Hellenistic and Byzantine Kallinikos
The area of Raqqa has been inhabited since remote antiquity, as is attested by the mounds (tells) of Tall Zaydan and Tall al-Bi'a, the latter being identified with the Babylonian city Tuttul.
The modern city traces its history to the Hellenistic period, with the foundation of the city of Nikephorion (Ancient Greek: Νικηφόριον, Latinized as Nicephorion or Nicephorium) by Seleucid King Seleucus I Nicator (reigned 301–281 BC). His successor, Seleucus II Callinicus (r. 246–225 BC), enlarged the city and renamed it after himself as Kallinikos (Καλλίνικος, Latinized as Callinicum). Isidore of Charax, in the Parthian Stations, writes that it was a Greek city, founded by Alexander the Great.
In Roman times, it was part of the Roman province of Osrhoene but had declined by the 4th century. Rebuilt by Byzantine Emperor Leo I (r. 457–474 AD) in 466, it was named Leontopolis (Λεοντόπολις or "city of Leon") after him, but the name Kallinikos prevailed. The city played an important role in the Byzantine Empire's relation with Sassanid Persia and the wars fought between the two empires. By treaty, the city was recognized as one of the few official cross-border trading posts between the two empires, along with Nisibis and Artaxata.
The town was near the site of a battle in 531 between Romans and Sasanians, when the latter tried to invade the Roman territories, surprisingly via arid regions in Syria, to turn the tide of the Iberian War. The Persians won the battle, but the casualties on both sides were high. In 542, the city was destroyed by the Persian Emperor Khusrau I (r. 531–579), who razed its fortifications and deported its population to Persia, but it was subsequently rebuilt by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565). In 580, during another war with Persia, the future Emperor Maurice scored a victory over the Persians near the city during his retreat from an abortive expedition to capture Ctesiphon.
Early Islamic period
The remains of the historic Baghdad gate
In the year 639 or 640, the city fell to the Muslim conqueror Iyad ibn Ghanm. Since then, it has figured in Arabic sources as al-Raqqah. At the surrender of the city, the Christian inhabitants concluded a treaty with Ibn Ghanm that is quoted by al-Baladhuri. The treaty allowed them freedom of worship in their existing churches but forbade the construction of new ones. The city retained an active Christian community well into the Middle Ages (Michael the Syrian records 20 Syriac Orthodox (Jacobite) bishops from the 8th to the 12th centuries), and it had at least four monasteries, of which the Saint Zaccheus Monastery remained the most prominent one. The city's Jewish community also survived until at least the 12th century, when the traveller Benjamin of Tudela visited it and attended its synagogue.
Ibn Ghanm's successor as governor of Raqqa and the Jazira, Sa'id ibn Amir ibn Hidhyam, built the city's first mosque. The building was later enlarged to monumental proportions, measuring some 73 by 108 metres (240 by 354 feet), with a square brick minaret added later, allegedly in the mid-10th century. The mosque survived until the early 20th century, being described by the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld in 1907, but has since vanished. Many companions of Muhammad lived in Raqqa.
In 656, during the First Fitna, the Battle of Siffin, the decisive clash between Ali and the Umayyad Mu'awiya took place about 45 kilometres (28 mi) west of Raqqa. Also, the tombs of several of Ali's followers (such as Ammar ibn Yasir and Uwais al-Qarani) are located in Raqqa and have became a site of pilgrimage. The city also contained a column with Ali's autograph, but it was removed in the 12th century and taken to Aleppo's Ghawth Mosque.
The strategic importance of Raqqa grew during the wars at the end of the Umayyad Caliphate and the beginning of the Abbasid Caliphate. Raqqa lay on the crossroads between Syria and Iraq and the road between Damascus, Palmyra and the temporary seat of the caliphate Resafa, al-Ruha'.
