People mingling around the entrance to the government palace and bazaar in Raqqa. Circa 1910s. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. Watter Fréres
When the civil war erupted in 2011, Syria was still far from being a major tourist destination and only a few of its cities resonated with the outside world. Those include Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, and to a lesser extent Homs which are known for either their souks, citadels, gigantic water wheels, quaint neighborhoods, or a combination of any of these features. Raqqa, on the other hand, was not among Syria’s illustrious cities. It wasn’t until January 2014, when the terror group ISIS took control of Raqqa, that it became recognized, but only to be associated with terrible oppression and suffering. However, the city has a history that dates back to antiquity and it has had its golden years as well as dark periods since those days.
Raqqa, Syria’s sixth largest city, is located in an oil-rich province which bares the same name on the northern banks of the Euphrates River, about 160 kilometers east of Aleppo. Before the war broke out, Syria had been experiencing a tourism revival and there was a drive to restore ancient ruins in places off the beaten track like the Euphrates river valley and the country’s far eastern regions. The area surrounding Raqqa was particularly rich in historical sites and was the site of a number of excavation.
Panorama of Raqqa, circa 1910s, alongside the modern city, circa 1970s. Norbert Schiller Collection, phot. (L) Watter Fréres, Phot. (R) Syrian Min. of Tourism
All that changed when the city found itself in the eye of the storm as several rebel groups vied for power in that part of the country. With much of its approximately 300,000 population made up of Sunni Arab tribes, Raqqa became a natural center of rebellion against Bashar el Assad’s Alawite regime. It attracted several rebel groups including al Nusra Front, the Free Syrian Army, and ISIS which eventually prevailed over the other two. When it captured Raqqa, ISIS declared the city the capital of its self-declared Islamic caliphate and imposed a reign of terror on the population.
When the U.S. began its bombing campaign in Syria in September 2014, the territory held by ISIS gradually shrunk and the group’s fighters became consolidated to small pockets of resistance. One such pocket is Raqqa where, according to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 civilians were being held hostage by nearly one thousand militants. Based on aerial footage, it is hard to imagine that anyone could still live in Raqqa. Like Homs, Syria’s third largest city, Raqqa looks like a scene from a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. The city has been ferociously destroyed by the fighting.
The Baghdad Gate circa 1910s, alongside the same gate circa 1970s. The gate and wall were built in the 8th century, during the Abbasid period. Norbert Schiller Collection, phot. (L) Watter Fréres, Phot. (R) Syrian Min. of Tourism
Raqqa has had its fair share of turmoil in its long history, mainly due to its strategic location along one of the Middle East’s many trade routes. The city’s origin dates back to the 3rd century BCE, when it was known as the ancient Greek settlement of Nicephorium. After witnessing a decline under Roman rule, it regained prominence under the rule of Byzantine Emperor Leo I and was renamed Leontropolis. In 542, the city was razed to the ground by the Persians and then rebuilt by Emperor Justinian I four decades later.
The city gained prominence after the Arab Muslim invasions of the 7th century. During what is known as the golden era of Islam, the ruler of the Abbasid caliphate Harun el Rashid moved the capital from Baghdad to Raqqa which remained the center of the empire from 796 until 809. Beginning in the 9th century, the city entered another turbulent era as it became caught in the midst of another power struggle. In 1260, it was finally wiped out by the Mongol invasions.
At the beginning in the 16th century, under Ottoman rule, Raqqa became a customs post on the Euphrates. It wasn’t until the worldwide cotton boom of the 1950s that the city began to develop economically and cotton remained one of its biggest exports until the outbreak of the war.
An original photo showing the ruins of a mosque build during the Abbasid period circa 1930s, alongside the same mosque circa 1970s. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. (R) Syrian Min. of Tourism
Following are a few images in memory of a city and its people, both swallowed up by yet another wave of violence caused by power and greed. There are only a few early 20th century photographs of Raqqa that can be found today. Most of these images are postcards taken after WWI, during the French mandate. In addition to postcards, I have included two original photos most likely taken by members of the French military and a few slides commissioned by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism in the early 1970s.
Ruins of Harun el Rashid’s palace dating back to the Abbasid period in the 8th century. Circa 1910s. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. by Watter Fréres
Entrance to Raqqa. Circa 1910s. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. Watter Fréres
The grand el-Hamidie mosque in Raqqa. Circa 1910s. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. Watter Fréres
Bedouins camped near Raqqa. Circa 1910s. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. Watter Fréres
A boat crossing the Euphrates River near Raqqa. Circa 1910s. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. by Watter Fréres
Boats carrying supplies docked on the banks of the Euphrates River near Raqqa. Circa 1910s. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. by Watter Fréres
An original photograph of the Euphrates River between Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor, taken from the air by the French military. Circa late 1920s, early 30s. Norbert Schiller Collection