Matt Saba

Durability through Verse: Palace Building and Poetry at Abbasid Samarra

This presentation examines the relationship between palace building and poetry writing at Samarra, the capital of the Abbasid Empire in Iraq from 836 to 892 CE. Unusually, Samarra’s palaces became the subject of a number of poems written by the most talented court poets of the day. These architectural poems, consisting of twenty to forty lines written in the idiom of the classical Arabic ode, were lauded at the time of their composition as excellent examples of the poetic craft. The sudden presence of such poems raises the question of why they came to be: while poetry celebrating the military exploits of a patron or his political acumen were commonplace, poems dedicated solely to architectural works were rare. 

The answer to this question lies in the nature of Samarra’s palace architecture. Samarra, like many other palace-complexes, was built as an impermanent structure. In contrast to mosques, palaces built by the early Islamic caliphs remained occupied by the court for relatively short periods of time, and were often destroyed or substantially modified within decades after the death of the patron. My contention is that the Abbasid caliphs commissioned these poems in part to extend the lives of the monuments described. An examination of the role of poetry in Abbasid society and the substance of the poems themselves suggests that the Samarra poets used clever turns of phrase and powerful imagery to ensure that the palaces of their patrons would live in the canon of Arabic poetry for generations.

Matt Saba

Visual Resources Librarian, Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT

Matt is visual resources librarian for Islamic architecture at the Aga Khan Documentation Center, MIT Libraries. Before joining the AKDC, he worked at the Metropolitan Museum as a curatorial fellow and has taught classes in Islamic art at Marymount Manhattan College, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago. Matt received his PhD in art history from the University of Chicago in 2014. His presentation tonight is taken from his dissertation project on Samarra’s palace architecture, which he is currently editing for publication.