The modern world owes its knowledge of the art and architecture of Abbasid Samarra to the pioneering archaeologist Ernst Emil Herzfeld. Samarra, one of the largest archaeological sites in the world, was founded in 836, when the Abbasid caliph al-Mu‘tasim (r. 833–42) moved his capital there from Baghdad. During the next fifty years, Samarra grew to cover about 60 kilometers and was the center of an empire that reached from Tunisia to India and Central Asia. Abandoned by the court in 892, as quickly as it had been built, much of ninth-century Samarra lay buried, relatively undisturbed, into Herzfeld’s lifetime. The only significant Abbasid-era survival into modern times in Samarra was the Tomb of the Two Imams, first built in 944, after the site was abandoned by the court, and reconstructed since.
Herzfeld’s work in Samarra in 1911–13 was the first scientific excavation of an Islamic site. The site is now viewed by UNESCO as “the finest preserved example of the architecture and city planning of the Abbasid Caliphate . . . Samarra preserves two of the largest mosques . . and the most unusual minarets, as well as the largest palaces in the Islamic world.” Since 1914, parts of the archaeological site have suffered from frequent wars, the expansion of the modern city over the historical site, and heavy restoration. Herzfeld’s excavations and records thus provide invaluable information about many of the archaeological remains that survived in situ into the early twentieth century but have since changed. UNESCO has identified forty-two Samarra palaces, four mosques, and about 7,000 other buildings, of which 80 percent remain unexcavated.
The significance of this site to Islamic art is immense. Because it was the capital so briefly, from 836 to 892, its artifacts can be dated and provide a reliable basis for comparison with art from other regions and eras. Moreover, several artistic developments of significant influence emerged during Samarra’s flowering. These included a decorative technique for carved or molded stucco, stone, and wood architectural ornament that used repeating, probably vegetal-inspired motifs with beveled edges. This technique is often called the “beveled style” to distinguish it from high-relief carving. The finds from Abbasid Samarra also attest to the use in the ninth century of a new type of ceramic finish with metallic glazes, called luster. Finally, the presence in Samarra of various motifs, images, and styles of Hellenistic origin is clear evidence of their use in Islamic, as well as pre-Islamic, times. Herzfeld uncovered sophisticated wall paintings depicting women, men, and animals that show the complexity of early Islamic figural art.
Herzfeld’s Education and Career
Herzfeld was born on July 23, 1879, near Hanover, Germany. His classical education included modern and ancient languages and the history, geography, and literature of the ancient and modern worlds; he also studied architecture and received an engineering degree from the Technische Hochschule (a polytechnic university) in Charlottenburg in 1903. Proficiency in Hebrew, Greek, Russian, Farsi, Arabic, Syriac, and cuneiform enabled him to read little-known contemporary accounts of medieval writers and to use their descriptions in deciphering the ruins he explored. A typical notebook from his unpublished papers housed in the Metropolitan Museum consists of transcriptions from Ibn Serapion’s Description of Mesopotamia and Baghdad, written about 900, which Herzfeld used to shed light on the topography of medieval Baghdad. His architecture and engineering training proved useful for mapping and drawing: his fieldwork is astonishing for the quality of graphic materials and photographs. He mapped meticulously, and his drawings include exquisite details of tiles and other ceramics, stucco ornament, and paintings that he uncovered.
Armed with his degree from the Technische Hochschule, Herzfeld joined the German Oriental Society team led by Walter Andrae, which excavated Ashur, the ancient capital of the Assyrian empire, in 1903–6. Though one field that Herzfeld had not studied formally was archaeology—there were no universally accepted standards, and certainly no courses, in his day—the German Oriental Society’s in-house training was at the forefront of the new field, and Herzfeld could have served no better apprenticeship. During many later excavations, he applied scientific methodology to record and classify finds. Particularly because of the large-scale destruction of historical monuments during military conflicts in the Middle East over the past century, his documentation is critical to today’s understanding, and his classifications for Samarran art are still used.
Participating in the Assur dig gave Herzfeld valuable first-hand archaeological experience; it also enabled him to visit nearby archaeological sites. One was Samarra, which he mapped in 1905. Back in Germany in 1907, he completed a PhD on Pasargadae at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin. At this time, he met Dr. Friedrich Sarre, director of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, who would be of immense importance to his future career. Herzfeld and Sarre returned to Mesopotamia in 1907–8 to evaluate Islamic sites for possible excavation; their reports are published in Archäologische Reise im Euphrat- und Tigris-gebiet (Berlin, 1911 and 1920). This scouting expedition led to the Samarra excavations of 1911–13, which the advent of World War I interrupted. The war did not entirely curtail Herzfeld’s work, however: though not able to excavate in those years, he successfully sought an army assignment to travel through Iran and Iraq as a mapping specialist.
