How Baghdad Rose To Become World’s Cultural Lodestar

Baghdad quickly became the world’s cultural lodestar after its foundation, which has been described as ‘a glorious milestone in the history of urban design’ and ‘a landmark for civilisation’, in the eighth century

Baghdad's foundation has been described as 'a glorious milestone in the history of urban design' and 'a landmark for civilisation'

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Al-Jahiz, a well-traveled ninth-century essayist, polymath, and polemicist, was deeply attached to Baghdad, his adoptive city. He wrote he never saw a ‘city of greater height, more perfect circularity, more endowed with superior merits or possessing more spacious gates or more perfect defences.’

The circular city Al-Jahiz described ‘as though it is poured into a mould and cast’, was founded as Madīnat as-Salām (City of Peace) around a century before his time in 762. It would later come to be known as Baghdad. Al-Mansur, the second Abbasid Empire caliph, laid the city’s foundation over a kilometre from where a gridlock forced our group of journalists covering the war on ISIS in 2016 to get off our cars to explore Baghdad on foot.

We walked straight down from the Sinak Bridge to cross into Karkh, the west bank of Baghdad, which became the city’s commercial hub when Baghdad expanded beyond its original walls. Bab al Sharki district is now located where the circular city’s eastern gate once stood. It is named after this gate, which has disappeared along with the other three gates that faced major cities of the Abbasid Empire—Kufa, Basra, Damascus, and Khurasan—and fortified walls. 

Mansur traced the design for the original circular city on the ground within the walls in lines of cinders. He walked through with the plan and ordered cotton balls soaked in naphtha to be placed along. Mansur set them alight to mark the position of the fortified double outer walls. Around 100,000 architects, engineers, surveyors, carpenters, blacksmiths, diggers, and labourers built the city surrounded by fortress-like walls over the next four years using sun-baked and kiln-fired bricks.

Emerald fields lined the Tigris and the ‘verdant land of palms, gardens, and plantations’ surrounded Baghdad. The four equidistant gates led to the city centre through straight roads lined by vaulted arcades of shops. Squares and houses were connected to the main roads through smaller streets. The Kufa and Basra gates among the four opened onto a canal of a network of waterways that carried the Euphrates waters into the Tigris

Bridges of skiffs were roped together and fastened to the river banks. Marble steps led down to the river, which was flanked by footpaths. Chinese junks, Assyrian rafts gondolas also carried people across the river.

The city centre was empty except for the Great Mosque and the caliph’s over 360,000 square feet Golden Gate Palace. The caliph held tournaments, races, military inspections, and reviews at a square in front of the palace, which encompassed a walled park, orchards, wildlife, a lake as well as marbled buildings of columns of silver and gold carvings. 

The 30 feet-high green domes above the palace’s main audience chamber were designed to ensure its visibility from miles away. A horseman’s figure swivelling like a weathervane and thrusting his lance also surmounted the palace. Like the gates, Nizamiya Academy, which opened in 1065, once stood nearby on the Tigris bank. The academy is associated with some of the iconic Muslim figures, including theologian, jurist, and philosopher Ghazali, who lectured there. 

Persian poet Sadi, the writer of the iconic Golestan (Flower Garden) and Bustan (Garden) that influenced Voltaire and Emerson, was among the academy’s alumni. The sprawling Bab al Sharki district in central Baghdad is now a far cry from the splendour, order, and cleanliness of Abbasid Baghdad. 

Most households in the city during the Abbasid era had water supplied by aqueducts. A sanitation department ensured streets were regularly swept, washed, and free of refuse. It was the time, writes author Benson Bobrick, when London and Paris were ‘still grainy and chaotic little towns made up of a maze of twisting streets and lanes crammed with timbered or wattle-and-daub housing whitewashed with lime.’

