Mosul Gate

Alternative Names

Bahdinan Gate, Western Gate


ca. 1233–1259 AD

MMM Documentation Dates
Fall 2013; Spring 2018; Fall 2019
Site Type
City Gates and Fortifications
Commemorative Monuments
Duhok Governorate

    General Views of the Ascent

    Gate Interior/View of Gate and Staircase from within the Citadel

    Pathway to the Citadel (Stone Staircase)

    Gate Interior/View of Gate and Staircase from within the Citadel

    Citadel Exterior and Surrounding Landscape Viewed from the Vicinity of the Mosul Gate

    The Mosul Gate, also known as the Bahdinan Gate, is one of the two monumental portals that historically provided access to the citadel of Amadiya/Amedi (the other is no longer extant). Situated at the southwestern end of the city’s soaring fortification walls, it is approached by an ancient stone staircase whose final stretch runs directly alongside the western cliff face and its three Parthian-era rock reliefs (see the panorama; see the photogrammetric reconstruction). The gate was built in the 13th century AD, at the close of the reign of the Zengid dynasty.

    The Mosul Gate was constructed at the southwestern end of the Amadiya/Amedi citadel. Integrated into the citadel fortifications that were rebuilt during the Zengid dynasty, the gate itself was erected during the reign of the breakaway ruler Badr ad-Din Lu’lu’ (r. 1225-1259 AD) and is dated on the basis of the original Arabic inscription of its outer frame. 

    The gateway is approached by a stone staircase built in antiquity. The final stretch of this staircase runs south along the citadel’s western cliff—passing by the three Parthian-era reliefs—and thus the facade of the gateway is oriented to the north (see the plan). The portal was constructed of fine ashlar masonry, with subsidiary parts of the structure built of more roughly hewn stone. Until fairly recent times, the portal was fitted with a wooden and iron door; beyond the portal, the gatehouse structure is formed into a corridor, originally vaulted, covering the southward continuation of the staircase (see the panorama). To the west of the corridor are two small chambers set in a rounded bay, built precipitously over a natural bastion of the cliff. At the southern end of the corridor, the staircase turns east and opens into the city (see the panorama).

    The gate was critically damaged due to a sudden collapse at the end of the 1960s. Some of the blocks along the left side of the portal were spared from the destruction, preserving the original masonry. The remainder of the structure, up to the rounded bay to the west, was reconstructed in the 1980s with errors in the placement of blocks. However, travelers’ drawings and photographs provide a record of its appearance before the collapse, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (see Walter Bachmann’s 1911 photograph).1 The gate was documented by the MMM team during several visits between 2013–2019, prior to the initiation of a project to stabilize the structure and to reconstruct the relief carving according to its original positioning of the sculpted blocks. 

    The portal’s outer frame was bordered with a band of Arabic inscriptions (now fragmentarily preserved only along the left side; see further in “Inscriptions”). The architrave was supported by six brackets—now four—with an additional two in the corners. The portal’s inner arch is adorned with an intricate relief. The large keystone block centers on a solar disc with a frontal face surrounded by the so-called “Syrian knot” motif. Directly below the solar disc, the knot wraps around a rosette before splitting outward in both directions. Across the surrounding blocks, the knot reveals itself to be composed of the bodies of two intertwined dragons. Their snaky bodies loop down the voussoirs, doubling back at the arch’s springing and straightening as they wrap up around the edge of the frame. The erroneous reconstruction of the blocks above the keystone obscures how the twist above the knot expanded outward into the dragons’ upper bodies with wings, claws and gaping jaws. Toward the edges of the spandrels were two symmetrical human figures (the figure to the left is largely in place; the figure to the right is now quite jumbled). This beaded, long-haired man, wearing a robe and boots, grasps the dragon by the jaws and stabs a sword into its neck. The doubling of the figure is an iconographic convention well known in the dragon-slayer imagery prevalent in this region; it more likely serves the interests of emblematic impact than of narrative purposes.2 The figures are set in a field of twisting vegetal patterns, which seems to be related to a tree-like motif rising from the corners and lining both the rectangular frame and the outer edge of the dragons’ bodies. 

