Al-Raqqa is one of the fourteen Syrian governorates (provinces). Established as a governorate with administrative borders in the 1960s, the province of Al-Raqqa is located in the north-eastern region of the Syrian Arab Republic. The region is bordered on the north by Turkey, on the east by the governorates of Deir al-Zour and Al-Hasakah, and on the south and west by the governorates of Aleppo, Hama, and Homs. Al-Raqqa has an area of 19,620 km2 and constitutes 10% of the area of Syria. The capital of the province is the city of Raqqa.
The city of Raqqa, on the right bank of the Euphrates River, is the center of the province of al-Raqqa. Many other cities, villages, and towns line the Euphrates River in the Provence, such as Al-Tabqa, Al Karamah, Moudan, and Tell Abyad.
Surveys were conducted of the hills along the Euphrates and Balikh rivers by William Albright in 1926 and Max Mallowan in 1938. These surveys revealed many archaeological sites and important civil communities. The Euphrates and Balikh are the vital arteries for the emergence of the kingdom, and these rivers encouraged economic growth by supporting agricultural production, transport routes, and fertile pasture land.
The city of Raqqa witnessed many successive civilizations from prehistoric times to the Ottoman period. Near the city center is the ancient site of Tell Zaidan, which dates back to the Neolithic. In the Bronze Age the site of Tell Bi’a, or ancient Tuttul, provides some of the greatest historical evidence in the area and is regarded as an important port for ships. The site flourished at the same time as the kingdoms of Mari (Tell Hariri) and Yamhad (Aleppo). The Belgian archaeologist Russan is credited with discovering the site, and a German mission began working with the site in 1982. The site is mentioned in a translated cuneiform tablet from Mari, which referred to a city located at the convergence of the Euphrates River and the River Balikh.
The archaeological site is about 3 km from the city center and excavations there have revealed important remains from the Hellenistic and Roman periods. After Alexander, the Great came to the region in 333 BC, one of his generals, Seleukos Nikator, founded a city named Nicoforium. In the Roman period, the name was changed to Kalinkium (269 AD) and in the Byzantine period, the city was rebuilt after being destroyed by a violent earthquake and renamed the Lioness (473-474 AD). Continuous excavations have shown many mosaics and architectural structures from the Roman and Byzantine periods. The city flourished in a time when many churches and places of worship spread throughout the region and along the Euphrates River, and the word Al-Bayaa means the church.
The Islamic period is considered the golden period of the city of Raqqa, called Al-Ajami by The Arabs. In the year 639 or 640 AD, the city fell to the Muslim conqueror Iyad ibn Ghanm. Umayyad period excavations near the shrine of Oyes Al-Qarni show the appearance of remnants of a wall similar to the Umayyad style in the palace of Al-Hair in Badia Al-Cham. The Abbasid era was especially prosperous for Raqqa and the importance of the city. It was around the time of the construction of Baghdad that Al- Caliph Abu Jaafar al-Mansour sent his son al-Mahdi to Al-Raqqa and ordered the establishment of a new city with a circular wall similar to Baghdad. He called this new city Rafiqa. The new city had a double wall fortified by towers and gates built of mud and brick. The wall was built along the Euphrates on one side of the city, and its overall shape resembled a horseshoe.
The wall of the city extends for 5 km and encloses 1.468.000 m2. It consists of two lines of brick, with a width of 20 m. There is a tiled defensive ditch before the outer wall that is 9.50 m wide and 15.90 m tall with bricks measuring 40x40x5 cm. The walls were equipped with a set of defensive towers. In these towers, the brick used measure 40x20x11 cm and the bricks in the shaft measure 27x7 cm. Only the interior wall still stands, and the residents of Raqqa at the beginning of the last century reused many of the bricks to build homes and dwellings. The General Directorate did continuous repair work on the wall where the brick and fragile raw material was exposed and affected by the elements. After the beginning of the crisis in Syria parts of the wall fell due to shelling and exchange of fire.
