site located on the eastern (left) or Mesopotamian (Syrian Jezireh) bank of the Upper Euphrates River, where the river meets its tributary, the Balikh River. Facing Deir az-Zor, Mari is to the east and Hama to the west; facing Harran, to the north, Palmyra is to the south- southwest.
Today, ar-Raqqa is the capital of the governorate of ar-Raqqa, one of fourteen that constitute the Syrian Arab Republic. The name is as old as the Islamic domination of Syria: the area was peacefully conquered by ῾Iyad ibn Ganm In ah 18/638–639 CE.
Medieval Muslim historians such as al-Baladhuri and geographers such as Yaqut used its post-Islamic name, whose Arabic meaning corresponds to its topography: according to Yaqut, it means “flat land, marshland, or soft land.” In fact, the city is situated on the flat, soft, partial marshland of the Euphrates Valley. Ar-Raqqa is identified with a pre-Islamic city known by three different names—Nicephorion, Callinicos, and Leontopolis—and most probably founded during the Seleucid era (third century CE). Cuneiform texts from Mari (second millennium BCE) had situated the city of Tutul at the same site. It is commonly believed that Tutul must be identified with Tell Bi῾a, 800 m north of ar-Raqqa (see below). Recent discoveries at the tell itself In 1990 confirmed this identification.
Between AH 18/638 CE and AH 155/772 CE, the only major architectural changes at the site were the building of a Friday mosque, markets, and probably some extramural extensions. In AH 155/772 CE, the ῾Abbasid caliph Abu Ja῾far al-Manṣur, after having built the round city of Baghdad as a new capital of the caliphate, ordered a similar city built west of old ar- Raqqa/Nicephorion. He named it ar-Rafiqa (“the companion”). His grandson, Harun al-Rashid, made ar- Rafiqa/ar-Raqqa his permanent residence for thirteen years (AH 180–192/796–809 CE). During this period, the sister cities witnessed an urban explosion. The area north of them became residential, full of spacious palaces and mansions for the caliph Harun ar-Rashid and members of his family and court. A large canal, 16 km (10 mi.) long, which terminates in marshes near the Balikh River, was dug to carry water from the Euphrates to the area.
After some periods of instability, the city was revived under the Zangid Atabeg Nur ad-Din and the Ayyubids in the twelfth- thirteenth centuries CE. The fourteenth-century geographer Abu al-Fida' reported that In 1258 the Mongols devastated ar-Raqqa.
European travelers began visiting ar-Raqqa in the sixteenth century. The first archaeological exploration there was conducted In 1907 by the German scholars Frederich Sarre and Ernst Herzfeld, who photographed and sketched its ruins. The French Geographical Institute took the first aerial photographs In 1924, introducing scholars to the palaces of Harun ar-Rashid and the course of the canal. The first archaeological excavation carried out in ar-Raqqa was by Maurice Dunand and Raymond Duru (1944–1945). They unveiled the northeastern part of a representative building labeled palace A, which lay about 400 m north of the city wall (see below). Between 1966 and 1970, Kassem Toueir of the Department of Antiquities and Museums of Syria resumed the excavation of palace A. This rectangular building (140 × 110 m) is oriented east–west and has annexes on the south. It is constructed of mud brick and whitish limestone plaster. On the west are corner towers, buttresses, and a gate. The coins found refer to Harun al-Rashid and his successor, al-Ma'mun (early ninth century CE). Thin-walled subdivisions of rooms and halls indicate a rehabitation in the twelfth-thirteenth centuries.
Between 1950 and 1954, Nassib Saliby, also for the Department of Antiquities, excavated three palaces (B–D) some 1,200 m northeast of the city wall that resemble palace A. A painted inscription in palace B is attributed to the son of Harun al-Rashid, al- Mu῾taṣim.
Beginning In 1982, Michael Meinecke of the German Archaeological Institute, Damascus, excavated three palaces some 800 m north of the city wall that are similar to palaces A–D and also show evidence of rehabitation in the twelfth-thirteenth centuries. Between 1977 and 1990 Kassem Toueir excavated and restored the Qaṣr al-Banat, a palace of the period of Harun al-Rashid in the southeastern part of ar-Rafiqa. The building, whose perimeter has not yet been revealed, is constructed entirely of baked bricks and consists of a central courtyard with fountains in the middle that are shaped like eight-pointed stars. Four iwans open to the four sides of the courtyard. The building was erected on virgin soil, which dates it to the foundation of the city In 772 CE or shortly afterward. It was reused in the twelfth–thirteenth centuries as a storehouse and workshop for producing glazed Raqqa ware.
