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Our history



Raqqa lies at the confluence of the Euphrates and the Balikh River, a tributary flowing from the North. The earliest settlement in the area dates back to prehistoric times: Tall Zaidan, situated east of the modern city, which existed from the 6th to the 4th millennium BC. This archaeological site revealed layers from the Halaf culture (6000-5000 BC) and the Chalcolithic Ubaid culture (5000-4000 BC).

Tuttul / Tall Bi’a

In historical, ancient oriental times the city of Tuttul, nowadays known as Tall Bi’a, became an important crossing-point of trading routes between Aleppo - and the Mediterranean - in the west, Mari in the east, Qatna (near Homs) in the south-west and the north along the Balikh valley.

A large city-wall, palaces, a vast settlement and probably even a harbour connected with the Euphrates are witnesses of that thriving time in the 3rd and the first half of the 2nd millennium BC.

Tuttul belonged to the kingdom of Mari.

From the beginning of the 6th century AD at least two Christian monasteries existed in Raqqa, one of them on the Tall Bi’a: Dair Zakka. It was archaeologically investigated and revealed a large monastic complex of some 2500 m² with mosaics in some rooms. Two of these mosaics even give dates: the years 509 and 595. They are still preserved in the store-rooms of the museum.

Kallinikos, Leontupolis, Nikephorion

In Hellenistic times, around 300 BC, a new city was built south of Tall Bi’a and called Nikephorion („The Victorious“) in what today is known as Mishlab. Until the Islamic conquest Raqqa mostly belonged to the Byzantine Empire, but was also under Sasanian rule; it was protected by a city-wall with towers. Depending on the respective rulers the town changed its name several times. In Greek and Latin sources it was called Kallinikos, Leontupolis, perhaps even Konstanteia, and Nikephorion.


In the year 636-7 Kallinikos was conquered by Arab troops for the first time and again in 639. The city was re-named ar-Raqqa. In its centre was the large Friday mosque (The Umayyad Mosque) with a square minaret that was still standing at the beginning of the 20th century, as photos of scholars and travellers witness. The mosque itself was at least partly built with ancient capitals and columns. Some of these were later used as gravestones in the cemetery around the Mausoleum of Uwais al-Qarani. Although the mosque itself is long gone its irregular outline was still preserved in the courtyard of a secondary school.

Minaret of the Mosque of ar-Raqqa/Kallinikos (Max von Oppenheim, 1913)


Finally, in 771/2 the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur ordered the foundation of a new garrison town west of ar-Raqqa, named ar-Rafiqa, “the companion of ar-Raqqa”. This name, however, apparently wasn’t accepted, because already a very short time later the double-city was mostly called „the two Raqqas“, until at last only ar-Raqqa remained. Eventually it became the largest urban unit apart from Baghdad - even larger than Damascus.

The horseshoe-shaped city-wall of ar-Rafiqa with a total length of 4,5 km is a characteristic feature. It had a rectangular grid of streets with the Friday Mosque (The Great Mosque) in its centre. In the direct vicinity must have been the palace of the caliph and his representatives, but so far there were no architectural traces found. An implicit hint might be the large quantities of high-quality ceramics of the so-called Raqqa-ware which were confiscated or sold after illegal excavations since the end of the 19th century.

25 years later, the most famous of all Abbasid caliphs, Harun ar-Rashid, made Raqqa his new residence and moved his capital from Baghdad to the west to be easier able to fight the Byzantine Empire. This resulted in the move of the entire court and in the erection of an enormous palace-area of some 10 ha north and north-east of the twin-city. Around 20 large building complexes could be identified and some of these were archaeologically examined.

Luckily the whole area was documented several times in aerial photos - the first as early as 1924 - where buildings, canals, streets and even a racecourse for horses could be identified. On the ground it is extremely difficult to discern the walls from the surrounding soil due to the bad preservation of the simple mudbrick walls.

The water supply for this area was secured by two canals from the north and the west. The Nahr an-Nil brought water from west of Hiraqla, the north canal from the Balikh valley. All the larger palaces had their own water connections to the canals.

The wealth of Raqqa at that time resulted not only from agriculture - Raqqa was famous for its olive trees and vine - but also for its excellent soap and its slave market, where up to 6.000 slaves could be sold. Among them was even the Bishop of Cyprus who brought 2.000 dinar! From later historical texts we know that in the very fertile Balikh valley mulberry trees were grown to allow for the rearing of silkworms and the production of silk. Apart from that Raqqa had a large and important inland port, but its location is unknown and has yet to be found.

