The project A Survey of the Great Mosque-Palace Complex of Kufa aims at collecting and reassessing all the available information concerning the material data related to the Mosque-Palace Complex of Kufa, which is considered to be the earliest evidence, archaeologically documented, of an architectural solution characterising the early Islamic city up to the foundation of Madīnat al-Salām in Baghdad in 762. The project is pursued in cooperation with the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of the Republic of Iraq and the Department of Sciences of Antiquity of Sapienza University of Rome. Its strategies consist in the study of the documentation – both published and unpublished – produced during the excavations and a topographical survey of the area.
The results and extent of the excavations, carried out by the then Directorate-General of Antiquities of Iraq between 1938 and 1967 in seven seasons, are mainly known through the report of the third season, which only regarded the Palace. This report was published in Arabic 1956 and in English in 1963, and its results were canonised by Creswell in 1969, along with the most up-dated available plan of the Palace. The recent history and current state of the two components of the original Mosque-Palace Complex of Kufa have never been documented since the last century.
The activities carried out during the first year of the project (2019) consisted in the collection and study of all the published reports of the excavations and related publications, and a topographical survey and inspection of the remains of the Palace. The study of the published material allowed us to acquire information on the features of the earliest phases of the Mosque and on the structural and chronological relationships of the three layers detected in the Palace. The ground survey of the area, along with the aerial survey of the Palace, allowed us to re-construct the recent history of the two components of the Mosque-Palace Complex and the layout of the Palace as it appeared after the last excavation season in 1967.
The centre of ancient Kufa is located in Najaf, 1.5 km west of the Euphrates, 9 km east of Imām ʿAlī’s Shrine and 6 km north of the archaeological site of al-Ḥīra. It consists of the Great Mosque of Kufa, a building completely renovated at the beginning of this century, and the Qaṣr al-Imāra, the archaeological remains of a palatial structure adjacent to the southern side of the Mosque. According to historical sources, the Great Mosque and the Qaṣr al-Imāra originally formed an architectural complex, which was built at the centre of the town upon the suggestion of ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb a few years after the foundation of Kufa in 638 CE (Ṭabarī, Taʾrīkh s. 1, 2491-2492). Consequently, the remains of the Mosque-Palace Complex of Kufa would be the earliest evidence, archaeologically documented, of an architectural solution characterising the early Islamic city up to the foundation of Madīnat al-Salām in Baghdad in 762 (Bacharach 1991). Considering that Kufa is the second settlement ever planned and built ex novo by Muslims during their advance into the lands outside Arabia, and into the Sasanian empire in particular, the case of its Mosque-Palace Complex plays a pivotal role in reconstructing the history of early Islamic urbanism, architecture, (self-)representation of power, and their relationships to previous traditions. And yet, the history of the Mosque-Palace Complex of Kufa, especially in its earlier phases, is still unclear and continues to be an object of debate among archaeologists and historians of architecture (Grabar 1958; Creswell 1969, 9; Creswell – Allan 1989; Antun 2016; Santi 2018). Indeed, it appears difficult to reconcile the historical accounts to the archaeological data. However, the latter are only partially known: the results of the excavations carried out from 1938 to 1967 by the then Directorate-General of Antiquities of Iraq have never been published in a final report; only the reports of the second and third seasons are quite detailed and accompanied by plans and sections; the provisional conclusions reached after the third season, and later revised by the Iraqi archaeologists themselves, had a wider diffusion through an English translation and crystallised in the reasoned synthesis realised by Creswell thereafter. In addition, the recent history and current state of the two components of the original Mosque-Palace Complex of Kufa have never been documented since the last century.
Therefore, the project A Survey of the Great Mosque-Palace Complex of Kufa aims at collecting and reassessing all the available information concerning the archaeological evidence through the study of the documentation – both published and unpublished – produced during the excavations, a topographical survey of the area, the inspection of the structures. The project is pursued in cooperation with the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of the Republic of Iraq and the Department of Sciences of Antiquity of Sapienza University of Rome.
