Harem wall painting fragments

Samarra, Iraq, 9th century AD

Harem wall painting fragments

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These fragments of wall-paintings from the harem baths at Jawsaq al-Khaqani provide a glimpse of important early examples of figurative art in the Islamic world.

These fragments of wall-paintings from the harem baths at Jawsaq al-Khaqani provide a glimpse of important early examples of figurative art in the Islamic world.

The two figures, displayed on these wall painting fragments, are probably slave girls from the harem of Caliph al-Muasim in Samarra, where the walls of the palaces were painted with large scenes of hunters, dancers, and drinkers. The palaces were also decorated with carved wooden panels and stucco (plaster).

The women of the palace were not just wives and concubines but were also poets and musicians. Harem girls were often highly trained in singing, music and literature and it was potentially an attractive career for a woman of humble origins.

Samarra was built in AD 836 as the new capital of the Islamic Empire. At the time it was one of the largest cities in the world, sprawling some 25 miles along the banks of the river Tigris.

Samarra’s name comes from the Arabic for 'Happy he who sees it' and it was created to house the court of Caliph al-Muasim (reigned AD 833-42) and army of Turkish slavesoldiers, after they increasingly came into conflict with the inhabitants of Baghdad.

The site includes palaces and mosques, built on an unprecedented scale, and also a large race-course. Many of the palaces are built right on the waterside, with steps leading down to an artificial water basin.

In AD 861 Samarra was abandoned. The city's decline mirrors that of the Islamic Empire, which became increasingly fragmented from AD 800 onwards.

Islamic Middle East


The Islamic lands have encompassed at different times Spain to the west and as far as the Malay world and China to the east.

Islamic Middle East world culture

Harem wall painting fragments


Harem wall painting fragments

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Object details

Height: 14.1 cm
Width: 10.2 cm
Depth: 3 cm
Height: 11 cm
Width: 10.5 cm
Depth: 2.7 cm


ME OA+.10620 OA+.10621 OA+.10622 OA +10618 OA +10619


    Excavated by Emst Herzfeld and Friedrich Sarre


    R. Ettinghausen and O.Grabar, The art and architecture of Islam 650-1250 (Pelican History of Art, 1987)

    H. Stierlin, Islam: early architecture from Baghdad to Jerusalem and Córdoba (Koln, Taschen, 1996)

    B. Brend, Islamic art (London, The British Museum Press, 1991)

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    F.R. Farag, ‘The Arabian Nights: a Mirror of Islamic Culture in the Middle Ages’, Arabica, 23 (1976), 197–211

    M.S. Gordon, ‘The Turkish Officers of Samarra: Revenue and the Exercise of Authority’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 42 (1999), 466–494

    S.A. Ismail, ‘The Founding of a New Capital: Samarra’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 31 (1968), 1–13

    A. Northedge, ‘An Interpretation of the Palace of the Caliph at Samarra (Dar al-Khilifa or Jawaq al-Khaqanil)’, Ars Orientalis, 23 (1993), 143–170

    A. Northedge, Historical Topography of Samarra (London, 2006)

    C.F. Robinson, A Medieval Islamic City Reconsidered: an Interdisciplinary Approach to Samarra (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001)