    The “Snake Gate” that was once built into Amadiya/Amedi’s palace—probably a bit later in date—is decorated with similar dragons, though here they are subdued by a raptor. Both the raptor and the dragon are well attested in Seljuk iconography in Anatolia.3 More generally, the dragon was very common in the art of the medieval Islamic world.4 Originating in antiquity, this creature has deep roots in the region; it has been argued that its reuse on medieval Islamic portals in eastern Anatolia and Iraq served talismanic purposes.5 The inclusion of the victorious heroes on the Mosul Gate, along with the solar disc and lunette, adds additional layers of meaning to this particular representation.6 This likely relates to the creature’s threatening associations with eclipses, such that their defeat symbolizes triumph over chaos, while the heroic figures may have been based on legendary dragon-slayers (at least in iconographic terms); as the dragon was a multivalent image in Islamic art, a variety of meanings are possible and could have coexisted.7  

    • 1. Bachmann 1913, pl. 1. Several of Bachmann’s photographs, not published in his original work, are illustrated in Gierlichs 1995; see also the photograph published in al-Janabi 1982, pl. 175.
    • 2. Cf. Pancaroğlu 2004, 154. In the Byzantine period, the doubled figures were sometimes represented as St. Theodore and St. George. However, the identity of the dragon-slayer(s) is often vague in both Byzantine and Islamic contexts.
    • 3. See Katharina Otto-Dorn, “Figural Stone Reliefs on Seljuk Sacred Architecture in Anatolia,” Kunst des Orients 12, H 1/2 (1978–1979), 103–149. See also the comments and bibliography in al-Janabi 1982, 253 and n. 411.
    • 4. Kuehn 2013 provides the most recent overview, with numerous illustrations (on the Mosul Gate, see pp. 100–101).
    • 5. Persis Berlekamp, “Symmetry, Sympathy, and Sensation: Talismanic Efficacy and Slippery Iconographies in Early Thirteenth Century Iraq, Syria and Anatolia,” Representations 133, no. 1 (2017): 59–109.
    • 6. The relief bears especial similarities with that on the portal of the al-Han caravanserai, also commissioned by Lu’lu’. See Max van Berchem, “Arabische Inschriften” in Archäologische Reise im Euphrat- und Tigris-gebiet, eds. Friedrich Sarre and Ernst Herzfeld (Berlin: D. Riemer, 1911), 1–51, fig. 7; also published in al-Janabi 1982, fig. 51. Also note that a basin commissioned by Lu’lu’ in Mosul features personifications of Sol and Luna above addorsed dragons (Kuehn 2013, fig. 147).
    • 7. Generally, see Kuehn 2013. On the eclipse symbolism of dragons, see ibid., pp. 136-144; on the Mosul Gate, Gierlichs 1995, 203–205. Regarding the heroic figures, there is a long tradition of dragon-slayers in this region, connected to the iconography of St. George/St. Theodore and later to Khidr (see Pancaroğlu 2004; Kuehn 2013, 87–110). However, it is unusual that the figures on the portals at Amadiya/Amedi and al-Han and are not mounted (cf. Gierlichs 1995, 178).

    A long Arabic inscription was carved in relief within the band along the rectangular border of the portal. Now almost completely destroyed except for a few stretches along the left wall, it was already worn and missing in sections in the early 20th century, when the gate was first photographed. However, Joachim Gierlichs has used these photographs to read significant portions of the text.1 His reading of the inscription along the right jamb, picking up from an unrecoverable section at the beginning, is as follows: 

    • … [‘Izz li-Ma]ulānā as-Sultān al-Mālik al-Malik ar-Rahim al-‘Ālim al-‘Ādil al-Mu’ayyad al-Muzaffar al-Mansūr al-Mugāhid al-Murābit al-Mutāgir al-Gāzī Badr ad-Dunyā wad-Dīn …

    And on the left jamb: 

    • … [Ataba]k al-A‘āzam Abü al-Fada’il Lu’lu’ …

    This series of titles refers to the Zengid atabeg turned independent potentate of the Mosul region, Badr ad-Din Lu’lu’. These are titles that the ruler took after 1233, when he declared his full sovereignty.2 Thus, the inscription allows for a more precise dating of the monument than would otherwise be possible.

    • 1. Gierlichs 1995, 202.
    • 2. See Max van Berchem, “Arabische Inschriften” in Archäologische Reise im Euphrat- und Tigris-gebiet, eds. Friedrich Sarre and Ernst Herzfeld (Berlin: D. Riemer, 1911), 13–15, discussing the related inscription of Lu’lu’ at the al-Khan caravanserai; Gierlichs 1995, 195. The Mosul Gate was already attributed to Lu’lu’ in al-Janabi 1982, 253, though without providing details on the inscription.