The date of the construction of the mosque coincides with the construction of Rafiqa in the era of Abu Jaafar al-Mansur (155 AH according to the Islamic calendar, or 772 AD). The mosque is located in the center of the city of Rafiqa, the northern part of which was built of brick and had a number of towers. The mosque is a rectangular shape of 110x98 m and the prayer hall is a large square shape of 98x30 m. The still standing circular minaret is located in the courtyard of the mosque, and it was built by Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zenki in 1166 AD.
Qasr al-Banat, Girls Castle or Palace of the Girls, is a set of brick ruins in the Syrian city of Raqqa dating from the 12th century. This building may have been the Bimarstan (Arabic for ‘hospital’), or it could have been later converted to the Bimarstan. The building is located in the south-eastern part of the city of Rafiqa and is about 400 meters from the Baghdad Gate. The site was visited by Hertfeld, who described and documented the site and made accurate drawings. In 1977 the General Directorate conducted excavations and removed the rubble to reveal the existence of a building with a central courtyard amid a group of rooms up to six square meters and with two big granite blocks. The remains of the second floor are decorated with plaster, stucco windows, and stained glass. The dimensions of the palace are 24x42m, and the remains of the second floor are decorated with gypsum window frames and stained glass.
The historical sources mention the existence of several gates in the city of Rafiqa, similar to the city of Baghdad: Bab al-Jinan, Bab al-Sabal, and Bab-Baghdad (the Baghdad Gate). None of these gates except the Baghdad Gate has survived. The archaeologist Hertfeld excellently documented the Baghdad Gate in the early 20th century and the door shows the influence of Mesopotamian architecture through the use of bricks. The decoration consists of two upper layers with a group of niches with Abbasid-style arches, of which only eleven were left. The basement contains the entrance or the main gate.
North of the city of Rafiqa, the Caliph Harun al-Rashid and his entourage established a group of palaces. In 796-808 AD the Caliph Harun moved to the city and launched a large expansion of the area of covered palaces, which was 4 km long and 5 km wide along the north-west side of the Old City. Until the outbreak of war in 2010, many of the frescoes from this area were displayed in the archaeological museum of Raqqa. The frescoes are adorned with floral and geometric designs and they decorated the palace on pavilions, doors, and the interior walls of the palace halls.
Seven kilometers to the west of the center of the city of Al-Raqqa a remarkable building was excavated by the Syrian DGAM in 1977. The stone structure represents the base of an unfinished building built by the Caliph Harun al-Rashid and as a memorial to celebrate his victory over the Byzantines in the year 190 AH (806 AD). The building is a square of 100x100m and contains a square center surrounded by a circular wall and water supply channel from the nearby Euphrates River. The area also contains a set of ovens used to manufacture the bricks used in the restoration of the walls and buildings of ancient Raqqa. Tragically, close to the archaeological ruins stood an important archaeological depot that stored finds from archaeological expeditions in Raqqa Province. The Hiraqla storehouse was utterly looted by armed groups that broke into Al-Raqqa in 2013.
Many other important archaeological sites have been investigated by archaeologists in the rural areas outside the city center. These include Medinat al-Far, located north of Raqqa, which was an Umayyad settlement founded by Musallamah ibn Abd al-Malik, the site of Tell Sabi Abyad, the site of Tell Hammam al-Turkman, and the site of Tell Chuera. On the banks of Lake Al-Assad (Lake Tabqa) there exist many archaeological sites such as Swaihat, Mumbaqa, and Qal'at Ja'bar. One of the castles has towers with a distinctive construction that dates to pre-Islamic times.
Another important city is al Rasafa. The city was built with limestone and was of great military importance because it was located in the Thoghor area during the period of Roman-Persian conflict. The city contains many important churches and the Roman officer Sergius, who converted to Christianity, died outside the city. Additionally, several palaces were built in the Umayyad period as shown through remains of decorative plaster that is similar to the decorations in Umayyad palaces.