Published on 29th
History of The Shrine of Imams Ali Al-Naqi &
Hassan Al-Askari ('a)
by Hassan Tabatabai
Editors Note: This shrine has
since been destroyed.
The city of Samarra in
Iraq is situated on the bank
of the river Tigris some sixty miles from the city of Baghdad. The
city is of outstanding importance because of its two shrines.
golden dome on one shrine was presented by Nasr al-Din Shah and
completed under Muzaffar al-Din Shah in the year 1905 A.D. Beneath
the golden dome are four graves, those of Imam Ali al-Naqi (10th
Imam) and his son, Imam Hasan al-Askari (11th Imam). The other two
are of Hakimah Khatoon, the sister of Imam Ali al-Naqi who has
related at length the circumstances of the birth of Imam al-Mahdi
and the fourth grave is of Nargis Khatoon, the mother of Imam al-Mahdi,
peace be upon him. The second shrine marks the place where Imam
al-Mahdi went into concealment. It has a dome that is
distinguished for the soft delicate design that is worked in blue
tiles, and beneath it is the Sardab (cellar) where the Imam is
said to have disappeared. Visitors may enter this Sardab by a
flight of stairs.
In the year A.D. 836, after two years experience
with factional strife in Baghdad, the Caliph Mu'tasim departed
with his Turkish army to Samarra, "Which he founded and made
his residence and military camp."1
There eight caliphs lived in the short period of fifty-six years.2
The distance of Samarra from Baghdad is sixty miles. This name,
Surra man ra'a (He who sees it, rejoices), is said to have been
given by Mu'tasim himself, when, for approximately £2,000, he
purchased as a site for his new city a garden that had been
developed by a Christian monastery. The Caliph's happy Arabic pun
was based on the Aramaic name, Samarra, which was a town in the
immediate vicinity from the times before the Arab conquest. The
general district, however, was known as Tirhan.3
Thus the site chosen was an attractive garden spot in a fertile
valley of the Tigris, and there the Caliph built his new capital,
which became known as "the second city of the Caliphs of the
Bani Hashim." A main avenue, with many residences, ran along
the river bank. In the garden of the monastery he built his royal
palace, known as the Daru'l Amma, and the monastery itself became
A Friday Mosque, was built by Mu'tasim very close
to the quarter of the city that was set aside for the army.
Mustawfi informs us further that "he built a
Minaret for the Mosque. 17=ells (about 19 metres) in height, with
a gangway (to ascend it, that went up) outside, and no Minaret
after this fashion was ever built by anyone before his time."4
This Minaret, was so large that a man on horseback is said to be
able to ascend its so-called gangway. The same thing is claimed
for the similar minaret in the Mosque of Tulun, which may have
been modelled after it.5
But the Turkish mercenaries, on whom Mu'tasim and
his sons and grandsons relied, soon became the true masters of the
situation. While they cherished their position as guardians of the
caliphs, whom they permitted to live in luxury and security,
nevertheless they so exploited their own opportunities - for gain,
through cruelty and oppression, that in matters of internal
administration the authority of the Muslim Empire sank to a low
ebb. This was at a time, however, according to Dinawari, when
there were more victories, for the troops than during any
In Samarra, the caliphs busied themselves building
palace after palace, on both sides of the river, and at a cost
that Yakut estimated as 204 million Dinars, which would not be
less than eight million sterling.7
A great cypress tree is celebrated in the Shah Nameh as having
sprung from a branch brought by Zoroaster from Paradise. It is
said to have stood at the village of Kishmar, near Turshiz, and to
have been planted by Zoroaster in memory of the conversion of King
Gushtasp to the Magian religion. Such too was its power that
earthquakes, which frequently devastated all the neighbouring
districts, never did any harm in Kishmar. According to Kazvini,
the caliph Mutawakkil in 247 A.H. (861 A.D.) caused this mighty
cypress to be felled, and then transported it across all Persia,
in places carried on camels, to be used for beams in his new
palace at Samarra. This was done in spite of the grief and the
protests of all the Guebres, but when the cypress arrived on the
banks of the Tigris, Mutawakkil was dead, having been murdered by
Mustawfi who wrote in the fourteenth century, takes pain to
mention with sympathy how the Caliph Mutawakkil enlarged Samarra,
and in particular, how "he built a magnificent Kiosk, greater
than which never existed in the lands of Iran, and gave it the
