Firm Evidence of Early Glass Industry in Ninth-century Palace City of Samarra

Firm Evidence of Early Glass Industry in Ninth-century Palace City of Samarra

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The palace-city of Samarra, capital of the former Abbasid Caliphate, was home to an advanced industry of glass production and trade, according to a study published August 22, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE .

Located in Iraq about 125km north of Baghdad, Samarra was the Abbasid capital from 836-892AD. Noted for its abundance of decorative architectural glass, the city represents an important source of archaeological information on early Islamic art and architecture. A 9 th century Great Mosque with a spiral minaret is one of many architectural spectacles that has so far been recovered from the dust – and only a fraction of the site has been excavated until now.

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Spiral minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra. ( CC BY 3.0 )

Uncovering the second capital of Abbasid Caliphate after Baghdad was essential in preserving some of the history of the Caliphate with so many of the monuments of Baghdad being lost. Samarra represents the only remaining city from the height of the Caliphate. However, details of the production of Samarra's glass artifacts, as well as their role in the city's economy, have been elusive.

In this study, the authors examined 265 Samarra glass artifacts housed in museum collections in Germany and England, including bowls, lamps, bottles, decorative and architectural glasses, and more. Trace elements in the glass, identified using mass-spectrometric analysis, offered clues to the geographic origin of the raw materials used in the making of the different types of glass artifacts.

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Fragment of millefiori tile from the Jawsaq al-Khaqani palace in Samarra, Iraq. Rods of blown glass fused together, ca. 836. ( Public Domain )

The results suggest that a portion of Samarra's glass was imported from other regions, such as the Levant and Egypt. But the majority of the glass artifacts were so similar in composition that the authors strongly suspect much of the glass was being produced locally. This paints a picture of a city with an important industry of glass production and trade, confirming earlier hypotheses based on writings from this time period. The fact that the highest-quality glass was used to decorate the city's main caliphal palace suggests that glass was of great cultural and economic value at this time.

Schibille notes: "High-resolution chemical analysis of ninth-century glasses from Samarra reveals a sophisticated Abbasid glass industry as well as selective imports of specific glass objects. Our analytical data thus confirm written sources about the production of glass in the vicinity of the new capital city."

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