Raqqa: The Cultural History of the ISIS Stronghold

Those who are reasonably well informed know that Raqqa (also known as Al-Raqqah, Rakka, Ar-Raqqah) is the city in Syria that is the ISIS stronghold and focus of Western forces’ air strikes. It currently holds immense symbolic power – a successful military campaign in Raqqa would be a major defeat for the Islamic State. But is this the Western world’s only connection to Raqqa?

Well, no. As it happens, I recently had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Asian Art in Washington, DC. I dragged my partner there to see Whistler’s Peacock Room, a personal favorite of mine. The Peacock Room originated as a dining room commission by the wealthy English merchant Frederick Leyland. The architect was Richard Norman Shaw and the ‘decorator’ was none other than James McNeil Whistler.

Upon Leyland’s death, the room was purchased by US industrialist and art collector Charles Lang Freer in 1904 and installed in his home in Detroit, Michigan. He populated the dining room’s intricate shelving with his own ceramics collection from Asia and the Middle East. Upon his death in 1919, the installation was transferred to the Smithsonian. It was only when my partner flipped through the exhibition catalogue for the room that I discovered that some of the ceramics on show are from Raqqa.

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As it turns out, ‘Raqqaware’ is collectable. Why? Because in the 7th and 8th century, Raqqa was the capital of the near East. Bagdad had been the biggest city in the region at the time, but the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid chose Raqqa as his imperial residence. For about thirteen years, Raqqa was the capital of the Islamic empire stretching from Northern Africa to Central Asia. During this period, Raqqa flourished as a center for arts and sciences.  As a result, glass and ceramic production developed and thrived.  For those interested in examples of ceramics produced in Raqqa, check out this Pinterest site.

This golden age of Islamic arts and sciences and Harun’s legacy were captured in a set of mythologized stories that eventually became some of the most popular tales in One Thousand and One Nights, cementing Raqqa’s place in Islamic history. Translated into French and English at the end of the 19th century, the book awakened a curiosity about the Islamic world among Europeans, leading to increased tourism in the region.  It also spurred the trade for antiquities from the region. The local government at the time began to notice that sites in Raqqa likely to hold antiquities were being excavated secretly by locals and foreign visitors. Government officials alerted the Ottoman national museum in Istanbul, initially, with very little response. However, the desire of the Ottoman state to foster a national identity by assembling Islamic works of art produced within the empire was gaining momentum. The Director of the Ottoman Museum ordered an excavation in Raqqa and used the findings as the first specifically Islamic galleries in the Museum. At the same time, however, the European market for works from this region was growing and, in some ways, undermining the Ottoman’s attempt to collect works for themselves. Freer collected Raqqaware in the early 1900s – suggesting he may have had a connection to the illicit trade of Raqqaware at this time.

Since this period, Raqqa has experienced times of prosperity and decline leading up to its current position as the headquarters of ISIS. In some ways, despite the questionable origin of his holdings, I appreciate Freer’s collection of Raqqaware in the Peacock Room because it gives me a sense of connection with, and appreciation of, a city that is spoken about as an air raid target. Raqqa is not just some city that happens to be where ISIS landed. It has played an important role in the literary and fine art culture of the Islamic world, which needs to be recognized and valued.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford have significant holdings of Raqqaware, but it appears there are many examples of Raqqaware in numerous museums in the Western world. Could these museums use these collections as the basis for raising awareness of, and deep engagement with, Arab world issues? Should these works only be discovered when someone like me stumbles upon them on a holiday break?

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