Sunday, August 02, 2009

Samarra, From Above

G.A. Beazeley, Aerial Oblique of Samarra, in Beazeley “Surveys in Mesopotamia During the War”, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 55, No. 2 (Feb. 1920)

In May 1917, a solitary, small two-seat reconnaissance plane took off from a forward airstrip near present-day Basra. The rear-seat observer was Lieutenant-Colonel George Adam Beazeley. His aircraft was assigned to the Royal Flying Corps No. 63 Squadron. Originally deployed in Western France in 1917, the Corps rerouted No. 63 Squadron to Mesopotamia later that year. Military planners decided that No. 63's state-of-the-art photographic and surveying instruments could be put to better use in finding, identifying, and mapping German and Turkish positions in the desert. This would suit Beazeley quite well: a graduate of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and member of the Royal Engineers, he was a capable officer well versed in the latest tools and methods of ground surveying.

Beazeley was one of a small group of officers entrusted with the task of producing survey maps of the banks of the Tigris River north of Baghdad. In an article for a 1919 issue of The Geographical Journal, Beazeley described how Colonel Gunter of the Royal Engineers and head of the Royal Flying Corps’ General Mapping Headquarters created an aerial survey methodology for No. 63 Squadron: “first to photograph the whole area from the air; then to reproduce 6-inch scale blue prints, transfer them to the plane-table; and carry out supplementary ground survey.”[1] Aerial photography, a technique that was still in its infancy even during the latter moments of the First World War, was deemed more important than the more time-honored techniques of ground surveying.

Beazeley did not lose sight of the fact that aerial photography provided a quick means of abstraction and representation that could eclipse the slow process of obtaining geodetic data. Moreover, aerial photography became a medium for discovery — it could reveal things otherwise unseen from the ground. For his 1919 article, Beazeley described the fruits of his aerial survey of the Tigris River, which ended in September 1917. He noted how Gunter’s method “was carried out, with the result that the remains of an ancient city were disclosed which would not otherwise have been discovered, in all probability. It was some 20 miles long and anything up to 2 ½ miles in width, and must have supported a population of about four millions.”[2] Here, Beazeley is referring to Samarra, the former capital of the Islamic world during the 9th century.

Aerial Photograph from Beazeley, “Surveys in Mesopotamia During the War”, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 55, No. 2 (Feb. 1920)

Beazeley’s claim that he discovered Samarra is complicated. German archaeologists Ernst Emil Herzfeld and Friedrich Sarre began their first excavations at Samarra between 1911 and 1913. The results of these excavations would figure prominently in later work such as Sarre’s Archaeologische Reise im Euphrat und Tigris-Gebeit (1911-1920) and more famously, Herzfeld’s multi-volume Die Ausgrabungen von Samarra, whose fourth installment, Geschichte der Stadt Samarra (1948), would feature Beazeley’s aerial photographs. Beazeley’s photographs are known to be some of the first-ever aerial views of an archaeological site, and are significant as historical documents as much as they are documents about history. And yet, we know about Beazeley's photographs primarily because of Herzfeld's text.

Beazeley's Aerial Photographs, Appearing in Ernst Emil Herzfeld, Geschichte der Stadt Samarra (1948)

Beazeley and Herzfeld used the same photographs of Samarra to suggest differing claims about the utility of the aerial view in archaeology. Beazeley was understandably excited about the future potential of his discovery and wrote about subsequent discoveries made from the air. For example, in 1919 he noted how “Surveys of areas for archaeological research can in the future be greatly assisted by air photography.”[3] For Herzfeld, however, the photographs were only ancillary: photographic embellishments to an exhaustive catalog of finds in Samarra.

Beazeley, Maps of Samarra and Baghdad Drawn from Aerial Photographs, in Beazeley, “Air Photography in Archaeology”, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 53, No. 5 (May 1919)

That these photographs enjoy an afterlife of sorts in the pages of Geschichte der Stadt Samarra is important because Beazley was unable to complete his task of interpreting his views of the Abbasid city. This is perhaps one reason why Beazeley’s own remarks about his aerial photographs of Samarra seem naïve or misinformed. Though he described Samarra’s streets and buildings “in plan very much like an American city”[4], Beazeley confessed that “[u]nfortunately I was shot down and captured before being able to make a detailed survey … during a lull in the military operations.”[5] Interned in a prisoner of war camp near Kut, and without his photographs, Beazeley relied on his own memory to create a series of sketched and contour drawings of Samarra.