We are most grateful to the van Berchem Foundation for its generous support, which allowed us to spend the first year of the project (2019) in examining the published reports of the excavations and related publications and to carry out a topographical survey of the area, and the inspection of the Qaṣr al-Imāra in particular. The results of this investigation are illustrated in the following paragraphs.
Results of the study of all published materials concerning the excavations
The remains of the Mosque-Palace Complex of Kufa have been investigated by the Directorate-General of Antiquities of Iraq during seven excavation seasons: the first took place in 1938 (Masjid al-Kūfa 1940; see also Janābī 1963; 1966; 2014), the second in 1953 (Muṣṭafā 1954), the third in 1955-1956 (Muṣṭafā 1956; 1963), the fourth in 1957 (Muṣṭafā 1957; Taba 1971), the fifth in 1964-1965 (Janābī 1963; 1966; Janābī 1978), the sixth in 1966 and the seventh in 1967 (Janābī 1983).
The first season was carried out in conjunction with the rebuilding of the Mosque and the adjacent Rawḍa, containing the tombs of Muslim b. ʿAqīl, Hānīʾ b. ʿUrwa and al-Mukhtār. The Mosque consisted of a quadrangular structure (110 x 112 x 109 x 112 m). Its perimeter presented three-quarter-round corner towers and semi-round lateral towers, and a minaret. Along the northern wall the excavators detected the square foundations of previously built semi-round towers, whose remains had been incorporated in the towers appearing on the surface. The shaft of a column standing next to the maqam al-Nabī, located in the courtyard, and two capitals, decorated with acanthus leaves re-employed at the sides of a door, seemed to be related to this earlier phase. They were consequently ascribed to Ziyād b. Abīhi who, according to the sources, rebuilt the Mosque in monumental forms in 670 CE. The structures at the interior of the perimetral walls of both the Mosque and Rawḍa dated to much later periods. Along the qiblī wall, at the exterior of the Mosque, the excavators found remains of a perpendicular wall adjoining the latter and belonging to a quadrangular enclosure (168.20 x 169.98 m). Its northern limit consisted of the easternmost section of the qiblī wall of the Mosque and a wall running towards the east, with two semi-round lateral towers and a three-quarter-round corner tower; between this wall and that of the Mosque an entrance was found. Also the other walls seemed to feature lateral and corner towers. This enclosure was recognised as the Palace of Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ which, according to historical sources, was built in conjunction to the Mosque, upon the suggestion of ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb, a few years after the foundation of Kufa in 638 CE (fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Plan of the Mosque-Palace Compex of Kufa after the first excavation season in 1938 (Masjid Kūfa 1940).
The second and third seasons revealed that the Palace consisted of two concentric square enclosures (fig. 2).
Fig. 2. Plan of the Mosque-Palace Complex of Kufa after the third excavation season in 1955-1956 (Muṣṭafā 1956; © Sumer).
The inner enclosure (ca 110 by 110 m) featured, at the exterior, lateral semi-round towers and three-quarter-round corner towers; at the interior, rooms and courtyards arranged according to an axial tripartite plan. Remains of dwelling units were detected between the two enclosures. Three main layers and related structural phases were identified. The lowest layer was discovered along the perimeter of the inner enclosure. It consisted of the foundations of a square building (114 x 114 m), with a projecting entrance at the centre of the northern side and square bases of side and corner towers. The second layer consisted of the remains of the inner enclosure, built within the earlier foundations. It featured semi-round lateral and three-quarter-round corner towers resting on the first layer, and an entrance at the centre of the northern wall, flanked by two semi-round towers and two mastabas. A corridor led into a wide square court. On each side of it was a triple-arch; the southern arch was wider and introduced to a long three aisled-hall. A door at the back of the central aisle, whose jambs were decorated with stucco ornament, opened into a square room – probably domed – flanked by two small rooms. A courtyard at the back of this ceremonial complex led to rooms abutting the southern wall of the enclosure and to the western and eastern partitions, where a “Syrian bayt” and a “Persian bayt” were found. The outer enclosure appeared to be related to this second layer. The third layer was realised in two subsequent periods. During the first period some changes occurred in the layout of the north-eastern and north-western sections, including a courtyard leading to a vaulted hall with a triple entrance and flanked by small rooms, and a sirdāb. During the second period of the third layer the entrance to the outer enclosure was reconstructed and the entrance block and two-third of the northern wall of the inner enclosure were pulled down.
