortress named after the caliph's signal victory, as several earlier Arab writers had surmised. Herzfeld reasoned that, because al-Rashid had spent only two years in Raqqa following his victory, a fortress on such a grand scale would have been impossible to complete.
Archeologist Kassem Toueir of the Syrian Antiquities Department, however, maintains that the structure is not a fortress at all, but rather a massive, and largely complete, victory platform—the only known structure of its kind in the history of Islamic architecture.
Each summer from 1966 to 1990, Toueir excavated two sites at Raqqa: Haraqlah and a castle, its original name unknown, locally called Qasr al-Banat, or Castle of the Girls. From August to mid-October each year, Toueir made his headquarters in a mud-brick house without electricity or running water, adjacent to Haraqlah; visiting archeologists and archeology students from throughout the Middle East, Europe and North America often slept on the roof.
During his first seasons, Toueir believed the castle was a residence dating from the 12th or 13th centuries and built by the Okaylid Arabs, allies of the Seljuk Turks. In 1986, however, soundings revealed that it had been constructed on undisturbed soil at the same archeological level as Raqqa itself, and must therefore also date to the time of Caliph al-Mansur. Thus, Toueir found, the castle predates Haraqlah and offers an example of the architecture of al-Mansur's time equal in its rarity to Haraqlah itself.
Over almost three decades, Toueir's interpretations of the sites have grown with his knowledge, and Raqqa has become the pride of his career. Standing in front of the city-block-sized Haraqlah platform, he spreads his arms as if to symbolize the extent and power of the bygone Abbasid empire.
During the 12-year period that al-Rashid's court sat at Raqqa, Toueir speculated, Raqqa was one of the most culturally active places in the world, the center of the East's richest empire.
"What a center it must have been," he commented, "with architects, artisans and workers constructing the platform while al-Rashid's artists, poets and musicians entertained. It is said that the beauty the poets created for him in words, he constructed in stone.
"Raqqa is unique," he continued, because all other examples of the legendary structures built in Baghdad by al-Rashid or his grandfather al-Mansur have long ago disappeared beneath the sprawling modern city.
A small, intense man, Toueir is one of the fortunate few able to pursue a career that is also his consuming passion. In 1956, one of the top five students in all of Syria, he won a scholarship to study his favorite subject—Islamic archeology—in Berlin. He returned to Damascus in 1963 with an international outlook, perfect German and a Teutonic work ethic that made him one of the most respected scholars at the Syrian Department of Antiquities for more than three decades. He retired from his post as deputy director of antiquities in 1994 with accolades from archeologists around the world.
Toueir's investigations have illuminated not only the architectural designs but also the masonry techniques and decorative motifs that Harun al-Rashid preferred. Haraqlah is best described as a massive, flat, square structure just over three meters (10 feet) high; it had a tower of unknown height on each of its four corners. Its purpose, Toueir says, was to serve as a grand display site for ceremonies honoring the caliph's victory. No evidence of other functions has been found, and due to al-Rashid's hasty departure from Raqqa, it is unlikely that it was ever used.
"Not only is Haraqlah the only remnant of a victory platform in Islamic architecture, but its gate rooms, built of cut gypsum stone, are unique in this region where mud brick was the norm," he said.
Several seasons into excavating, Toueir ruled out the theory that the enormous platform had been intended as the foundation of a palace. He reached this conclusion after several tons of earth were removed from inside the platform and dividing walls were discovered.
The walls were coffers, Toueir believes. "They clearly didn't demarcate rooms, because there were no windows or doors. Furthermore, the cubicles had intentionally been filled with dirt," he commented. "We believe al-Rashid's architects were aware that the pressure of so large a mass of earth would eventually buckle the outer walls. Their solution was to install dividing walls to strengthen the structure and alleviate the pressure. Al-Rashid wanted a victory monument that would withstand time, earthquakes and even inundation by the Euphrates River."
The Haraqlah platform is enclosed by a monumental circular wall half a kilometer (500 yards) in diameter with four gates, each facing one of the cardinal directions. Each gate also enclosed a differently-shaped room—circular, hexagonal, square and octagonal—which constitute another of Raqqa's mysteries. The conjunction of these shapes is only known at Raqqa and is without precedent in Islamic architecture; Toueir believes the rooms may be linked with numerological symbolism common in Old Egyptian, East Indian and pre-Islamic architecture of the Near East—but not known to be an aspect of Islamic architecture.
