The remains of early Islamic Basrah are located approximately 15 kilometres to the south-west of the present city of Basra near the modern town of Zubair.  The location of the early Islamic city has not been forgotten over the centuries and was certainly known to early European travellers such as Carsten Niebhur.  There are a few monuments in the vicinity of the site including the tomb of Hassan al-Basri, the Talha ibn Zubair shrine (destroyed June 2007) and the mosque of Zbair ibn ‘Awam.  The most important surviving monument is the Mosque of Ali represented by the fired brick remains of a corner of the mosque which appears as a tower.  Although the location of the early Islamic site is known its precise extent and the nature of the sub-surface remains are poorly understood.  This is despite a large number of small scale excavations which have been carried out by the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage since 1979.  The excavations have only been reported in a summary form and the structural remains encountered have not been dated either by stratigraphy or analytical scientific methods (e.g. 14C).  During two field visits to the site we have been able to define the limits of the ancient site, develop some ideas about different periods of occupation, document the nature and location of some of the earlier excavations and produce a highly detailed drone survey of those parts of the site which have not yet been built upon ( we were not allowed to fly over inhabited areas).

Petersen 1 aerial photo

Fig. 1. Aerial photo of the Imam ‘Ali mosque taken in 1936 (Royal Air Force, now in British National Archives, Kew)


             The historical and cultural importance of Basra as one of the first urban Muslim settlements cannot be overstated.  Information from early Islamic sources has enabled historians to identify many features of the social composition of the city including tribal groupings, religious affiliations as well as the identification of certain physical features such as the location of markets, water courses and cemeteries.  However, the relationship between the historical information and the modern topography of the area is not always clear.  There is also the problem that much of the historical information comes from later periods and may reflect subsequent re-interpretations of the development of the city. In view of these problems the archaeology of the city presents substantial opportunities for gaining an insight into the physical and social development of the city.



            One of the most difficult aspects of understanding the archaeology of the city is the movement of the main settlement between the Shatt al-Arab and the dessert area to the south west.  During the Sasanian period the main urban settlement in the region was located at Uballa next to the Dijla al-Awra (modern Shatt al-Arab).  This Sasanian period settlement was located close to or probably on the site of the modern city of Basra (Kramers 2000).  The early Islamic settlement of Basra founded in the 630’s was located in the desert to the south west of Uballa and separated from it by an area of marshland liable to inundation during the winter.  The Islamic settlement developed around the remains of a small Sasanian period town (Vahistabdh Ardashir) known to the Arabs as al-Khuraybah (the small ruin).  During the tenth century a combination of factors including attacks of the Qaramatai from Bahrain caused the focus of settlement to shift again back to the banks of the Shatt al-Arab where the modern city of Basra evolved around the Ashar Creek (Longrigg 1979).  Already in the tenth century Uballah was described as being larger than Basra (Kramers 200).  However, it is probable that the site of the early Islamic city was not entirely abandoned and starting in the 1500’s the areas around Zubayr ibn Awam’s tomb began to develop into a small town.  The population of the new town al-Zubayr expanded in the eighteenth century with the arrival of Arab tribes seeking to escape the fanaticism of the Saudi Wahabis (al-Qatrani 2015).



            According to the Arab sources when the tribes first settled at Basra they chose to locate themselves on the west or desert side of the river so that they could be near their homeland.  It is also noticeable that they did not choose to settle within or near the existing Sasanian settlement of Uballa (Απολογν Εμποριον).  Whilst this may be correct Werner Nutzel has also pointed out that it would also have been very difficult for the Arab tribes to settle around the banks of the Shatt al-Arab which would have been inundated with water at the time due to the river Tigris breaking its banks in the year 629 (Nutzel 1982b: 149).  This was probably not a man-made catastrophe but was an event caused by the rupturing of dykes or levees alongside the river (Nutzel 1982a: 148).  The dykes probably ruptured because of additional pressure created by an accumulation of silt which raised the bed of the river above the surrounding plains.  In any case the result was the creation of a vast inland lake (Lake Hammar) between Kufa and the present position of Basra.  Whilst the port of Uballa may have escaped inundation it would certainly not have been a desirable location at this time.



            First, it should be pointed out that the site of the early Islamic city was never entirely forgotten and was known to both residents and visitors to the area.  For example, when the Ottoman Admiral Sayyid Ali Reis came to Basra in 1554 to take command of the Ottoman Indian Ocean fleet after the execution of Piri Reis, he made a visit to the ruins of the early city to see the tombs of Hasan Basri, Talha, Zubayr ibn Awam, and Anas-bin-Malik (Sayyid Ali Reis 1577).  In the eighteenth century the German Danish explorer Carsten Niebuhr came to Basra on his return from India and made a visit to the site of the early Islamic city.  He observed the ruins of the ancient city and also speculated on the reasons for its decline (Niebuhr 1780: 297–300).  The first systematic attempt to reconcile the modern topography of the site with historical sources was carried out by Louis Massignon based on a brief visit in 1907 and a more extended visit in 1945 (Massignon 1954).  This account has served as the basis for most subsequent reconstructions of the early Islamic city and remains the most important work on the subject. The first archaeological investigations of the site took place during the 1970’s and 1980’s in the face of the expansion of the modern settlement of Zubayr and were carried out by the State Organization of Antiquities of Iraq (see below).



