In Syria’s Raqqa, Old City wall a testament to glorious days

2017/07/09 Issue: 114 Page: 9

Beirut- The Old City wall of Syria’s Raqqa, the scene of in­tense fighting in the bat­tle against the Islamic State (ISIS), was once a testament to the golden age of Is­lamic civilisation. That was when the city on the banks of the Eu­phrates River was the capital of Ca­liph Harun al-Rashid in the eighth century.

The 1,300-year-old structure was breached by US-backed Syrian op­position fighters trying to capture Raqqa who took the fight closer to the heart of the ISIS-held city.

ISIS militants fortified their positions, booby-trapping the 2,500-metre-long Old City wall — or the Rafiqah Wall — to protect their de facto capital. The US military said warplanes hit “two small por­tions” of the wall, allowing allies from the Kurdish-led Syrian Demo­cratic Forces to push through.

The wall was built to protect Rafiqah (Arabic for “Companion”), a garrison town built in the late 700s next to the city of Raqqa on the road between Damascus and Baghdad. The town was modelled after Baghdad, then the newly built capital of the Abbasid Dynasty.

“The wall and the gate are major surviving monuments dating to (Raqqa’s) great Islamic past,” said Amr al-Azm, a former Syrian an­tiquity official who teaches Middle Eastern history at Shawnee State University in Ohio.

The horseshoe-shaped town with its wall on the southern edge of Raqqa was chosen as the impe­rial residence of Caliph Harun al- Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph known for his “One Thousand and One Nights” tales.

Caliph Harun al-Rashid built a complex of palaces to the north and several canals and had horse races at Raqqa’s hippodrome. The famous Raqqa pottery thrived to serve the new residents.

Caliph Harun al-Rashid’s pre­decessor ordered the building of a garrison town to protect the Ab­basid Dynasty from the Byzantine Empire. It was at an important crossroads between the Euphrates and the Khabur River, which origi­nates in Turkey.

Originally stretching 5,000 me­tres, only half of the wall remains. Archaeologists say the Old City had three gates and multiple defensive layers, including a wide moat, an outer wall and another inner one.

US-backed fighters recently en­tered through the Baghdad Gate and others deployed around the area of Qasr al-Banat (“Girls’ Pal­ace”), in the Old City, checking for landmines and ISIS militants.

Little is known about the Girls’ Palace. UNESCO calls it “enigmat­ic” and archaeologists differ over when it was built, some saying it originated in the 12th century.

The Old City was destroyed by Mongols in the mid-13th century and never regained its previous glory. Most of the remaining wall and the gates have been extensive­ly restored in modern day Syria, Azm said. (The Associated Press)

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