Qasr al-Banat, Toueir's second project, represents the Syrian Antiquities Department's first effort to follow excavation with reconstruction. Each season of excavation has brought forth colored and glazed stucco window grids, wall paintings, stone carvings and the remnants of stalactite domes. An octagonal fountain was discovered in a courtyard paved with blue-glazed tiles. Terracotta drainage pipes have been uncovered beneath floor surfaces. As a residential building, Toueir said, Qasr al-Banat is unique: "The only other existing structures of its period are mosques, hospitals and schools."
A perfectionist, Toueir decided that if the reconstruction project was to be carried out properly, the bricks used must be not only replicas of the originals, but should be manufactured using the same materials, methods and forms as those used in the eighth and ninth centuries. His team made casts of the original square bricks and constructed kilns according to Abbasid drawings and written descriptions.
Euphrates mud was mixed with sand and straw and left to dry in the molds for two or three days before firing, Toueir explained. "At first, we used diesel oil for fuel, but it didn't produce the desired texture of brick, so we increased firing temperatures by adding sawdust and sheep manure."
Toueir even shunned thermometers. Technicians peered through a window in the oven to determine when the bricks glowed to the particular hue of red that indicated "ripeness."
Bricks produced by these kilns have also been used in restoring Raqqa's eighth-century city wall and the mosque built by al-Mansur. Originally covering a square 100 meters (320 feet) on a side, the mosque is the second-largest in Syria, and plans are under way to reconstruct it as a public place of prayer nearly 750 years after its destruction by the Mongols.
Toueir's reconstruction efforts have reproduced the entire five-kilometer (3-mile) length of the wall to a height of 12 meters (38 feet). Illuminated at night, the wall is a stirring sight, especially seen from the Baghdad Gate, in the only portion of the original wall that did not require extensive restoration.
The Antiquities Department spotlighted these ambitious projects with an international archeological symposium at Raqqa in October 1981. But before the conference convened, local leaders decided that, if renowned experts were to visit their city, they must have a museum ready to display the thousands of artifacts that had been excavated over the past century.
And so, two months before the symposium was to open, a group of Raqqa citizens brought their idea to Toueir.
"I was fired by their enthusiasm," Toueir recalled. "Qasr al-Banat was planned to be used as a museum, but would not be ready in time. So I walked the streets of Raqqa looking for an appropriate building. I found a saray built in 1924 that was perfect." It was one of a series of administrative buildings constructed under Tajed-din Husseini, the first Syrian president to serve during the French Mandate.
"We regard the building as a symbol of Syrian nationalism," Toueir noted, "of our desire for political and architectural independence. Its porticoes and Arab arches are representative of Arab-Islamic architecture." Toueir met the same evening with the governor of Raqqa, who agreed to the proposal.
Islamic coins, carved stucco sculpture and, above all, the famous "Raqqa-ware"—prized for its black painting under turquoise luster glaze—are all on display at the temporary museum. Terracotta sculptures from Tell Mureibit and objects from other regional sites, some going back to the fourth millennium BC, will be on view at Qasr al-Banat once it is prepared to house exhibitions.
The significance of the Raqqa discoveries has also won attention for the archeological field-training school Toueir established in 1976. Teaching comes easily to Toueir, perhaps because he grew up as the oldest of 19 children. Graduate students from France, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Lebanon, the United States and, of course, Syria have learned excavation techniques at Raqqa.
But in his years at Haraqlah, Toueir has faced one problem few archeologists ever encounter. He cannot find anyone to work as a guard for Harun al-Rashid's monumental terrace. The present citizens of Raqqa insist it is haunted, and they have a modern legend to back up their claim.
The story goes that in the early 1970's a guard killed a snake at Haraqlah. The same day, an official-looking car came to his home, and its uniformed driver told the guard he must come to town for questioning. Instead of heading for town, however, the driver turned the car toward Haraqlah.
The guard was escorted into the underground chambers of the platform, he said, where a crowd rushed at him and one woman screamed, "There he is! That's the man who killed my son!" At this point, the horrified guard saw that the faces of the people surrounding him were not human but snake-like.
For three hours the guard was tried before a judge who finally acquitted him on the grounds of self-defense. He was returned in the same car to his home, where he fell unconscious for three days. He only told the story once, and never uttered another word about the incident until his untimely death.
Since then, no one has accepted guard duty at Haraqlah.
"I've taken my students there and we've slept on the ruins," Toueir says. "We didn't see so much as a night crawler—but that hasn't convinced anyone."
Pat McDonnell Twair, now a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles, worked as a journalist in Syria for six years.