    Although there was likely a monumental gate here already during the construction of Imad al-Din Zengi in 1142—and even earlier—the inscription along the border of the present gate indicates that it was commissioned by the ruler Badr ad-Din Lu’lu’ (see “Inscriptions”). In 1225 AD, this onetime atabeg and regent of the Zengid heir declared his independence and brought Mosul and Amadiya/Amedi, and several other cities in the region, under his personal control. The titles used in the inscription suggest that it was constructed after Lu’lu’ declared his full sovereignty in 1233 (and of course before his death in 1259). It has been suggested that the gate was erected in commemoration of Amadiya/Amedi’s role in Lu’lu’s rise to power; according to this view, the general apotropaic function of the victorious imagery would be complemented by a political message.1  

    It is of particular interest to consider the placement of the gate in relation to the other features along the citadel’s west side.2 The gate was constructed so as to integrate it with the ancient ascent, and the stonework of the staircase was not replaced. Moreover, the gate’s sculptural decoration, with its imagery drawn in part from ancient motifs, cannot but have resonated with the Parthian reliefs along the nearby cliffside—left in place in a presumably a deliberate act of preservation. This might be compared to ancient practices that appreciated the power of images and monuments to link past and present, and made concerted efforts to conserve material culture through time.3 

    It seems likely that the gate remained in fairly good condition until the fall of the Bahdinans in the 1830s. Perhaps its deterioration began with the military conflicts of the mid-19th century, which were reported to have caused widespread destruction throughout the citadel. Certainly, the vault over the corridor of the gatehouse had collapsed by the early 20th century—the time of the earliest photographs—though the portal remained in fairly good condition. The gate suffered a larger collapse in the 1960s, though the circumstances of this event remain unclear.4 A current Columbia University restoration project, begun in 2019, is working to stabilize the structure of the gate and stairway path, and to correct the errors resulting from the rebuilding of the 1980s—reconstructing the reliefs of the gate in such a way that approximates the original design.

    • 1. Gierlichs 1995, 203–206.
    • 2. Bahrani et al. 2018, 59–60.
    • 3. See Zainab Bahrani, The Infinite Image (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), 217–238.
    • 4. A photograph taken by Rainer Boehmer in 1972 shows the extent of the destruction; see Gierlichs 1995, fig. 4.

    Although Amadiya/Amedi was discussed by many historians and travelers from the medieval period through the early 20th century, they generally make little note of the gate. When they do mention the entrance, it is not always clear whether they are referring to the Mosul or Zibari Gate, though this can sometimes be ascertained. William Ainsworth, visiting the citadel in 1840, writes that the “guard-house under the gate was crowded with soldiers, who, however, offered us no interruption.”1 Henry Binder is the only traveler who commented (very cursorily) on the gate’s imagery.2 In 1911, Walter Bachmann created a diagram of the approach, including the gate’s ground plan, and a photograph of the gate’s facade, although viewed from a distance.3 The best photograph of the facade before its destruction—also taken in the early 20th century—was published by Tariq al-Janabi (1982).4 The last rendering of the gate before its destruction in the 1960s, a watercolor painting, was created by Ross Thomas in 1955.5

    • 1. Ainsworth 1842 (2), 196.
    • 2. Binder 1887, 202: “Cette porte est fort curieuse; la voûte extérieure en ogive est ornée d’un dessin d’arabesques et de serpents entrelacés.”
    • 3. Bachmann 1913, 1 and fig. 1; pl. 1. However, Bachmann also took a closer photograph, unpublished in his 1913 work; see Gierlichs 1995, n. 21 and fig. 2.
    • 4. Al-Janabi 1982, pl. 175. See also the prev. note.
    • 5. Gierlichs 1995, fig. 3.

    Ainsworth, William. 1842. Travels and Researches in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Chaldea, and Armenia. 2 vols. London: J. W. Parker.

    Al-Janabi, Tariq. 1982. Dirāsāt fī al-ʻimārah al-ʻIrāqīyah fī al-ʻuṣūr al-wusṭá. Baghdad: Wizārat al-Thaqāfah wa-al-Iʻlām. [English version: Al-Janabi, Tariq. 1982. Studies in Mediaeval Iraqi Architecture. Baghdad: Republic of Iraq, Ministry of Culture and Information, State Organization of Antiquities and Heritage.] 

    Bachmann, Walter. 1913. Kirchen und Moscheen in Armenien und Kurdistan. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrich.

    Binder, Henry. 1887. Au Kurdistan en Mésopotamie et en Perse. Paris: Maison Quantin.

    Gierlichs, Joachim. 1995. “Das Mosul-Tor von ‘Amādiya im Nord Iraq: Ein unbekanntes islamisches Figurenrelief und seine Bedeutung.” Baghdader Mitteilungen 26: 195–206.

    Kuehn, Sara. 2013. The Dragon in Medieval East Christian and Islamic Art. Leiden: Brill.

    Pancaroğlu, Oya. 2004. “The Itinerant Dragon-Slayer: Forging Paths of Image and Identity in Medieval Anatolia.” Gesta 43 (2): 151–164.

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    Matthew Peebles (2020)