After examining the construction material and techniques, architectural and decorative features, coins, ceramic shards, and other small finds, the archaeologists dated the first layer to the pre-Islamic period or the time of the foundation of Kufa, thus inclining to ascribe it to Saʿd; the second layer to the Umayyad period ; the third layer to the early ʿAbbasid period (up to al-Mahdī’s reign). The uppermost layer revealed traces of a later occupation ascribable to the Ilkhanid period.
During the fourth season, the southern quadrant of the inner enclosure was completely unearthed. Traces of the first layer were found at the interior of the building, along with significant finds, among which a wall painting. This material led the excavators to revise the previous interpretation of the structures and its chronology: they ascribed both the first layer and the first period of the second layer to Saʿd’s Palace. Another important discovery was made during this season: a door was found in the qiblī wall of the mosque, partially obstructed by the western wall of the outer enclosure. This door was interpreted as the Bāb al-Imām, which usually provided a direct connection between the residential units and the prayer hall in Mosque-Palace complexes.
During the fifth season, remains of a dwelling dating to the Ilkhanid period and built over Saljuk foundations were unearthed along the qiblī wall of the mosque. The dwelling was connected to the mosque by a door and included a funerary bath.
During the sixth season, the dependencies along the western wall of the outer enclosure were investigated and several objects dating to the Umayyad and ʿAbbasid periods recovered.
During the seventh season, the excavation of the structures abutting the qiblī wall of the Mosque brought to light a marble capital and fragments of two marble columns which were ascribed to Ziyād’s mosque. Kufic inscriptions and drawings datable to the 7th century were also found. The season ended with consolidation and restoration works.
A full report of the seven excavation seasons and the study of the small finds have never been published, as well as a plan of all the excavated areas. Indeed, the most updated plan currently available is the one included in the third report and its re-drawing by Creswell, therefore rendering the situation as it was in 1956. Two plans consisting of the re-constructions of the layout the building had during the Rāshidūn period and during the Umayyad and ʿAbbasid periods were published in 1983 by Khaḍīr (1983: figs. 10 and 15), possibly after an in situ inspection.
Results of the topographical survey of the Qaṣr al-Imāra
The Qaṣr al-Imāra lies in a wide fenced area where police facilities are located. To the north, it is delimited by the qiblī wall of the Great Mosque and the adjacent Rawḍa. The complex appears as a splendid example of contemporary Islamic architecture, mixing and harmonising architectural elements from different traditions. While the Rawḍa is still being enlarged, the lavish reconstruction of the Mosque has been carried out between 1998 and 2010 under the Dawudi Bohora’s patronage (fig. 3).
Fig. 3. Courtyard of the Great Mosque of Kufa as seen from the south-east (Photograph by Mohammed Hasan Abbas Waleed, 2019).
To the west of the Qaṣr al-Imāra is the Raḥabat ʿAlī, encompassing Imām ʿAlī’s House, a building renovated at the end of the last century, and Imām ʿAlī’s Garden. A path through the latter leads from the House to a small door known as Bāb al-Sudda, opening into the qiblī wall of the Great Mosque, between the minbar and the miḥrāb amīr al-muʾminīn (fig. 4).
Fig. 4. Bāb al-Sudda as seen from Imām ʿAlī’s Garden and western wall of the outer enclosure of the Qaṣr al-Imāra, to the right (Photograph by Michelina Di Cesare, 2019).
