193 km south east of Aleppo, 550 km north east of Damascus, Al Raqqa is said to be founded by Alexander the Great of Macedonia, although many say that it might be Seleucos Nicator, Alexander’s famous general. It was given the name Callinicum by Seleucos II Callinicos who established the center around 244 – 2 BC.
In the Byzantine era it was considered a very important town, as it was on the border between Byzantium and Persia. It fell into Muslim hands in 639 AD and the Umayyad Caliph, Hisham chose the flat land to the west of the classical town as the site for two palaces. However, nothing remains of these palaces.
The Abbasids rebuilt Al Raqqa 10 years after Baghdad, it was considered a second capital and was built by Caliph Mansour (ruled 754 – 75) in the same horseshoe plan, this was a modified version of his earlier circular plan for Baghdad. It was surrounded by a semi-circular wall, which was extremely thick and was guarded by many towers. Nearly half a century later Caliph Haroun Al Rashid built a second and newer Raqqa next to the old one as a sort of companion. It soon was integrated into the older one.
Under the Ayyūbids and the Zengids, the town of Al Raqqa remained of great importance as they had strong links with the Northern Mesopotamian city of Mosul. It became famous in the 12th century for glazed ceramic industry, which was started by Saladin the Ayyūbid leader.
In 1258 it was ransacked by the Mongols, and for a long time Al Raqqa was abandoned to sit quietly on the shores of the Euphrates. In 1960, Al Raqqa regained its important role with the building of Al Thawra Dam and the Assad reservoir. Al Thawra Dam generates a large percentage of Syria’s electricity.
There have been efforts to build up again the semi-circular baked and mud brick walls of the Abbasid town of which two thirds of the length survive. The walls were originally of double thickness, strengthened every 35 m by more than 100 round towers.
Bab Baghdad (Baghdad Gate):
In the south eastern corner of the walled city lies the Bab Baghdad which recent research indicates may date from the mid 12th century. The frieze is patterned blind arches above the gateway. This decorative brickwork closely followed Mesopotamian styles.
Qasr al Banat (Palace of the Maidens):
One of the most famous remains of this city. The building is centered on a courtyard with fountain with an iwan (high arched and open hall) on each side, all richly ornamented in brick. It dates from the 9th century and is a rare example outside Iran of the four-iwan plan.
The Great Mosque:
Also named “Friday Mosque” whose construction was originally undertaken in 772 under Caliph al Mansour. The courtyard was rebuilt by Nur al Din. There’s the plain tower of 25 m high and part of the courtyard colonnade in mud-brick Arab arches including the inscription recording Nur al Din’s contribution. The mosque originally had 11 towers around the periphery.
The city of al-Raqqa (الرقة) is one of Syria’s smaller provincial capitals and is seldom visited by tourists, but nonetheless has a rich history and some interesting archaeological sites. Most impressive of these is the Abbasid-era mosque, although only the minaret and some arches survive. Nearby are the remains of a small Abbasid-era palace. The old city was once fully enclosed by fortification walls, some of which still remain, mostly on the eastern and northern sides of the old city. Bab Baghdad, the southeastern gate, is well preserved. About a kilometer east of town is the archaeological site of Tel Biaa.
Getting There: al-Raqqa (الرقة) is a regional capital and easily reached by bus from most cities in Syria. There is also an infrequent train that stops in al-Raqqa (الرقة), though the late night schedule does not make it practical to use for most travelers.