Almost twenty years before the publication of Geschichte der Stadt Samarra, Beazeley's photographs were part of an early debate regarding the utility and future of aerial photography. O.G.S. Crawford, the staff archaeologist of Britain’s Geographic Survey during the interwar period, became interested in how Beazeley presented only a partial historical record. For a 1929 issue of The Geographical Journal, Crawford used the aerial photographs of Samarra to make a point about the growing importance of aerial photography, especially in the studying town plans. He writes:

The recovery of such plans is one of the main objects of archaeology; excavation has hitherto been the principal method employed; but it will, I think, be evident that air photography is often a quicker, cheaper, and more effective method of achieving the same object. The most conspicuous example up to the present is the Samarra district. The modern town of Samarra lies 65 miles north-north-east of Baghdad, on the left bank of the Tigris. It is now the only habitation there, the shrunken relic of a vast continuous mass of buildings 20 miles in length. The ruins were visited between 1830 and 1850 by Ross, Rich, and Felix Jones, who published useful accounts and plans. They were again visited and described by Herzfeld, Viollet, and Miss Bell early in the present century. Herzfeld's monograph (Berlin, 1907) is the standard work, upon which my remarks are based. Colonel Beazeley published two short papers in the Geographical Journal (May 19I9 and February 1920), illustrated by excerpts from war maps which had been compiled from air photographs. But he reproduced only one vertical air photograph, and it cannot be regarded as a success.[6]
And in 1954, when mentioning the same photographs, Crawford noted how Beazeley “discovered the most amazing things when flying over the Tigris valley 60 miles north of Baghdad.”[7] As in 1929, Crawford commended Beazeley for being able to take his pictures before he was captured. If sites like Samarra are “evanescent, and will not wait for the slow mobilization of official channels”[8], then it follows that the aerial photograph offers a way to record historical traces before they are buried by the literal and figurative sands of time.

It is possible that in this same article, Crawford presented a mild corrective to Beazeley’s articles from ten years earlier. In addition to giving Herzfeld his due and recognizing his earlier expeditions, Crawford stated how

The new subject of archaeological air photography was born in the Middle East during the War, and the first expositions were published in the Geographical Journal in 1919 and 1920. Colonel Beazeley’s pioneer work in that region, however, was not followed up. A few air photographs of ancient sites were taken and used to embellish books and articles; but they revealed little that was not already known. That was mainly because they were of the oldest sites in Mesopotamia, which, for the most part, are too deeply buried to reveal their plan. But it was already evident that there did exist a multitude of suitable sites both in Mesopotamia and in Trans-Jordan; and it was decided therefore to approach the Air Ministry, in the hope of enlisting their help. The result was very gratifying. An undertaking was given that, subject to certain obvious limitations, ancient sites might be included in the normal routine of practice photography. Further, it was agreed that these, and also many existing but obsolete negatives of sites abroad, should be handed over to the Director of the British Museum, to form the nucleus of a national collection.[9]
The aerial photographs of Samarra, as well as of other sites like Basra and Nineveh were properly archived. And although the quality and utility of these photographs improved as the photographic technology improved, the aerial photographs of Samarra continue to present problems. Beazeley’s photographs, for all their innovation, remain cryptic and of limited use when used along the text of Geschicte der Stadt Samarra. These photographs are also of limited value: not only are they low-resolution -- Beazeley failed to properly read them.