The Qaṣr al-Imāra is not usually accessible to visitors for security reasons. Some times after the restoration occurred in 1967, most of the structures of the Palace, especially those in the inner enclosure related to the first and second layer, were gradually submerged by water. This water flowed to the surface from an aquifer located in the north-eastern area of the site and caused the growth of a thick and impenetrable vegetation. In 2011 the local Inspector of the State Board of Antiquity and Heritage of Iraq tried to contrast the damage by spreading layers of sand and pebbles and restoring the surfacing structures. However, since then, underground water has re-surfaced and the vegetation has grown again, also becoming infested by snakes.
On the other hand, despite the efforts made by the local Inspector of the State Board of Antiquity and Heritage of Iraq to valorise the site, the local Shīʿī community does not seem very interested in preserving it. The Qaṣr al-Imāra appears to them as an unpleasant memorial of the hatred Umayyads – usurpers of ʿAlī’s rights and persecutors and killers of al-Ḥusayn and his followers – which stands too close to the Great Mosque, the place of ʿAlī’s martyrdom and sacred destination of Shīʿī pilgrimage. A local tradition, possibly at the origin of the identification of Imām ʿAlī’s House in the Raḥabat to the west of the Qaṣr al-Imāra, reports that when he became amīr al-muʾminīn and moved from Medina to Kufa, he refused to reside in the Palace, and built for his family a modest house connected to the Mosque through a door in the qiblī wall (Bāb al-Sudda).
Given the conditions of the site, the ground survey regarded the areas which were cleared from vegetation and not submerged by water, namely the western, south-western and north-eastern strips void of structures between the outer and inner enclosure, and a path formed in the south-eastern and eastern strips void of structures between the outer and inner enclosure. However, the aerial survey allowed us to integrate the partial data so obtained (fig. 5).
Fig. 5. Ortophotoplan of the Qaṣr al-Imāra and qiblī wall of the Great Mosque and Rawḍa (processed by Alessandro M. Jaia and Laura Ebanista, 2019)
The Palace features two concentric square enclosures, the outer of which shares the western section of its northern wall with the qiblī wall of the Great Mosque; a series of walls delimiting dwelling units abut almost all the interior walls of the outer enclosure – except for the northern section of the western wall and the southern section of the eastern wall.
The visible sections of the perimetral walls of the outer enclosure presents lateral semi-round towers and three-quarter-round corner towers, except for those along the northern section of the western wall and qiblī wall of the Rawḍa. The building of the latter and Imām ʿAlī’s Garden evidently obliterated them.
The outer enclosure is accessed through an entrance located at the centre of the southern wall, flanked by semi-elliptical towers and recesses at the exterior and stairways at the interior (fig. 6).
Fig. 6. Monumental entrance in the southern wall of the outer enclosure of the Qaṣr al-Imāra (Photograph by Michelina Di Cesare, 2019).
Though this entrance is present in Khaḍīr’s plan, the reports make no mention of it. Indeed, the main entrance was supposed to be located to the north, between the easternmost corner tower of the Mosque and the wall of the large enclosure. Unfortunately, this monumental entrance, as also the point of junction between the Mosque and the western wall of the Palace, was completely hidden by reeds and the area resulted impenetrable from inside and outside the outer enclosure. The inspection of the part of the qiblī wall enclosed in Imām ʿAlī’s Garden, however, revealed no sign of ancient structures, which evidently were covered up by the recent cladding.
As for the inner enclosure, the perimetral walls and related semi-round lateral towers and three-quarter-round corner towers to the west and south were accessible. In the north-western area, there were not surfacing structures. The remaining areas of the inner enclosure were occupied by large ponds and vegetation and therefore resulted inaccessible.
The series of dwelling units abutting the interior walls of the outer enclosure consisted of a recurring pattern: a smaller room preceded by an antechamber and flanked by two or three rooms. This pattern was especially recognisable along the western wall, the western side of the southern wall and the eastern side of the northern wall. As anticipated, most of these units were brought to light in 1966 and 1967. However, it was possible to ascertain that these dependencies abutting the inner wall of the outer enclosure and the qiblī wall of the Mosque were not found all along the perimeter. The western wall, slightly to the south, was abutted by four dwelling units; the eastern wall by six units; the northern and southern walls by eight units, respectively, four on either sides of the monumental entrances.