            The present-day topography of the Zubayr region is extremely complex and contains a multitude of features from different eras.  It should also be noted that the region has suffered extreme environmental degradation in recent times as a result of the growth of industrial installations, military activity and processes associated with climate change (Jabbar and Zhou 2011).  As a result some of the surface features which may have given some indication of the history of the site have either vanished or have been obscured by later events.  Despite these problems there are certain major features and landmarks which can help in reconstructing the ancient topography of the town.

            In the first place there are the graves or shrines of prominent early Islamic figures of Hasan al-Basri, Talha ibn Ubayd and Zubayr ibn ‘Awam which have in some form survived to the present day.  The historic testimony of figures such as Ibn Battuta, Sayyid Ali Reis and Carsten Niebuhr lends some authenticity and continuity to the identification of these shrines.  Added to these is the mosque of Imam ‘Ali which is known both through the historical sources mentioned above, through archaeological and through standing remains (see below).

            The second category of features is canals and watercourses.  These are more problematic as there have been many later irrigation, drainage and navigation channels which have been excavated within the area.  As early as 1764 Carsten Niebuhr observed the significance of a water channel linking the Euphrates near Kufa in the north to an inlet from the Persian Gulf known as Khor Abdullah.  In the eighteenth century this channel was known to the local inhabitants as Dsjarra Zaade or Hasfe Zaade. Niebuhr identified this channel as the ancient Pallacopas canal excavated in the Neo-Babylonian period perhaps as early as the seventh century B.C. Carsten Niebuhr observed that in his time the channel was dry and suggested that this was one of the reasons that the early Islamic city was abandoned.  It is not certain when the water in the canal stopped flowing but the presence of a fifteenth or early sixteenth century bridge (Qantarat Kiri Sa’ada) over the canal near Kufa suggests that is was still full of water at this date.

Petersen 2 canalbank

Fig. 2. Plaster layers visible on the bank of ancient channel which loops around the mosque on the east side. (tenth century and earlier).

            Massignon built on the work of Niebuhr and was able to identify two further canals mentioned in historical sources which were the Nahr al-Ma’qil and the Nahr al-Ajjana, the first identified through aerial photographs and the second identified by a geologist from the Iraq Petroleum company.  Satellite images of the site from 2017 show the area between the Hammar Lake to the north and Khor Zubayr (formerly known as Khor Abdullah) are now connected by the Basra canal (Shatt al-Basrah) which was completed in 1983.  It is not clear to what extent this new canal replicates the route of the ancient canal although Massignon locates the Pallacopas canal further west, between the mosque of Imam ‘Ali and the town of Zubayr.  He also places the original settlement on the west bank of the Pallacopas canal which if correct means that it would be on the opposite side from the congregational mosque which seems unlikely.  One of the more useful attempts to reconstruct the city uses the canal network as base map for locating the suqs.  However, the base map is schematic and although the relationship between the canals may be correct their exact form and relationship to known features is difficult to decipher.  There have been several other attempts to reconstruct the layout of the early city but all have met with the same problem that there are few sources which give physical descriptions (see for example Wheatley 2001: 245, fig. 17).


Archaeological Excavations

            The archaeological excavations carried out during the 1970’s and 1980’s were mostly carried out by the State Organization of Antiquities to mitigate against the expansion of the modern town of Zubayr and also the construction of installations connected with the petrochemical industry.  Structures uncovered included a large compound enclosed within a wall strengthened by semi-circular buttresses, a series of houses decorated with stucco, each with its own prayer room marked by a raised floor with a stucco panel indicating the mihrab.  One of the most interesting excavations revealed an industrial oil press.  Also in 1976 a map was produced showing the limits of the archaeological site within which building was restricted.  In addition, the University of Basra carried out excavations within the vicinity of the Great Mosque aimed at establishing the dimensions and architecture of this very important building revealing its immense size presence of the sandstone columns quarried from Jabal Sanam.  In recent years since 2006 there have been further excavations within the area of Old Basra mostly in advance of new construction projects.


            In 1952 some kiln furniture and a series of ceramic fragments of bowls and cups reportedly found in the region of Basra were presented to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Whilst the circumstances of the find are mysterious it is generally accepted that the reported location is correct and that the ceramics date to the ninth and tenth centuries.  Petrographic studies of the ceramics carried out in 1990 indicate that similar ceramics from a large number of sites throughout the Gulf and Indian Ocean region were also probably made in Basra (Mason and Keall 1991).  Whilst this finding has been tempered by more recent research (Priestman 2011) suggesting that there may have been a number of production centres in southern Iraq the fact remains that archaeological investigation of ceramics from Basra is of international importance.