Between 771 and 772, the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur built a garrison city about 200 metres (660 feet) to the west of Raqqa for a detachment of his Khorasanian Persian army. It was named al-Rāfiqah, "the companion". The strength of the Abbasid imperial military is still visible in the impressive city wall of al-Rāfiqah.
Raqqa and al-Rāfiqah merged into one urban complex, together larger than the former Umayyad capital, Damascus. In 796, the caliph Harun al-Rashid chose Raqqa/al-Rafiqah as his imperial residence. For about 13 years, Raqqa was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, which stretched from Northern Africa to Central Asia, but the main administrative body remained in Baghdad. The palace area of Raqqa covered an area of about 10 square kilometres (3.9 sq mi) north of the twin cities. One of the founding fathers of the Hanafi school of law, Muḥammad ash-Shaibānī, was chief qadi (judge) in Raqqa. The splendour of the court in Raqqa is documented in several poems, collected by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahāni in his "Book of Songs" (Kitāb al-Aghāni). Only the small, restored so-called Eastern Palace at the fringes of the palace district gives an impression of Abbasid architecture. Some of the palace complexes dating to the period have been excavated by a German team on behalf of the Director General of Antiquities. There was also a thriving industrial complex located between the twin cities. Both German and English teams have excavated parts of the industrial complex, revealing comprehensive evidence for pottery and glass production. Apart from large dumps of debris, the evidence consisted of pottery and glass workshops, containing the remains of pottery kilns and glass furnaces.
Approximately 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) west of Raqqa lay the unfinished victory monument
Heraqla from the time of Harun al-Rashid. It is said to commemorate the conquest of the Byzantine city of Herakleia in Asia Minor in 806. Other theories connect it with cosmological events. The monument is preserved in a substructure of a square building in the centre of a circular walled enclosure, 500 metres (1,600 ft) in diameter. However, the upper part was never finished because of the sudden death of Harun al-Rashid in Khurasan.
After the return of the court to Baghdad in 809, Raqqa remained the capital of the western part of the Abassid Caliphate, including Egypt.
Decline and period of Bedouin domination
Raqqa's fortunes declined in the late 9th century because of the continuous warfare between the Abbasids and the Tulunids and then with the Shi'ite movement of the Qarmatians. During the Hamdānids in the 940s, the city declined rapidly. From the late 10th century to the early 12th century, Raqqa was controlled by Bedouin dynasties. The Banu Numayr had their pasture in the Diyār Muḍar, and the Banu Uqay had their centre in Qal'at Ja'bar.
Raqqa experienced a second blossoming, based on agriculture and industrial production, during the Zangid and Ayyubid dynasties during the 12th and the former half of the 13th century. Most famous is the blue-glazed so-called Raqqa ware. The still-visible Bāb Baghdād (Baghdad Gate) and the so-called Qasr al-Banāt (Castle of the Ladies) are notable buildings of the period. The famous ruler 'Imād ad-Dīn Zangī, who was killed in 1146, was initially buried in Raqqa, which was destroyed during the 1260s Mongol invasions of the Levant. There is a report on the killing of the last inhabitants of the urban ruin in 1288.
In the 16th century, Raqqa again entered the historical record as an Ottoman customs post on the Euphrates. The eyalet (province) of Raqqa (in Ottoman form sometimes spelled as Rakka) was created. However, the capital of the eyalet and seat of the vali was not Raqqa but Al-Ruha', which is about 160 kilometres (99 mi) north of Raqqa.
from the 1820s, Raqqa was a place of wintering for the semi-nomadic Arab 'Afadla tribal confederation and was practically an empty place that presented only its extensive archeological remains. It was the establishment in 1864 by the Ottomans of a Janissary garrison 'Karakul' in the south-east corner of the Abbasid enclosure, that led to the revival of the modern city of Raqqa. It attracted many families from Iraq, other parts of Syria and southeastern Turkey. Over the following decades, the province became the centre of the Ottoman Empire's tribal settlement (iskân) policy.