Decline and Bedouin domination

For some decades Raqqa remained an important garrison town under an Abbasid governor, but by the end of the 9th century the problems of the Abbasid Empire also affected the town. This resulted in economic difficulties and the population decreased followed by a gradual diminishment of the urban area.

Under Hamdanid rule Raqqa and the Djazira were ruthlessly exploited which led to further decline. At the beginning of the 10th century Bedouin tribes from the Arabian Peninsula reached the Djazira and established local nomad dominions. Thus 100 years later Raqqa came under Numairid control. They had no “urban” ambitions but there is archaeological evidence of some restorations in the Great Mosque, but soon given up.

The situation improved under the rule of the Zangids of Qal’at Gabar, in the 2nd half of the 11th century when agriculture and trade recovered, resulting in new building or restoration projects. The erection of the Qasr al-Banat, of the Baghdad gate and of the minaret of the Great Mosque are dated to that time. The old pottery tradition was revived and the so-called Raqqa Ware became an international top-seller!

After the Mongol invasion Raqqa and the whole area were devastated and for centuries no one lived here. From the 16th century Raqqa became a small Ottoman settlement with a harbour. Later sources even speak of a “beautiful” and an “old castle”, possibly the Qasr al-Banat. The following centuries were marked by the permanent conflict between nomads and Ottoman government.

View of Raqqa from the South Banks of the Euphrates (after F.R. Chesney)

Modern History: 19th and early 20th century

After a military expedition in September / November 1864 the Euphrates valley was once again under Ottoman rule and a military outpost was installed in the south-west corner of the city-wall. Presumably at the same time the Saray was built, the predecessor of today’s Museum building. Around the turn of the century the inhabitants of the small settlement lived on trade with Bedouins, the cultivation of liquorice (between Tall Zaidan and Raqqa) and illicit trade with antiques.

Shortly before World War I about 300 families lived here, mostly west of the city-wall. The village had a mosque, a small suq, a café, mail and telegraph, the military post and the branch of a liquorice factory. In the post-war confusion the notability of Raqqa, together with ambitious Bedouin sheikhs proclaimed the independence of the town and the erection of an own state. After more than one year of complicated negotiations and military actions the conflict ended with an agreement on the line of the border, and Raqqa came under French mandate.

A major improvement was the replacement of the old Euphrates ferries and the building of an iron bridge, executed by British military in 1942. The access to the city became easier and quicker which improved infrastructure and trade. Finally, on April 17th 1946, Syria became independent.

Scientific work in and on Raqqa

The Islamic city was investigated scientifically from the 1940ies on, after scholars like Gertrude Bell, Friedrich Sarre and Ernst Herzfeld had visited the site already at the beginning of the century and documented its standing monuments, like the Great Mosque, the Qasr al-Banat, the Baghdad gate, the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Mishlab, and the city-wall. But they all failed to recognise the vast ruins outside of the town, due to their bad preservation. In 1944 the young Nasib Saliby of the Syrian Antiquities Department was commissioned with the task of excavating promising parts of the Palace area, after evaluation of the aerial photos.

The Syrian Antiquities Department DGAM continued work at various places inside and outside the quickly growing town. The “Raqqa specialists” Nasib Saliby and Kassem Toueir researched Palaces A, B and C, the Great Mosque, the Qasr al-Banat and the City Wall until the 1960ies. Its engagement in restoring the city-wall won the Raqqa Department of Antiquities international appreciation.

West of the town Kassem Toueir examined the impressive ruins of Hiraqla and wrote about the results in several scientific publications.

From 1980-1995 the German Oriental Society (DOG) conducted excavations at Tall Bi’a, led by Eva Strommenger. The results of this investigation are published in several large volumes.

From 1981-1994 the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) in Damascus continued the excavations of the early Islamic period in the Palace area. In cooperation with the local Antiquities Department the cistern of the Great Mosque was excavated as well as the Northern Gate of the city-wall, and a complete survey of the remains of the wall was carried out.

In the 1990ies a British team from the University of Sheffield under Julian Henderson researched the early Islamic industrial area “between the two Raqqas”, where pottery, glass and glace production took place, Tall Fuhhar and Tall Zugag.

Discover the history of the museum