The city of Samarra in Iraq is the chronologically last of the half-dozen cities including Najaf, Karbala, Medina, Baghdad, and Mashhad which is home to the burial sites of one or more of the Twelve Imams, in this case Ali ibn Muhammad (the 10th) and Hasan ibn Ali (the 11th). Samarra is also closely associated with Muhammad ibn Hasan, the Lost (12th) Imam, who disappeared from this city shortly after his father’s death. Because Samarra is deepest inside traditional Sunni territory, the Masjid Al-Askari has historically been the hardest for Shi’ites to visit. After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Shi’ite pilgrims began swarming back to Samarra. Unfortunately, this made the Masjid Al-Askari a target for sectarian violence, and his attacked and damaged several times in recent years. Like the rest of the shrines in Iraq’s Shi’ite corridor, the future of the Masjid Al-Askari is uncertain.
The city of Samarra has a history not too dissimilar to that of the cities of Najaf and Karbala. Like these, Samarra was little more than a small village before the arrival of the Muslims. The place remained relatively unimportant throughout the early days of the Islamic caliphate, even after the completion of a major canal through the region. This situation changed dramatically in the 9th century, when Mamluk soldiers in the service of the Abbasid Caliphs instituted a series of repressive measures that ultimately incurred the enmity of the local population of Baghdad.
Fearing for his safety, the Caliph began a massive building campaign in Samarra in 833 AD and moved the royal court there a few years later. The previously little-known Samarra spent the next half-century in history’s spotlight as the capital of the Islamic Caliphate, during which time it became a significant metropolis, though not on the order of Baghdad, Damascus or Cairo, the other major Muslim cities of the time. It was during its brief stint as the Abbasid capital that Samarra saw the events unfold that would make it one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest cities.
In 848, the caliph apparently made the decision to deal the Shi’ites a mortal blow. Ali ibn Muhammad, the 10th Imam, was arrested and imprisoned in Samarra, along with his son, Hasan ibn Ali. While Ali was reportedly well treated, the Mamluks took the opportunity of his imprisonment to brutally oppress the eastern Shi’ites. Eventually, in 868, the caliph had Ali put to death in fear of the consequences if the imam ever escaped. Hasan succeeded his father as the 11th Imam, but was never allowed outside of captivity. Eventually, the Abbasids realized that Hasan also presented a danger to them, as well as any other surviving offspring of the family. In 874 he too was put to death. However, his son Muhammad disappeared, with many believing he was smuggled away to safety. After that nothing is known of his fate.
In the absence of the imams, the persecution of the Shi’ites lessened, and soon they began to visit Samarra to see the graves of the last two descendents of the Prophet. Muhammad ibn Hasan has no known grave, but is honored in Samarra as the Lost Imam. In 944 AD a mosque was built over the site to house the two tombs and accommodate the pilgrims that now recognized Samarra as a major pilgrimage site. Over the centuries the Al-Askari Mosque has been frequently sacked, destroyed and rebuilt. The last major renovation took place in the 19th century. Unfortunately, the mosque was very badly damaged in several recent attacks. Repairs and renovations are currently ongoing.
The gold-shrouded Masjid Al-Askari bears a remarkable resemblance to the other Shi’ite shrines in Najaf, Karbala and Mashhad, although on a somewhat smaller scale. Enclosed in a great stone-walled compound at the heart of the city, the site features two major shrines: the gold-domed mosque where the 10th and 11th Imams are buried, and the blue-domed mosque where the 12th Imam is honored. Two golden minarets announce the call to prayer. The 2006 bombing was meticulously planned, and the well-placed bombs destroyed most of the main mosque and toppled its golden dome. Plans are already underway for the the shrine’s restoration.
The interiors of the two mosques are decorated in spectacularly executed Persian tile. The tombs of Ali ibn Muhammad and Hassan ibn Ali were located directly beneath the gold dome of the main mosque. As of this writing, there were no details available as to the condition of the two mausoleums. It is assumed that they were heavily damaged, and that the bodies have been temporarily moved for safekeeping. If so it can be expected that they will be restored as soon as possible. The shrine to the Lost Imam is located directly beneath the blue dome.
The Masjid Al-Askari is located close to the city center of Samarra, approximately 65 miles north of Baghdad, and is the northernmost of the Imam shrines in Iraq’s Shi’ite corridor. The mosque is closed at the present time due to construction and renovations. No other visitor information was available at this time. Web: www.tourism-iraq.com (official tourism website of Iraq).
Probably the most interesting Muslim site in Samarra is the city’s famous Spiral Minaret, a unique structure which resembles the legendary Tower of Babylon more than a traditional Islamic minaret. Although it looks truly ancient, it only dates to the 9th century CE. The Samarra Archaeological Site, outside of the modern city, marks the location where the Abbasids maintained their government while in exile from Baghdad. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.