FOR THE third time in its history, the city of Raqqa is in ruins. It was first destroyed by the Persians in the early sixth century when it was known as Callinicum but was rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor Justinian shortly thereafter. The second time it was destroyed—by the Mongols in the mid-thirteenth century—it took centuries for the city to be rebuilt; its time as a political and intellectual center of the Islamic world had come to an abrupt end. The once and future capital of the Islamic caliphate was described as uninhabited ruins by historian Abu al-Fida in the early fourteenth century.
Several centuries after Raqqa’s second destruction, the Ottoman Empire took over the area in 1516 AD, and early in their tenure, a small population returned to the area. Members of the Abu Sha’aban tribe arrived in Raqqa in the mid-sixteenth century from Iraq, the first of several tribal migrations to the area during Ottoman rule, and a tax census from the 1560s records fifty-seven Muslim households and fourteen non-Muslim households in the town. However, according to tribal lore, the initial Abu Sha’aban tribesmen believed the abandoned city to be occupied by genies and demons and did not enter at night, living just outside the ruins.
It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that the city really started to come back to life. Tribes in the area were settling down from their nomadic lifestyle, with others arriving from Iraq and Turkey, and, leading up to World War I, Circassian refugees were settled in the town after fleeing the Russian conquest of the Caucasus. They would be followed by survivors of the Armenian Genocide in 1915–16, who were by-and-large protected from the Ottoman government by locals. Residents started building houses out of the mud bricks that had made up the palaces of the likes of Harun al-Rashid, one of the most famous caliphs in Islamic history and star of A Thousand and One Nights. The Ottoman Imperial Museum was concerned that the site was being pillaged but was powerless to stop it. Raqqa’s famous medieval pottery made its way onto the antiquities black market.
In the twentieth century, Raqqa became a city again. By 1960, the town’s population had grown to 13,000. The 1970s brought the construction of Tabqa Dam just upstream on the Euphrates River, providing cheap electricity for industry and steady water for modernized irrigation. By 2004, the population was 220,000. But in 2017, after a century of steady growth and more than seven hundred years after the Mongols swept through and destroyed Raqqa, the city was once again largely destroyed. American, French and British airstrikes, which allowed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to oust the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from the city, turned it into a skeleton.
BUT THIS time around it will not take centuries to rebuild Raqqa. In fact, the effort is already well underway and began almost immediately after the SDF took the city from ISIS in October 2017. The Raqqa Civil Council oversees the city’s reconstruction, and tangible progress has been made. I was accompanied on a trip into the city in December by Abu Ali, the “Fox of Raqqa” as his colleagues called him, who was astonished at the progress made in the city over the course of the last year. Gone were the berms and rubble that impeded movement throughout the city shortly after ISIS left. People were going about their business in the city, which was quite active the day we visited. On a second visit to Raqqa in April, I saw progress continuing at a steady pace, though the amount of work that remains is staggering.
Running water is now available throughout the city and public buses are running again. Electricity is not yet available everywhere—local generators fill the gap until the grid is functional again throughout the city. The most dangerous task at hand has been dealing with the mines ISIS left behind. Impatient residents began going back into their homes and offices before they had been cleared, and lost lives or limbs as a result. An estimated 3,700 residents are in need of prosthetics, and work on demining continues.
The campaign to remove ISIS from Raqqa came after a turbulent several years for the city. Before 2011 it was a relatively quiet provincial capital, mostly removed from Syria’s political machinations. When the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, calling for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, things evolved more slowly in Raqqa than elsewhere. But when a young man named Ali al-Babinsi was killed by police during the protest commemorating the first anniversary of the revolution in March 2012, the city erupted. Within a year, the city became the first provincial capital to fall out of government control, and local activists scrambled to prove that the regime could leave a major city and governance would not immediately fall apart.
Unfortunately, young protestors and activists were not the only ones with designs on the city, and the chaos brought about by the departure of an all-encompassing regime allowed groups of all stripes to surface and vie for control. Islamists emerged from inside and outside the city. ISIS eventually kicked everyone else out—Islamist or otherwise—who had a claim on authority, and jihadists came from all over the world to participate in ISIS’ experiment: the revival of the Islamic caliphate, which hadn’t existed since the Ottoman Empire’s collapse at the end of World War I. The city became the terrorist group’s de facto capital, and was made famous for all the wrong reasons: public beheadings, stonings, disappearances and the revival of slavery.
However, the world’s attention turned to the new hub of a terrorist organization that launched attacks in Europe and elsewhere, and the United States and its allies backed the Syrian Democratic Forces’ campaign to take Raqqa from ISIS. The battle was devastating to the city, leaving it in ruins for at least the third time in its history. But it wasn’t just houses and public buildings that were damaged during the battle to retake the city—many of the historic sites in and around the city were also damaged. Most buildings in modern Raqqa date to the twentieth century, but around the city lie scattered remains of the Raqqa that existed before its destruction by the Mongols in the thirteenth century.
The many crimes of ISIS include the group’s attempts to erase history that they deemed heretical or unsuitable to their iconoclastic vision of Islam. The group famously destroyed important landmarks in the historic city of Palmyra/Tadmor in the desert south of Raqqa and the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul. In Raqqa itself, the group destroyed the Uwais al-Qarni shrine—a modern Shiite mosque dedicated to two early Islamic figures killed at the Battle of Siffin, an early battle in the emerging Sunni-Shiite divide which took place about thirty-five miles west of Raqqa along the Euphrates. Other sites in the city fared better, but war and neglect took their toll even on sites that the group left alone.
NOW THAT Raqqa is liberated from ISIS, and reconstruction is well underway, the hard work of documenting what is missing or destroyed, and preserving what is left, falls to residents of Raqqa and those willing to help them. During my visit to the city in December, staff from the Raqqa Civil Council’s Office of Museums and Antiquities showed me around the city’s museum, where many of the artifacts from historic sites from northern Syria had been kept. First built as an Ottoman police outpost, the building was later used by French authorities during France’s mandate in Syria between the two world wars.
Nearly every piece at the museum was looted during and even before ISIS’ takeover of the city and has presumably made its way onto the antiquities black market. The pieces that remain were probably just too difficult to move, including larger stone inscriptions and statues kept in the museum’s garden, and mosaics hanging on the museum’s walls. The Office of Museums and Antiquities is working to document missing pieces. This information will be key to enabling Interpol, the international policing agency, to intercept artifacts and return them to their rightful owners: the people of Raqqa.
After the city’s liberation, the most immediate task was to make the museum safe to enter. Mines, left behind by ISIS, were removed by internal security forces and the international coalition. The roof, damaged by artillery, was repaired and the building itself cleaned up. This work at the museum is an important step in preserving Raqqa’s heritage, but it is the historical and archaeological sites in and around Raqqa—a living museum of thousands of years of human history—where the real work of keeping the city’s history alive will be done.