The first families that settled in Raqqa were nicknamed ''The Ghul'' by the surrounding Arab semi-nomadic tribes from which they bought the right to settle within the Abbasid enclosure, near the Ottoman garrison. They recovered the ancient bricks of the enclosure to build the first buildings of modern Raqqa. They came under the protection of the surrounding Arab semi-nomadic tribes because they feared attacks from other neighboring tribes on their herds. As a result, these families decided to form an alliance of two gatherings. one of them was called "Al-Akrad", which means "the Kurds" in Arabic. This gathering included Kurds but also Arabs and perhaps Turks as well. Even today there is still a controversy about the fact that some families in the Al-Akrad gathering refuse the Kurdish designation. The Akrad say that they mostly belong to the Mîlan tribe and the Dulaym tribe. Which might explain some of the controversy within the gathering due to the Mîlan tribe being mostly Kurdish and the Dulaym tribe being Arabs. Most of the Kurdish families in this gathering came from an area called ''Nahid Al-Jilab'', which is 20 kilometres (12 miles) northeast of Şanliurfa. Prior to the Syrian Civil War, there were many families that still belonged to the Kurdish Mîlan tribe such as Khalaf Al-Qasim, Al-Jado, Al-Hani and Al-Shawakh. They claimed the area west of Ottoman garrison.
The Kurds of the Mîlan tribe have been present in Raqqa since 1711. The Ottomans issued an order to deport them from the Nahid Al-Jilab region to the Raqqa area. However most of the tribe was returned to their original home as a result of diseases among their cattle and frequents deaths due to the inappropriate weather in the region of Raqqa. In the med-18th century the Ottomans recognised Kurdish tribal chiefs and appointed the Kurdish chief ''Mahmud Kalash Abdi'' as head of iskân policy in the region. The tribal chiefs had the power to impose taxes and control over other tribes in the region.
Some of the Kurdish families were displaced to the northern countryside of Raqqa as a result of imposed tax by force by the Arab 'Annazah tribe, after they had co-operated with French forces against the Kurds
The other gathering ''Asharin'', hailed from the town of Al-Asharah, located on the southern banks of the Euphrates. The gathering included several Arab tribes and they say that they belongs to the Al-Bu Badran and Mawali tribes. The claimed the area east of the Ottoman garrison.
In the early 20th century, two waves of Cherkess refugees from the Caucasian War were granted lands west of the Abbasid enclosure by the Ottomans.
In 1915, Armenians fleeing the Armenian Genocide were also collected in Raqqa by the Arab Ujayli family. Most of them returned to Aleppo in the 1920s, but they have since then formed the majority of Raqqa's Christian community.
In the 1950s, the worldwide cotton boom stimulated an unprecedented growth of the city and the recultivation of this part of the middle Euphrates area. Cotton is still the main agricultural product of the region.
The growth of the city meant, on the other hand, the removal of the archaeological remains of the city's past. The palace area is now almost covered with settlements as well as the former area of the ancient al-Raqqa (today Mishlab) and the former Abbasid industrial district (today al-Mukhtalţa). Only parts were archaeologically explored. The 12th-century citadel was removed in the 1950s (today Dawwār as-Sā'a, the clock-tower circle). In the 1980s, rescue excavations in the palace area began as well as the conservation of the Abbasid city walls with the Bāb Baghdād and the two main monuments intra muros, the Abbasid mosque and the Qasr al-Banāt.
There is a museum, known as the Raqqa Museum, housed in an administration building that was erected during the French Mandate.
Syrian Civil War and ISIL
In March 2013, during the Syrian Civil War, Islamist jihadist militants from Al-Nusra Front and other groups (including the Free Syrian Army) overran the government loyalists in the city during the Battle of Raqqa and declared it under their control after they had taken the central square and pulled down the statue of the former president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad.
The Al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front set up a sharia court at the sports centre and in early June 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant said that it was open to receive complaints at its Raqqa headquarters.
