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Samarra and the Art of the Abbasids

Situated some 125 kilometres north of Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris, the city of Samarra in modern-day Iraq is one of the principal sites of Islamic art history and archaeology. This is where the first systematic excavations ever to be undertaken on Islamic ruins were held, thus giving rise to the field of Islamic archaeology. The city served as the temporary seat of the Abbasid caliphs from 836 to 883 and replaced the actual capital of Baghdad during this time. The most important and largest empire in all of Islamic history was ruled from here, covering a geographical area from North Africa far into western Central Asia. Our research activities in the city date back to the former head of the Islamic Department at the Kaiser Friedrich-Museum, (Bode-Museum), Friedrich Sarre, and his colleague, the archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld. Under his stewardship two excavations were carried out here in 1911 and 1912/13.

The ruins, stretching over a 57-square-kilometre area, are one of the richest archaeological sites in the ancient world, and once formed a vibrant centre during a key period in Islamic history. In the 9th century, the Abbasid Empire was the political and economic hub of the entire Middle East and boasted close trade relations with Byzantium, Europe, and East Asia. A large number of the Samarra finds found their way to the Museum für Islamische Kunst in Berlin, including about ninety stucco panels with elaborate plasterwork, as well as numerous other found objects that are representative of the entire spectrum of forms and materials of the time, and which were originally used in private and royal households. Other finds were brought to London after the First World War and were distributed from there all over the world.

Current projects

With the planned relocation of the Museum für Islamische Kunst within the Pergamonmuseum complex in 2019, plans are also being devised for a new showing of the collection. This involves providing a fresh perspective on the suite of artefacts from Samarra and making them more accessible to visitors. A first goal is to compile a comprehensive catalogue of the entire Berlin Samarra collection. Thanks to the efforts of PhD student Matt Saba from the University of Chicago, the entire architectural ornament of structures unearthed during excavations was systematically documented for the first time, in 2012, and the images and data subsequently uploaded onto the museum documentation system (MDS). A project launched in 2013 by the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft, Berlin (HTW, Th. Bremer, K. Kant) will see the creation of three-dimensional digital simulations of large swathes of the archaeological site, thus providing an important basis for subsequent scientific investigations. The simulations will provide scholars with a range of approaches to help in the contextualization of museum objects using virtual images.

In 2012 technical analysis was undertaken on the Samarra stucco panels by Mariam Sonntag, a conservation student at the HTW. As part of the final-year work for her master’s degree, she is currently examining the stucco panels to see how much are original plasterwork, reworked plasterwork, or plaster replicas or casts. Further scientific analyses of the stucco, wood, and fresco painting are in the planning with the Rathgen-Forschungslabor.

In addition, the findings from the Samarra Conference held in 2010 are currently being prepared for publication. Dr. Jens Kröger, former Chief Custodian at the Museum für Islamische Kunst, is currently conducting research into the excavation history of the Samarra site by studying documents held at the Berlin archives. In February 2012, a strategy meeting took place at the Freer Gallery/Smithsonian Institute, Washington (which presides over a large part of the estate of Ernst Herzfeld) to discuss future international cooperation plans for archaeological research on and at Samarra.

Co-operation: Mariam Sonntag, HTW Berlin (Prof. A. Jeberien, Prof. C. Stadelmann); Matt Saba, University of Chicago (Prof. P. Perlekamp); from 2013 HTW Berlin (Prof. Th. Bremer, Prof. K. Kohlmeyer) with the project 'Modular Mobile System for the High-precision 3D Documentation of Cultural Artefacts' (MOSYS 3D), entailing a part-time position for the scientific examination of objects from Samarra.
Contact: Dr. Julia Gonnella, curator at the Museum für Islamische Kunst
Project staff: S. Struth, research associate
Funding: MOSYS 3D by ERDF (state of Berlin), Innovative Massnahmen – Inno
Duration: Open-ended