In 1917, he was appointed associate professor of historical geography and art history of the ancient Orient at the University of Berlin, and in 1920 he became the world’s first full professor of Near Eastern archaeology. He rarely taught in Germany but instead spent most of the next decade on excavations and other projects in Iran. In 1928, he was appointed director of the Persepolis excavations for the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago; there he located a Neolithic settlement, as well as reliefs from the palaces of Darius and Xerxes; apart from Samarra, Persepolis is Herzfeld’s best known work.
The fact that Herzfeld’s grandparents were Jewish cost him his German university post in 1935, though thanks to his Oriental Institute office in Tehran, material from the first thirty years of his career survived. As World War II approached, he moved to London, and in 1936 to the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton. There he continued to research Samarra, in preparation for publication of the final volume of his work on the 1911–13 excavations: he filled eleven Princeton University bluebooks with translations of the Arabic historian al-Tabari’s writings on Samarra. These are preserved in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of Herzfeld’s papers. He retired from the Institute in 1944 and returned to the Middle East for further research. He died there in 1948 after completing the final volume of the Samarra series.
Herzfeld’s Excavations of Abbasid Samarra
Following his and Herzfeld’s 1906 scouting trip, Friedrich Sarre obtained permission from the Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II to excavate at Samarra. The agreement was typical: the expedition would take 50 percent of the artifacts excavated; the other half would go to the Ottoman government. Sarre was overall director and Herzfeld field director. The team excavated nineteen locations in 1911 and 1913.
Samarra was laid out on the Tigris in 836 and built mostly of mud-brick and baked brick, not stone. Herzfeld explored and excavated in three of Samarra’s palaces, a number of private houses, the market, polo grounds, hunting grounds, and race courses, and its two congregational mosques. Of particular interest to Herzfeld was Samarra’s main palace complex, known in medieval texts as the Dar al-Khalifa (House of the Caliph) or Dar al-Khilafa (House of the Caliphate). It is perhaps the largest complex ever built in the Islamic world. Its buildings and gardens encompassed approximately 125 hectares. It included the caliph’s private residence, called al-Jawsaq al-Khaqani, and a public palace and sporting grounds. The Dar al-Khalifa was built around interior courtyards, had canals and fountains to temper the heat, river views and esplanades, sophisticated latrines, piped water, bath houses, stables, and cellars. Herzfeld’s finds indicate that this palace was decorated with carved stone and stucco panels, painted wooden ceiling beams, hexagonal and square glazed ceramic tiles with metallic luster decoration, panels of glass mosaic, and wall paintings of people, animals, and abstract patterns. His 1911 drawings and photos of teakwood carving, fragments of fresco paintings, and abstract stucco wall panels in situ are particularly valuable because the site has since been reconstructed and the original archaeological remains are no longer accessible.
Another major site of Herzfeld’s work was the Great Mosque of Samarra, the largest in the Islamic world until modern times. He also excavated the smaller Abu Duluf Mosque of 860; later palaces, including the Balkuwara; and at least seventeen private houses. He excavated a domed octagonal structure known as the Qubbat al-Sulaibiya, whose original purpose is unclear. He took sondages at the last caliphal palace, the Qasr al-‘Ashiq, built between 877 and 882.
During the expedition, Herzfeld complied with the German/Ottoman agreement by sending artifacts both to Istanbul and to Sarre at the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum. Artifacts still on site at the end of the 1913 season were packed for shipping, but the outbreak of war interfered, and when the British army reached Samarra in 1917, they shipped the abandoned crates to the British Museum for safekeeping. After the war, the British Foreign Office asked Herzfeld to review the materials and set up a commission to make samples of the finds available to institutions with Islamic art collections in Damascus, Cairo, Berlin, New York, Copenhagen, and Boston, among other places. Much remained in London. Herzfeld himself returned to Samarra in 1923 and 1930, but found that war trenches had damaged the original excavation sites, and that material left in situ in 1911–13 had disappeared.
Herzfeld’s work at Samarra effectively established the field of Islamic archaeology and played a seminal role in expanding the field of Islamic studies and art history generally. The unusual nature of his fieldwork—including thousands of detailed watercolors of tiny art fragments, as well as thousands of photographs, together with his meticulous publication about the Samarra finds—set it apart from many other similar excavations even today.