The Great Mosque (108 × 92 m), in the northern part of the city, within the city wall, was also erected when the city was founded. Built of mud brick with a baked-brick coating on the outer faces of its walls, it is the second-largest mosque in Syria (after the Umayyad mosque in Damascus). Its square courtyard and the round towers buttressing its corners and sides follow the Iraqi model, but its three-aisled division and its prayer hall's gabled roofing follow the Syrian type (Damascus mosque).
The Department of Antiquities is also clearing and restoring the unique horseshoe-shaped city wall (1,500 × 1,500 m) with its double enceinte and intervallum. The wall, the only surviving one of the Early ῾Abbasid period, is massive, buttressed with round towers at regular distances, and built of mud brick with baked-brick coating. The outer wall was thinner than the inner one. The only surviving gate on the outer wall, known as the Gate of Baghdad, is in the southeastern corner. It is constructed entirely of baked brick and is richly decorated in the Hazarbaff technique (arranging bricks in the face of a wall in a way that creates an ornamental design). The outer wall has disappeared since 1980, but its original height, if it followed the Baghdad example, would have been about 20 m.
In 1983, Kay Kohlmeyer, on behalf of the Department of Antiquities and the German Institute made soundings in the area of old ar-Raqqa/Nicephorion, currently the suburb al-Mašlab, in order to observe its pre-Islamic rectangular city wall (1,200 × 650 m). The wall is 2.5 m thick and built of baked brick. It dates to the time of Justinian (first half of the sixth century).
Since 1980, Eva Strommenger (1981) has been excavating at Tell Bi῾a, some 800 m north of ar-Raqqa/Nicephorion. In addition to unveiling third- and second-millennium BCE material in the 1990 season (including part of a royal palace similar in plan to the palace at Mari and cuneiform tablets confirming identification of Tell Bi῾a with Tutul), she uncovered two mosaic pavements with Syriac inscriptions referring to the building of a Christian monastery (sixth century), which is, perhaps, to be identified with the much-celebrated Early ῾Abbasid church/convent of Dayr Zakkai (Krebernik, 1991, 1993).
[See also ῾Abbasid Caliphate.]
For the history of Islamic Ar-Raqqa, the reader may consult Jacut's Geographisches Wörterbuch, edited by Ferdinand Wüstenfeld (Leipzig, 1866–); Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā Balādurī, The Origins of the Islamic State, translated by Philip K. Hitti (New York, 1916); and Muḥammad al-Ṭabarī, Kitāb ahbār ar-rusūl wa-al-mulūk, vol. 2 (1879). The reconstruction of Ar-Raqqa is covered in Friedrich P. T. Sarre and Ernst Herzfeld, Archäologische Reise im Euphrat- und Tigris-begiet, 4 vols. (Berlin, 1911–1920), and K. A. C. Creswell, Early Muslim Architecture, vol. 2 (Oxford, 1940). For excavation reports, see Nassib Saliby, “Rapport préliminaire sur la deuxième campagne (automne 1952) de fouilles à Raqqa,” Annales Archéologiques Arabes Syriennes 4–5 (1954–1955): 205–212; and the following articles from Damaszener Mitteilungen 2 (1985): Jan-Christoph Heusch and Michael Meinecke, “Grabungen im ῾abbāsidischen Palastareal von ar-Raqqa/ar-Rāfiqa, 1982–1983” (pp. 85–105); Murhaf al-Khalaf and Kay Kohlmeyer, “Untersuchungen zur ar- Raqqa-Nikephorion/callinicum” (pp. 133–162); Kassem Toueir, “Der Qaṣr al-Banāt in ar-Raqqa: Ausgrabung, Rekonstruktion und Wiederaufbau, 1977–1982” (pp. 297–319); and Murhaf al-Khalaf, “Der ῾abbāsidische Stadtmauer von ar-Raqqa/ar-Rāfiqa mit einem Beitrag von Norbert Hagen” (pp. 123–131). Tell Bi῾a is discussed in Eva Strommenger, “Die archäologischen Forshungen in Tall Bi῾a, 1980,” Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft (MDOG) 113 (1981): 23–34, and “Ausgrabungen in Tall Bi῾a 1990,” MDOG 123 (1991): 7–34; in addition, the mosaic and Syriac inscriptions and cuneiform tablets of Tell Bi῾a were published by Manfred Krebernik, “Schriftfunde aus Tall Bi῾a,” MDOG 123 (1991): 41–70, 125 (1993): 51–60. Kay Kohlmeyer discusses the statements of pre-Islamic historians and European travelers in the survey, “Untersuchungen zu ar-Raqqa/Nikephorion/Calinicum,” Damaszener Mitteilungen 2 (1985): 146–161.