Al-Jazira (Arabic, الجزيرة) is the traditional Arabic name for the modern-day regions of northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria. (It is variously transliterated into Roman script as Djazirah, Djezirah and Jazirah.) It covers northern Mesopotamia, extending from the Euphrates river to the Tigris river. The Khabur River runs for 440 km through the district, from Turkey in the north, feeding into the Euphrates. Its major settlements are Mosul, Deir ez-Zor, Ar Raqqah, Al Hasakah and Qamishli. The western, Syrian part, is contiguous with the Syrian Al-Hasakah Governorate. The capital of the western region is Al-Hasakah. The eastern, Iraqi part, is contiguous with the Iraqi Ninewa Governorate. The capital of this eastern region is Mosul.
Al-Jazira is characterised as a plain, quite distinct from the Syrian Desert and lower-lying central Mesopotamia. The region has several parts to it. In the northwestern part, is one of the largest salt deserts in the world. Further south, extending from Mosul to near Basra is a huge sandy desert similar to the Empty Quarter, where temperatures can reach 58 degrees Celsius in the summer. The region has been plagued by drought in recent years.
The name was used by Islamic sources to refer to the northern section of Mesopotamia, which together with Sawād, made up Al-‘arāgh (Iraq). The region was limited to the Sanjar Mountains in the south, but the western and eastern boundaries seem to have fluctuated in the pre-Abbasid times (sometimes to include Northern Syria to the west and Adiabene in the east). During the early Islamic Empire (i.e. Umayyads), the administration of Jazira was often shared with that of Armenia.
Al-Jazira included the Sasanian provinces of Arbayestan, Nisibis, and Mosul. The conquest of the region took place under the early caliphate that left the general administration of the region intact, with the exception of levying the jizya tax on the population. At the time of Mu‘awiyah (governor of Syria and the later founder of the Umayyad Caliphate), the administration of al-Jazira was included in the administration of Syria.
Since the pre-Islamic times, al-Jazira has been an economically prosperous region with various agricultural (fruit and cereal) products, as well as a prolific manufacturing (food processing and cloth weaving) system. The region’s position at the border of the Sasanian and Byzantine territories also made it an important commercial center, and advantage that the region continued to enjoy, even after the Muslim conquest of Byzantine possessions in Anatolia.
The prosperity of the region and its high agricultural and manufacturing output made it an object of contest between the leaders of the early conquering Arab armies. Various conquerors tried, in vain, to bind various cities of the former Sasanian provinces, as well as the newly conquered Byzantine provinces of Mesopotamia, into a coherent unit under their own rule.
The control of the region, however, was essential to any power centered in Baghdad. Consequently, the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate brought al-Jazira under the direct rule of the government in Baghdad. At this time, al-Jazira was one of the highest tax yielding provinces of the Abbasid Empire.
During the early history of Islam, al-Jazira became a center for Kharijite (Xwārij) movement and had to be constantly subdued by various caliphs. Later, a local dynasty called the Hamdānids, themselves descendants of a Kharijite, established an autonomous state with two branches in al-Jazira and Northern Syria. The demise of the Hamdānid power put the region back under the nominal rule of the Caliphs of Baghdad, while the true control was indeed in the hands of the Buyid brothers who had conquered Baghdad itself.
In subsequent eras, al-Jazira came under the control of newly established Turkic dynasties such as the Ikhshidids and the Zangis, and eventually was controlled by the Ayyubids (i.e. Saladin). Later development of the region was determined by the rise of Mosul and Nisibis, both important commercial and manufacturing centers. In the 12th century, the region was conquered and controlled by the Seljuk dynasty and was later put under the control of Seljuks of Rum, joining the emerging Ottoman Empire when the latter replaced the Seljuks of Rum in Asia Minor.
The area has experienced a high rate of emigration in the past 40 years. Prime factors have been drought, the influx of Christians from the Turkish side of the Turkish-Syrian border and the influx of Kurds from the east.