title of the Ja'fariyyah (his name being Ja'far). But evil fortune
brought down on him in that he had laid in ruins the tomb of Imam
Husain, at Karbala, and furthermore he had prevented people from
making their visitation to the same - decreed. that, shortly after
his death, his Kiosk should be demolished, so that no trace of it
now remains. Indeed, of Samarra itself, at the present time, only
a restricted portion is inhabited."9
The restricted portion that was still occupied in
the fourteenth century was approximately the same as the modern
Samarra, and was part of the "Camp of Mu'tasim." Here
the Imams, Ali al-Naqi and his son, Hasan al-Askari were
imprisoned and poisoned and hence they were called the Askariyan,
or the "Dwellers in the Camp." It was here also that
both of them were buried. The modern Samarra is only a few paces
removed from the walls of the old Friday Mosque, which agrees with
Mustawfi's observation that "in front of the mosque stands
the tomb of the Imam Ali al-Naqi, grandson of the Imam Ali al-Ridha;
and also of his son, the Imam Hasan al-Askari." That the city
of the Caliphs was much more extensive is indicated by the modern
observation that "the ground plan of the many barracks,
palaces and gardens can be very plainly seen by anyone flying over
the site in an aeroplane."10
The historical topography of the ephemeral capitol of the Caliphs
as outlined by the Arab geographers, Ya'kubi and Yakut, has been
investigated recently by archaeologists, so that the location of
the principal streets and of the many of the palaces has been
determined. Also the findings have proved to be of special value
to students of Muslim art, for they are representatives of the
period when the civilization of the Abbasid caliphate was
"shedding its lustre over the world."11
It was in this part of Samarra that still remains
that the Imam Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Askari disappeared from human
sight. Mustawfi says this happened in 264 A.H. (878 A.D.) at
The fact that the Shia community was permitted to have its
headquarters after the fall of the Buyids in the nearby city of Hilla, from which place they conducted their negotiations at the
time of the invasion of Khulagu Khan, gave rise to the tradition
that the Hidden Imam would reappear in that town. This accounts
for the confusion of the traveller, Ibn Batuta (A.D. 1355), who
found shrines dedicated to the last Imam, both in Hilla and
Samarra. The mosque of the last Imam in Hilla marks the place of
his expected reappearance, but the place of his disappearance is
at Samarra. At Hilla, Ibn Batuta found that the mosque had an
extended veil of silk stretched across its entrance, and it was a
practice for the people "to come daily, armed to the number
of a hundred, to the door of this mosque, bringing with them a
beast saddled and bridled. `Come forth, Lord of the Age, for
tyranny and baseness now abounds; this then is the time for thy
egress, that, by thy means, God may divide between truth and
falsehood.' They wait till night and then return to their homes." Samarra itself was at that time in ruins, though Ibn
Batuta mentions that "there had been a mashhad in it,
dedicated to the last Imam by the Shias."13
It may have been owing to the fact that the place was in ruins
that pains were not taken to ascertain that the mashhad was the
"place of witness" in memory of the Imams, Ali al-Naqi
and Hasan al-Askari, and that a different spot nearby was highly
regarded as the place where the last Imam disappeared.14
1. Dinawari, Akhbar
at-Tiwal, et. Guirgass, p. 396.
2. Ya'kubi (A.D.
891), Kitab al-Buldan, cd. de Goeje, p. 255, & Mustawfi,
Nuzhatu'l-Qulab, Eng. trans. Le Strange, p. 40.
3. Ya'kubi, op. cit.,
p. 255; and Le Strange, Lands of the Eastern Caliphate, pp. 53-54.
4. Mustawfi, op.
cit., p. 49.
Britannica, 11th edit., Vol. II, p. 424.
6. Dinawari, op.,
7. Le Strange, op.,
cit., p. 55.
8. Ibid., p. 355.
9. Mustawfi, op.
Cit., p. 49.
Mesopotamia, A Guide Book published by Baghdad Times, Baghdad,
1922, p. 51.
11. Ency. Islam,
art. "Samarra", with references to the investigations of
12. Mustawfi, op.
cit., p. 47.
13. The reference is
to the Rawafidh. Sayyid Murtada remarks in the Alamul Huda (ch.
XIX), "The second division of Islam call themselves `the
followers', the Shias, but their adversaries call them `the
abandoners' the Rawafidh." For a full discussion of this
name, see article by Dr. Freidlander, J.A.O.S. Vol. XXIX, p.
14. Ibn Batuta, cd.
Paris, ii, p. 98; ibid., - trans. Lee, ch. VIII, p. 48; De
Herbelot, Ann. Mosl., tom. iii, p. 716 and the Encyclopaedia of
Religion and Ethics, art. "Mahdi", vol. III, p. 338.