Key facts

► The city of Raqqa has experienced an incredible urban growth during the second half of the XXI century that lead a small village to become a city of more then 250.000 inhabitants.

► The siege and conquest of the city by Daesh forces (that turned it into their self-proclaimed capital) has caused radical changes in the behaviour of inhabitants and on their daily life.

► All the public buildings have been either destroyed (such as the Uwais al-Qarni Mosque) or changed in usage into governmental buildings for the caliphate. Current archeological and historical sites are also endangered by areal bombings of the city.

► The fundamental link between the city and the Euphrates river has been transformed into a danger by threatening the destruction of the nearby dams.

Star of the fertile crescent, Raqqa is a city of contact between three worlds: the world of nomadic pastors, the sedentary world and that of the city dwellers. This definition, in the sense of relative economic and political positioning, is quasi-meta-historical. It makes sense both in the Mesopotamian period, under the Arab and Ottoman empires, and in the contemporary period, so much did the prosperity of the fertile Crescent depend on the presence of a State capable of carrying out large-scale hydraulic works and of controlling nomadic populations. As Samir Amin reminds us in his study of Syria and Iraq in the 1970s: “The fertile Crescent is fertile only in comparison with the desert of the Arabian Peninsula which extends on its southern flank. For it is actually a semi-arid region. Agricultural prosperity thus depends to a large extent on the capacity of the State to guarantee the perenniality of the works.

Raqqa’s countryside is remarkable for the multiplicity of development programs that have been applied in the twentieth century. Policy on land endowment of great chiefs during the French Mandate; rush to the “white gold” of cotton in the 1950s by initiative of tradesmen from Aleppo; Euphrates design starting from the Baathist revolution of 1963 and then opened to the market with the privatization of the State farms. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, the emergence of a vibrant private sector was still evident, but the State was still very much present, with the maintenance of its structures to supervise the population via the Baath Party and the implementation of the new development project of East Syria.

These different phases of development were carried by abundant discursive productions aimed at legitimizing state action and gaining political support from the middle classes of semi-nomadic peasants in the region. The development projects of the Syrian Jazira depended on the evolution of society under the influence of colonization, the emergence of great ideologies (socialist, Baathist) and, since the 1990s, the Return of the identity and tribal affirmations now tolerated.

In 1999, fresco more than fifteen meters long was erected at the main entrance of Raqqa, at the end of the new bridge over the Euphrates. Entitled “Raqqa, from Harun al-Rashid to Hafez al-Assad”, it represents the president and the seated caliph, conversing on both sides of the dam and the river, surrounded by scholars and young people in uniform. This monument is an allegory of the development of Raqqa since the construction of the Assad dam. It summarizes thirty years of state and municipal rhetoric about Raqqa. In the 1970s, while the state took control of the Euphrates Valley through the creation of irrigated perimeters, model farms, and production cooperatives, the city of Raqqa became, after Al-Thawra, the second The biggest urban project in Syria and the field of experimentation of urban planning projects aimed at modifying its spatial organization (creation of administrative zones, parade places, gardens, monuments). These projects were supported by a rhetoric that anchored the urban renewal of the city in the glory of a magnificent Abbassid past. This rhetorical construction had the peculiarity of being based on a medieval literary image, brought to light by local historians. The purpose of the territorial communication developed by the government and the municipality of Raqqa was to replace the recent memory of the Raqqawis with the elements of an Arab golden age that could integrate them into the great history of the Syrian Arab nation. The rhetorical construction of Raqqa as “pearl of the Euphrates” and “Arab capital” was based on the valorization of the archaeological remains testifying to the glorious past of the city. A whole process of identification and renovation of the Arab heritage of the city was undertaken by the municipality. Raqqa then became exemplary of the instrumentalization of patrimonial renovation in the service of power, its restored Abbasid remains giving the reason for a discursive production valorising the two ages of gold of Abbasid and Baathist.

Hectares of Irrigated Land

Population working in
the agricolture sector

Days under Daesh Control

Territoriality, thus understood, bears witness to a “culturally lived relationship between a group and a web of hierarchical and interdependent places, whose figure on the ground constitutes a spatial system, in other words a territory”. Raqqa is the object of multiple territorial constructions on the part of the State, the governorate and the Raqqawis. These territories are organized around places signified by more or less ritualized practices. Places pre-existing in the city, such as its archaeological remains and medieval tombs; Places built by ancient Raqqawis, such as the Ottoman seraglio and the hospitality houses (madafa); Recent sites designed by the State: cultural center, public squares and souks. Reinterpreted or subverted, they serve as an anchor for conflicting territorialities that mark the space needed to maintain the value system of a social group. The question of urban identity arises in the relatively new town of Raqqa, which is inhabited by social groups defined above all in relation to the tribes from which they originate, and a minority of them in relation to the city itself.

Text from: Life under Isis in Raqqa and Mosul: We’re living in a giant prison, The Guardian 9 December 2015

In March 2013 Islamist jihadist militants from Al-Nusra Front and other groups (including the Free Syrian Army) overran the government loyalists in the city in the Battle of Raqqa and declared it under their control after seizing the central square and pulling down the statue of the former president of Syria Hafez al-Assad. Migration from Aleppo, Homs, Idlib and other inhabited places to the city occurred as a consequence of the uprising against Assad, the city was known as the hotel of the revolution by some because of the fact of people from other places staying there.
Daesh took complete control of Raqqa by 13 January 2014. Daesh proceeded to execute Alawites and suspected supporters of Bashar al-Assad in the city and destroyed the city’s Shia mosques and Christian churches such as the Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs, which has since been converted into a Daesh headquarters.

Interviews with residents and activists in Raqqa paint a picture of a Soviet-style dictatorship that has failed at providing basic services and justice to citizens. Much has changed after two years of brutal rule by Isis, says Ramadan, a Raqqa native, who describes the city now as a “giant prison”. It is difficult to contact individuals living in Raqqa, as Isis has banned internet at home and closed down most cyber cafes.

Mobile phones are banned, people are not allowed to smoke cigarettes and those caught listening to music are punished. The militants punish people who use the internet and mobile phones, fearing that they may provide intelligence to their enemy. Tired of hardship and living in constant fear of the militants and bombardment, hundreds are defying a ban on leaving, often paying large sums to smugglers to get them out. Those who are caught fleeing are punished severely.

In Raqqa, the Isis surveillance state is in full swing. Cameras on major roads and near Isis headquarters keep a close eye on the civilians in the city, and patrols of the local police are unrelenting. The men also have a dress code – loose clothes, no beard shaving, and are prone to being stopped and searched at random, with police inspecting mobile phones for any signs of dissidence or immorality. Last month, Isis began stopping people from leaving except in exceptional medical circumstances, reinforcing their checkpoints around the city’s entrances. They have kept rotating fighters periodically, to give residents a sense that the group remains powerful despite recent setbacks on the battlefield. Electricity is available sporadically, based chiefly on the whim of the militants. It remains unclear how airstrikes on oil and gas installations have affected energy supplies within the territory.

Propaganda and indoctrination are everywhere. Images of medieval beheadings and hand chopping, characteristic of Isis’s law enforcement and which evoke such outrage abroad, are so commonplace in Raqqa that locals have been desensitised. When every minor infraction engenders a few dozen lashes in a public square, there is little that shocks people.Worse, they have infused their ideology into school curricula, and recruited youngsters into their feared police apparatus, sending many as suicide bombers and appointing teenagers to run security within the city. “In school, the books don’t have math problems that ask you what two plus two is; the math problem is always two guns plus two guns equals what”.