By Michael Danti, Darren Ashby, Marina Gabriel, and Susan Penacho
On July 3, 2017 the US-led Coalition conducted airstrikes on two 25 m-long sections of the city wall of Raqqa, also known as the al-Rafiqah Wall. DigitalGlobe satellite imagery confirms that the strikes hit the eastern portion of the wall. The first breach is located 80 m south of Qasr al-Banat, the remains of an Abbasid-period palace. The second breach lies roughly 500 m further north.
US Central Command (USCENTCOM) stated in a press release the following day that the US-led Coalition had targeted the wall in order to create new access points for the advance of US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) into the Old City of Raqqa that would avoid locations fortified by ISIL. This same source also asserted that the two strikes helped preserve the remainder of the wall as well as the lives of civilians and members of the SDF by accelerating ISIL’s defeat. Members of the SDF first reached the al-Rafiqah Wall on June 12, 2017.
The al-Rafiqah Wall originally surrounded al-Rafiqah, a garrison town built next to the city of Raqqa by the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur in 771–772 CE. Under Harun al-Rashid, al-Mansur’s grandson, the dual city of al-Raqqa/al-Rafiqah served as the summer residence of the caliph and capital city of the Abbasid Caliphate. Harun al-Rashid’s sons moved the imperial capital back to Iraq, but the city continued to serve as a provincial capital and military base. The Mongols sacked the city during the 13th century CE, sending it into a deep decline.
The al-Rafiqah defenses initially consisted of a main wall, an outer wall, and a moat. The defenses stretched ca. 5 km, enclosing an area of 1.47 km2. Roughly 2.6 km of the northern, eastern, and southeastern sections of the main wall remain standing. Semi-circular towers project from the face of the main wall every 25–28 m.
In 1976, the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums began to restore the Abbasid-period remains in Raqqa. The al-Rafiqah Wall received repairs and consolidations in a number of areas, primarily along its eastern and northern sides.
ASOR CHI remains concerned as to the ongoing military operations occurring around the al-Rafiqah Wall, and will continue to monitor reports of damage. Despite a high degree of modern reconstruction, the al-Rafiqah Wall represents a rare example of an Abbasid-era fortified city and forms an integral part of the modern urbanscape. The wall and other monuments and archaeological sites in the greater Raqqa area, many of which have been deliberately targeted or looted by ISIL, serve as a source of great pride for the city’s inhabitants and attest to over 8000 years of human occupation at this strategic location at the confluence of the Euphrates and Balikh rivers.
Becker, Andrea (2004) “Die ‘abbāsidische Stadtmauer,” in Baudenkmäler und Paläste I, ed. Verena Daiber and Andrea Becker. Raqqa III. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 3–4.
Heidemann, Stefan (2003) “Die Geschichte von ar-Raqqa/ar-Rāfiqa – ein Überblick,” in Die islamische Stadt, ed. Stefan Heidemann and Andrea Becker. Raqqa II. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 9–56.
al-Khalaf, Murhaf (1985) “Die ‘abbāsidische Stadtmauer von ar-Raqqa/ar-Rāfiqa.” Damaszener Mitteilungen 2, 123–131.