One reason is that Beazeley’s photographs of Samarra from 1917 are the product of a method fraught with error. Although they lack many of the notations for military aerial photos, they nevertheless bear many of the attributes we normally ascribe to aerial photographs of urban areas. Here, in plan, one can see the Great Mosque of Samarra, the al-Mutawwakil, with the familiar Malmiyya, or spiraling minaret. This is an unfamiliar view, as some of Beazeley’s photographs provide us with an oblique view. In these photographs, we also can get a sense of the how the great mosque sits within its larger urban context. Indeed, it was Beazeley who postulated that Samarra did not consist of a unitary urban core, but rather a network of small cities. He was describing what, in contemporary urban parlance, we would call a polycentric city. Although we do not have the photographs of the various canals and ruined forts that Beazeley saw, we do have the various drawings he made based on existing maps and from memory. Again, we remind ourselves of Beazeley’s decidedly modern slant when he describes Aski Baghdad as “in plan very much like a modern American city.”[10]

(Top) RFC Projectograph (Bottom) “Four-Point” Map to Photo Calibration Method, both from M.N. MacLeod, “Mapping From Air Photographs”, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 53, No. 6 (June 1919)

For all the inaccuracies involved in the taking of these aerial photographs, we must be somewhat forgiving towards Beazeley, who wasn’t exactly a student of history. Aerial photography, when used to verify terrestrial information, was a process fraught with difficulties. This is primarily because as Beazeley exposed the photographic plates, the camera was shaking and swaying due to the aircraft’s own movements. Using devices like the projectograph (above), he would have had to ensure that the geodetic control points on a survey map fit precisely with an aerial photograph for either to be of any use. 

Photographic Requirements, from Report on Aviation and Flying Operations in Mesopotamia, 1915-1916 (May 1915) (Air Ministry Archives, AIR 1/504/16/3/23)

This level of precision required a pilot to fly an airplane at a level altitude with no degree of pitch. In addition, the Royal Flying Corps’ photographic manual and guidelines required all aerial photos to be taken from an altitude of 6,000 feet or higher.[11] This not only ensured that a reconnaissance aircraft was immune from ground fire, but also minimized the aircraft’s exposure to lateral wind shear.

In all, the photographs undermine the technocratic enthusiasm usually reserved to aerial photography. These are, after all, only pictures of half-buried ruins – it is impossible to play the Corbusian fantasy and pretend that anyone can learn anything about cities (or for that matter, Islamic cities) from this process. Crawford certainly anticipated this sentiment in his 1929 article. We are reminded how, when considering Beazeley’s aerial photographs of Samarra, Crawford stated blankly that they “cannot be regarded as a success.”[12]

Yet one wonders just how expansive Crawford’s indictment really is. After dismissing Beazeley’s aerial photographs, Crawford begins to detail all the pertinent archaeological information about Samarra. “We are fortunate,” writes Crawford, “in possessing a detailed description of these ruins written by a contemporary – the Arab chronicler Ya’qubi, who wrote in 889 A.D.”[13] This is a vital moment, as Crawford’s invocation of Ya’qubi occurs some 11 years before K.A.C. Creswell’s treatment of Samarra’s buildings in the second volume of his Early Muslim Architecture. Here, medieval scholarship trumped the use value of the aerial photograph

If the aerial photography of Samarra is deemed a failure because of diminished utility, we can rest assured that this lacuna is more than made up for by subsequent scholarship. But no matter the results of Beazeley’s work, technology fares very well. Crawford summed this up in 1929, speculating about the future of aerial photography:

The airplane, merely as a means of conveyance, is by far the best invention of man, for it is swift, safe, and comfortable. As an instrument of archaeological research it is (with a camera) second only to excavation, and sometimes even more effective. The photographs … a selection only from 1700, the nucleus, I hope, of a great national collection – will inaugurate a new epoch in oriental studies. The future of exploration, and not only of archaeological exploration, is literally in the air.[14]


[1] G.A. Beazeley, “Air-photography in Archæology”, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 53, No. 5 (May, 1919), p. 330.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., p. 334
[6] O.G.S. Crawford, “Air Photographs of the Middle East”, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 73, No. 6 (Jun., 1929), p. 498.
[7] Crawford, “A Century of Air-Photography”, Antiquity, Vol. 28, No. 112 (Dec., 1954), p. 209.
[8] Ibid., p. 210.
[9] Crawford, “Air Photographs of the Middle East,” p. 497.
[10] Beazeley, “Air-photography in Archæology”, p. 330.
[11] Report on Aviation and Flying Operations in Mesopotamia, 1915-1916 (May 1915) (Air Ministry Archives, AIR 1/504/16/3/23).
[12] Crawford, “Air Photographs of the Middle East”, p. 498.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., p. 509.