In his book, The Caliph’s Splendor: Islam and the West in the Golden Age of Baghdad, Bobrick writes there was ‘no real paving of any kind [in contemporary European towns], and for drainage only a ditch in the middle of the road:’ 

That ditch was usually clogged with refuse—including the welter from slaughterhouses as well as human waste—and in wet weather the streets were like marshes, awash in a depth of mud. Footpaths along the main streets were marked by posts and chains. There were some shops, of course, but most of the real commerce took place at trading stations (like the famed Six Dials in Southampton, England) where livestock and crafts were purchased or exchanged. In Paris, all that remained from its commercial development under the Romans were the vast catacombs under Montparnasse.

Even Abbasid Baghdad’s suburbs were dotted with parks and gardens and housed official residences and military cantonments. Bobrick writes varnished frescos of lapis lazuli and vermilion, or faience panels and ceramic mural tiles decorated the villas there when ‘a fifth of the population [in European towns] lived and died in the streets.’ 

Screens of wet reeds cooled some houses with subterranean rooms. Baghdadis would also hang wet drapes over their windows to help cool their house with the breeze. Flues from venting hot air extended from inner apartments to ventilators on the roofs in some houses. 

Hardly anything has survived from the Abbasid era Baghdad. Periodic floods over the centuries mostly obliterated what survived the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258. The invasion left the city in ruins and overthrew the Abbasid Caliphate. Baghdad’s city walls, which the Abbasids built to defend the city and more often than not served the purpose, were demolished as part of Ottoman governor Midhat Pasha’s modernising zeal in the early 19th century.

Pasha sought to replace the walls with European-style tree-lined boulevards. The plan never fructified over his three-year governorship. But he affected significant changes to the city. Pasha, who was known for his integrity and revolutionising education, came to Baghdad in 1869 with a reputation of being a reformer earned during his tenure in the Balkans province of Danubian. 

He introduced in Baghdad a two-tier, horse-drawn contraption for mass transportation connecting the suburban Kadhimiya, where the shrine of Shia Imam Musa al Kadhim and his grandson is located. 

The horses were occasionally substituted by tractors. New public buildings came under during Pasha’s reign. He restored monuments such as the Saray al Kushla, the palace where Iraq’s monarch King Faisal was coronated in August 1921. The Saklawiya Canal link between the Tigris to the Euphrates was reopened while Nasiriya and Ramadi also came up during Pasha’s time. 

The British, who were drawn to Iraq because of its resources and strategic location en route to India after the First World War I, and Saddam decades later flattened much of the remaining old Baghdad to ‘modernise’ the city.

They launched urban renewal projects to cement their rule.  Important landmarks named after the Abbasid rulers remain a reminder of their legacy. The city’s most-affluent district and one of its most iconic hotels are named after Mansur, whose bronze bust was erected in Baghdad’s eponymous neighbourhood in 1976. 

Saddam tried to bolster his standing by portraying himself in Mansur’s garb in the pictures he put up across Iraq. Silk headdresses from the Abbasid period dominated the decorations at Baghdad’s Hunting Club that Saddam founded. 

Saddam harked back to the Arab Civilisation that Abbasids are a key part of as he tried to raise the morale of his troops in the run-up to his ouster in 2003. They are, he roared, ‘an ancient people who have, through their civilisation, taught the human race as a whole what man was yet to know.’

Saddam hardly stood for anything that would have given him any moral authority to present himself as an heir to the Arab civilisation. Saddam represented Iraq’s nadir as it became infamous as a violent and repressive country under him. 

The Abbasids, on the other hand, facilitated some of the pivotal contributions to scholarship and science in the history of humankind. They effectively filled the intellectual vacuum when Europeans squandered ancient Greece and Rome’s achievements and languished in the intellectual darkness of the Dark Ages mired in ‘barbarism and religion.’ 

The Muslim world under the Abbasids preserved Aristotle’s works and much of lost Greco-Roman knowledge. For historian David Landes, ‘Islam was Europe’s teacher’ during this period when the West was primitive.

It was Islam, reminded writer Hillel Ofek in a 2011 piece, ‘that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. Muslims developed algebra, navigation tools, the magnetic compass, and mastery of printing and pens, as well as the understanding of how disease spreads and can be healed.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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