From the study of the published photographs, we were able to identify the location of the unit abutting the qiblī wall of the mosque where the capital and columns were found, but the vegetation prevented us to inspect it. We were more fortunate with the unit located along the western wall in correspondence to Imām ʿAlī’s House, where we identified the top of the arched opening of the central room at the back of the antechamber. It appeared heavily restored and was mostly buried in the ground, thus indicating that the threshold of the door, presumably related to the third or second second layer, was at least 1.50 m below the ground.
Also the other visible structures revealed a number of restorations, which consisted of reinforcing them with cladding walls and raising their height. The relatively homogeneous facies of the structures was due to the use of material and techniques similar to the original ones; in particular, the bricks employed in the 1967 and 2011 restorations were especially made of the size described in the reports.
Therefore, it is safe to conclude that the current layout of the Palace renders the situation as it was in 1967, after the complete unearthing of the structures. The restorations occurred in 1967 and 2011 have preserved its main features, thus allowing us to complete the information given in the published reports and related essays. We can add to the plan of the excavated areas the monumental entrance at the centre of the southern side of the outer enclosure and the precise location of the dwelling units abutting the inner wall of the outer enclosure and the qiblī wall of the Mosque.
Conclusions and further plans
The survey of the Qaṣr al-Imāra, along with the study of all the published reports, has yielded new data to re-construct the history of the Mosque-Palace Complex of Kufa. The investigation of the unpublished documentation produced during the excavations and a survey of both the Great Mosque and Qaṣr al-Imāra, planned to be pursued in the following years, give reason to expect ground-breaking results in achieving an archaeological and historical re-construction of this emblematic site.
Dr. Michelina Di Cesare
Sapienza Università di Roma
Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia, Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Antichità
 The team consists of Michelina Di Cesare (Associate Professor of Islamic Archaeology and Art History, Department of Sciences of Antiquity, Sapienza University of Rome), Alessandro Jaia (Associate Professor of Ancient Topography, Department of Sciences of Antiquity, Sapienza University of Rome), Laura Ebanista (Research Associate, Department of Sciences of Antiquity, Sapienza University of Rome), Serenella Mancini (Research Associate, Department of Sciences of Antiquity, Sapienza University of Rome), Aila Santi (A. W. Mellon Fellow, The American University of Beyrut), Amelia Blundo (Architect, Rome), locally assisted by Muhammad Bedin al-Mayali (Inspector of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of the Najaf Governatorate) and the archaeologists under his supervision, whose amiable cooperation is highly appreciated. The Project owes much to the support of Dr Abdul Ameer al-Hamadani (Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities of the Republic of Iraq), and the assistance of his collaborators at the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq in Baghdad, namely Qays Husayn Rashid, Saba Omari, Luma Juda, Jacob Jawdat. The friendship and commitment to the endeavour of Hassan Nadhem (UNESCO Chair at the University of Kufa) should also be acknowledged, as well as the availability of Saba Sami al-Ali (al-Nahrayn University of Baghdad), Nabeel Abd al-Husayn Rahi, Alaa Husayn Jasim al-Lami, Husayn Musa Husayn (University of Kufa).
 We owe the knowledge of this publication to Alastair Northedge, whose kindness in sharing this information was highly appreciated.
 See https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/Mumbai-Bohras-breathe-new-life-into-Iraq-shrine/articleshow/5707403.cms; see also Tabaa and Mervin 2014.
 Personal communication of Mr. Bedin al-Mayali; see also https://www.iraqhurr.org/a/3550152.html.
 The ground survey and photographic documentation was carried out by Michelina Di Cesare, Alessandro M. Jaia, Laura Ebanista, Hind Falih Yaseen, Mohammed Hasan Abbas Waleed, Kadhim Mutar, with the cooperation of Muhammad Bedin al-Mayali and the local police force. We were also kindly assisted by Khulud Abdarahman Muhammad, Qasim Bedin al-Mayali and Abdulameer.
 The aerial survey and photographic documentation were pursued by Laura Ebanista and Alessandro M. Jaia.