Amnesty International and monitoring group Airwars report said, more than 1,600 civilians were killed in US-led coalition include, United States, Britain and France, during the four-month airstrike campaign against ISIL group from the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2017. The Coalition states have conducted 34,464 strikes against ISIL targets between August 2014 and end of March 2019, and killed at least 1,291 civilians.
Migration from Aleppo, Homs, Idlib and other inhabited places to the city occurred as a result of the ongoing civil war in the country, and Raqqa was known as the hotel of the revolution by some because of the number of people who moved there.
Control by the Islamic State (January 2014–October 2017)
Destroyed neighborhood in Raqqa in August 2017
ISIL took complete control of Raqqa by 13 January 2014. ISIL 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 was then converted into an ISIL police headquarters and an Islamic centre, tasked to recruit new fighters. The Christian population of Raqqa, which had been estimated to be as much as 10% of the total population before the civil war began, largely fled the city.
On 15 November 2015, France, in response to attacks in Paris two days earlier, dropped about 20 bombs on multiple ISIL targets in Raqqa.
Pro-government sources said that an anti-IS uprising took place between 5 and 7 March 2016.
On 26 October 2016, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that an offensive to take Raqqa from IS would begin within weeks.
The SDF, supported by the US, launched the Second Battle of Raqqa on 6 June 2017 and declared victory in the city on 17 October 2017. Bombardment by the US-led coalition led to destruction of most of the city, including civilian infrastructure. Some 270,000 people were said to have fled Raqqa with no homes to which to return.
At the end of October 2017, the government of Syria issued a statement that said: ″Syria considers the claims of the United States and its so-called alliance about the liberation of Raqqa city from ISIS to be lies aiming to divert international public opinion from the crimes committed by this alliance in Raqqa province.... more than 90% of Raqqa city has been leveled due to the deliberate and barbaric bombardment of the city and the towns near it by the alliance, which also destroyed all services and infrastructures and forced tens of thousands of locals to leave the city and become refugees. Syria still considers Raqqa to be an occupied city, and it can only be considered liberated when the Syrian Arab Army enters it".
Syrian Democratic Forces rule
By December 2018, 165,000 residents had returned to the city, and many shops in the city have reopened. By the efforts of the Global Coalition and the Raqqa Civil Council, several public hospitals and schools have been reopened, public buildings like the stadium, the Raqqa Museum, mosques and parks have been restored, anti-extremism educational centers for youth have been established and the rebuilding and restoration of roads, roundabouts and bridges, installation of solar-powered street lighting, water restoration, demining, re-institution of public transportation and rubble removal has taken place.
However, the Global Coalition's funding of the stabilization of the region has been limited, and the Coalition has stated that any large scale aid will be halted until a peace agreement for the future of Syria through the Geneva process has been reached. Rebuilding of residential houses and commercial buildings has been placed solely in the hands of civilians, there is a continued presence of rubble, unreliable electricity and water access in some areas, schools still lacking basic services and the presence of ISIL sleeper cells and IEDs. Some sporadic protests against the SDF have taken place in the city in the summer of 2018.
On 7 February 2019, the SDF media center announced the capture of 63 ISIL operatives in the city. According to the SDF, the operatives were a part of a sleeper cell and were all arrested within a 24-hour time span, ending the day-long curfew that was imposed on the city the day before.
In mid-February 2019, a mass grave holding an estimated 3,500 bodies was discovered below a plot of farmland in the Al-Fukheikha agricultural suburb. It was the largest mass grave discovered post-ISIL rule thus far. The bodies were reported to be the victims of executions when ISIL ruled the city.
In 2019 a project called the "Shelter Project" was launched by international organisations in coordination with the Raqqa Civil Council, providing funding to residents of partially destroyed buildings in order to aid with their reconstruction. In April 2019 the rehabilitation of the Old Raqqa Bridge over the Euphrates was finished. The bridge was originally built by British forces during World War Two in 1942. The National Hospital in Raqqa was reopened after rehabilitation work in May 2019.