A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

When Raqqa was the Capital of a Real Caliph: Harun al-Rashid

The glories of Baghdad during the reign of the ‘Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid have been much celebrated and elaborated upon in the tales of the 1001 Nights, so his reign is generally identified with the great period of Baghdad's glories. Yet of the 23 solar years, 786-809 AD, of Harun's Caliphate, for 13 of those he reigned not from Baghdad, but from Raqqa on the Euphrates. Long before Raqqa served as the capital of ISIS' self-declared "Caliphate," it was the capital of the ‘Abbasids when they ruled most of the Islamic world (except Umayyad Spain).

With the announcement today that Raqqa has fallen to the Syrian Democratic Forces (mainly the Kurdish YPG), it may be worth remembering Raqqa's previous glories. The Islamic State most likely chose Raqqa as its capital because it was one of the few cities it controlled, but it was surely aware of its role as a onetime Caliphal capital.

Raqqa was an ancient foundation, known in classical times as Kallinikos. Harun was the fifth ‘Abbasid Caliph. His grandfather the second ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur (Harun's father and brother had reigned between the two), who was the real founder of Baghdad, noticed the attractive elements of Raqqa and founded a suburb he named al-Rafiqa ("the companion"). Though proud of his great new Round City of Baghdad, al-Mansur adopted Rafiqa as the ‘Abbasid summer capital. (For the nitpickers: I know Mansur did not found "Baghdad," the Persian name for the village on the Tigris which preceded Mansur's city, which was officially named Madinat al-Salam, the City of Peace. But everyone called it by the older name. Al-Mansur's Round City, until destroyed by the Mongols in 1258, lay where the al-Mansur neighborhood of modern Baghdad is today.)

In 796 AD, ten solar years into his Caliphate, Harun moved his administrative capital to Raqqa, though the state bureaucracy mostly remained in Baghdad. Many of the descriptions (mostly anachronistic) of the glories of Harun's Baghdad refer to Raqqa, where outside the view of the religious establishment and the Baghdad populace, Harun was more free to indulge his penchants for horse-racing, wine, and other pleasures. Some of the songs/poems in the Kitab al-Aghani refer to the pleasures of Harun's place at Raqqa.

Not much remains of ‘Abbasid-era Raqqa, even before ISIS and the fight to retake the city. Some ancient walls and the Baghdad Gate at left, less whatever damage ISIS and the air and artillery assaults on the city may have destroyed.

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