120 km north of Bagdad, on the baked earth of the city of Samarra rises a splendid Iraqi mosque, one the earliest in the ancient Islamic world. The ‘Great Mosque’ of Samarra as it is called, was built in the 9th century under the order of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil, who moved to Samarra to escape conflict with the local population in Baghdad.
The mosque is spread over an area of 17 hectares or about 14 soccer fields (the building itself covered 3 soccer fields). Its rectangular layout features an outer brick wall 10m high and 2.7m thick, supported by forty four semicircular towers. It was the largest mosque in the world for the next 400 years before it was destroyed by the armies of the Mongol ruler Hulagu Khan during the invasion of Iraq in 1278. The outer walls and the imposing 55-metre (180 feet) high minaret is all that remains of this once ‘Great Mosque’.
The minaret is the outstanding feature of the Great Mosque. Recalling the ziggurats of ancient Babylon, it takes the form of a shell structure that spirals upwards. At the top is a cylindrical pavilion adorned with eight-pointed arches.
More than a place to call the faithful to prayer, the minaret proclaimed the presence of the mosque, perhaps thought necessary in the early days of the new religion, as well as a symbol of the ruler who built it. It is possible to walk all the way to the top along the spiraling path. As a matter of fact, Al-Mutawakkil often did that, riding on his donkey to enjoy the view.