Survey Work in 2017-18

            Two sessions of fieldwork have now been carried out at the early Islamic site in 2017 and 2018 by Alistair Northedge and me.  During the first session we carried out a rapid survey of the whole site and the surrounding region to get an idea of how the site relates to the complex local topography in particular ancient canals, earlier pre-Islamic sites, standing monuments and shrines, as well as the natural environment which includes wetlands and stony dessert.  The second season comprised a detailed aerial photogrammetry as well as a surface survey. The field work took place during May and June 2018. The priorities were:

  1. Defining the extent of the early Islamic site.
  2. Identifying the location of previous archaeological excavations.
  3. Examination of surface material to get an idea of occupation in different areas of the site.
  4. Produce a detailed photogrammetric survey of the site using a drone
  1. Extent of the early Islamic site

            It is assumed that the mosque of Ali stands at or near the centre of the early Islamic site but the outer boundaries are not well known.  The State Board for Antiquities and Heritage have produced a map showing the legal boundaries of the archaeological site which seems to relate to property ownership rather than the actual limits of early Islamic remains.  In any case the precise boundaries of the ancient city were not well understood.  However examination of 1970’s satellite images as well as 1930’s maps indicated a defensive wall two and a half kilometres to the west of the Congregational Mosque.  The wall only appears on the western and southern sides of the site (marked in red on Fig 4) and appear to pass through the town of Zubair.  Examination of this feature on the ground indicated that the wall was at least three metres high and approximately two metres wide (Fig 3).  The wall appears to have been built predominantly of pise although mud bricks and fired bricks were also present.

Petersen fig 3

Fig 3. Remains of city wall (red line in Fig 4)

            The eastern limits of the site can be defined by a line describing the edge of the land subject to flooding either on a daily (tidal) or seasonal basis (marked in blue on Fig 4).  Also of interest is a deep channel which also runs from north to south (marked in yellow on figure 4).

            Within the darker area (area of inundation) to the north east there are a series of white lines which may indicate ancient areas of cultivation as well as ancient roads.

Petersen fig 4

Fig 4. Corona Image showing line of city wall (red) ancient canal (yellow) and edge of flood zone (blue)

2. Location of previous archaeological excavations

            One of the main priorities of this fieldwork was to identify the location and character of archaeological excavations which have already been carried out.  Summary publication of numerous excavations carried out in Basra during the 1970’s to 1990’s have appeared in SUMER (The official journal of the State Board of Archaeology and Heritage).  In addition there is information on archaeological work in Basra in a book published in Sharjah by Abd al-Sattar al-Azawi.  The excavations reported in SUMER give approximate details of location of excavations but little information on any structures or finds within the excavated areas.  The publication by ‘Abd al-Sattar deals primarily with the mosque excavations as well as the restoration work carried out. In addition to these know archaeological excavations there appear to be numerous archaeological excavations since the 1990’s which are unpublished.

            During the course of the field work we were shown six excavated sites (not including the Congregational Mosque) which have been conserved and in one case provided with a roof.  Plans of some of these building appear in the summary publications and in other cases plans have been located in the archives in Baghdad.  One of the conserved building had the remains of a serdab (underground chamber) located in the courtyard.  Unfortunately the date of the excavated buildings was in most cases unclear although ceramics in the vicinity indicate that they could be related to later occupation (see below).

Petersen fig 5

Fig 5. Fired brick remains in excavation in Area B

3. Surface material

            The ceramics of old Basra are important both as an indicator of the dating for various parts of the site and also because Basra was known as a very important ceramic production centre.  Given the huge size of the site and the need to gain some idea of any differentiation of occupation over the area the site was divided into three zones (A, B and C) separated by the three major rods which lead east to west.  There is a possibility for adding further zones as well as subdividing each zone into small areas.  During this first phase of fieldwork collection of ceramics was limited to areas around known excavation sites in order to get some idea of the dating and character of these areas.  All diagnostic sherds were photographed and drawn.

Petersen fig 6

Fig 6. Site of Early Islamic Basra Divided into Survey Areas

            Preliminary results indicate ceramics form the thirteenth century (e.g. Iranian stone-paste) to eighth century (white ware) and earlier.  As all the ceramics collected were surface material they can only be taken as indicative rather than definitive evidence of occupation in particular areas of the site.

Petersen fig 7

Fig 7. Ceramic finds from Area A. Sherds A and B are Iraqi White ware bowl fragments, C is a fragment of a small Chinese Porcelain bowl

4. Photogrammetric survey

            The UAV survey was carried out using a Phantom Quadracoptor at a height of 150 metres and photographed the two main unoccupied areas of the site (security restrictions meant that we were unable to use a fixed wing drone which would have covered a much larger area).  The resultant set of overlapping images were then linked to fixed points on the ground which were located using a Differential GPS Total Station.  The accuracy of the terrain modelling was then checked using a mobile antenna.  The resultant photomosaic which is still being processed will give a 3D relief map of the surveyed areas with an accuracy of 2cms.  This will form the base for a archaeological map of the whole site which will include information derived from survey work, previous excavations and archive material.

Professor Andrew Petersen 
School of Archaeology, History and Anthropology
University of Wales Trinity Saint David

Petersen fig 8

Fig 8. Frank Stremke (UAV Specialist) calibrating camera on drone