The city of Baghdad was founded under the second Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur (ruled 754-775). After a lengthy research along the course of the Tigris as far north as Mosul, he decided to construct a palace complex at the junction of the Tigris and the Sarat canal. It appears that al-Mansur decided on this particular location because of strategic and geographic advantages.

+ Click to read the full article
- Click to close

In the words of Artz:

Figure 1. Al Khulafa historical mosque in Baghdad (Source)

Baghdad, in the tenth century had at least 800,000 inhabitants and was, after Constantinople, the largest city in the world. The Tigris River and a system of canals gave the city access to the sea, and its trade and manufacture brought an enormous accumulation of wealth. Its palaces, mosques, schools, and public buildings were the wonder of the world.[1]

The city of Baghdad was founded under the second Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur (ruled 754-775). After a lengthy research along the course of the Tigris as far north as Mosul, he decided to construct a palace complex at the junction of the Tigris and the Sarat canal. It appears that al-Mansur decided on this particular location because of strategic and geographic advantages.[2] The Sarat was deep enough to accommodate commercial traffic, so that the caliph was able to utilise two major river systems, which the Sarat connected: The Tigris and the Euphrates.[3] 

The first major structure to be erected was the famous round city, called madinat al-salam (City of Peace).  Thousands, if not tens of thousands of workers, the skilled and unskilled, the artisans from outlying districts, and the military required housing, services and an industrial complex for the production of construction materials. Baghdad therefore acquired a quality of permanence even before the Round City was completed.[4] The Round City had four equidistant gates lying one Arab mile apart from each other and from every gate went a high road.[5] The four gates of the Round City were:

1. The Basrah Gate to the SE, opening on the suburbs along the Tigris bank were the various branches of the Isa canal flowed out;

2. The Kufah Gate to the SW, opening on the high road going south, which was the pilgrim road to Mecca;

3. The Syrian Gate to the NW where the high road branched left to Anbar on the Euphrates, and right to the Towns on the western Tigris bank north of Baghdad, and

4. The Khurasan Gate leading to the main bridge of boats for crossing the river.[6]

Great suburbs were in time built on these four roads, and these before long came to be incorporated in the circuit of the great metropolis.[7] In time the urban area grew around the original walls of the Round City and developed into a sprawling complex of interdependent elements, each containing its own markets, mosques and cemeteries.[8]

Figure 2. The Round city of Baghdad between 767 and 912 AD (Source)

Throughout the history of the city, movement across the Tigris was funnelled onto a series of pontoon bridges that could be cut from their moorings, whilst the other canals similarly served as natural barriers in time of attack.[9] The river links with Baghdad had another role. Ibn Rustah writing in the 9th century speaks of ‘sea going ships sailing from India came up the Tigris from Basra, and thence could attain to Madain (formerly Sasanid Ctesiphon), for sailing on they came out above Fam as-Silh into the Tigris reach of Baghdad.’[10] 

During the five centuries of the Abbasid caliphate, the plan of Baghdad with its suburbs changed considerably; in 836, the seat of the Caliphate was removed to Samarra, but in 892 Samarra was abandoned, and the caliph re-established his court in the old capital, and for the next four centuries, down to the invasion of the Mongols (1258), the caliphs permanently established their residence on the east bank.[11]

In the tenth century, the surface area of Baghdad could have reached 7,000 ha, which was five times larger than tenth century Constantinople.[12] The population of Baghdad might have been 200 people per ha,[13] which gives a total of 1.400,000 people, which fits with other figures from other sources.

Baghdad, besides its size and opulence, its role as the centre of the caliphate, was also the capital of Islamic learning and science for a period, escaping the ravages of the Crusades (1095-1291), but was extinguished in February 1258 by the Mongol onslaught on it. This splendour and the manner it was ended are looked at in turn.

The Splendour of Baghdad: Its scholarly institutions:

Figure 3. Scholars at an Abbasid library in Baghdad (Source)

Harun al-Rashid became Caliph in 786, his rule marking the zenith of growth of Baghdad. In the following century, the 9th, the city achieved its greater strides in civilisation. The sources speak of magnificent residences, exquisitely appointed and featuring unusual elements, including a zoological garden and fantastic mechanical devices.[14] The city’s scholarly glory can be easily appreciated by looking at any work dealing with the medieval era, especially in the centuries that followed the 8th, to become aware of the countless numbers of scholars connected in one form or another with Baghdad.[15]

The city was also marked by an innovative spirit in crafts and industries. Paper, originally, was brought by the Muslims from China. From an art, the Muslims developed it into a major industry.[16] Paper mills were built in Baghdad in 793. By 950 water power was used in the fibre pounding process in Baghdad.[17] From Baghdad, the industry progressed west to Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and eventually Muslim Spain.

In the ninth century, the potters of Baghdad distinguished themselves by making lustered pottery: the decoration was painted in a metallic oxide upon the glazed coating of the clay, and the vessel was then submitted to a smoky and subdued second firing, which reduced the pigment to a thin layer of metal, and gave the glaze an iridescent glow.[18] Lovely monochromes were produced in this manner, and still lovelier polychromes in gold, green, brown, yellow, and red, in a hundred almost fluid tints. The luster technique was applied also to the ancient Mesopotamian art of decorative tiles.[19] The rich colours of these squares, and their harmonious combinations, gave unique splendour to the portals or mihrabs of a hundred mosques, and to many a palace wall.[20]

Figure 4. Iraqi potters work on a clay pots at a workshop in Najaf, south of Baghdad, July 23, 2015. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani (Source)

The gold-embroidered silks and mulhams attributed to Baghdad on the basis of inscriptions, technique, and richness of decoration. An important small group of such pieces is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.[21] Despite the small number of surviving examples, however the prestige of Baghdad can be gauged from its impact on other centres. Iraqi textiles were reaching Spain in the tenth century and were much admired there; so great was their reputation that a famous silk, also in the Museum of Fine Arts, though manufactured in Spain in the eleventh or early twelfth century, was falsely inscribed "made in the city of Baghdad."[22]

The intellectual fervour in Baghdad at the height of its glory is best expressed by one symbol: the library. In the thirteenth century before the Mongols devastated the city, Baghdad had thirty-six public libraries and over a hundred book-dealers, some of whom were also publishers employing a corps of copyists.[23] Including amongst such libraries were Al-Mamun's Bayt al Hikma (House of Wisdom), founded in the 8th century, the Nizamiyyah College Library, carrying the name of its founder, the Seljuk minister, Nizam al-Mulk (murdered 1092); the Mustansiriyah school library, the library of Muhammad ibn al Hussain of Haditha, containing a collection of rare manuscripts kept under lock.[24] The Mustansiriya college library was a fine one, in which rare scientific manuscripts were kept.[25] Students were allowed to make copies of them, and they were supplied with pens and paper for that purpose.[26] There were also one hundred book-dealers.[27] We also hear of a private library in Baghdad, as early as the ninth century, that required a hundred and twenty camels to move it from one place to another.[28] This could be the very library of the scholar of Baghdad who refused to accept a position elsewhere because it would take four hundred camels to transport his books; the catalogue of this private library filled ten volumes, which is the more astonishing when it is realized that the library of the king of France in 1300 had only about four hundred titles.[29]

Figure 5. Madrasa-i al-Nizamiyya © Herzfeld Papers (Source)

In the company of books, vast intellectual exchanges took place amongst the scholars of Islam. A pupil of a pupil of al-Farabi established at Baghdad, about 970, an association of savants—known to us only from its founder's place name as the Sidjistani Society—for the discussion of philosophical questions.[30] Nothing was asked as to the national origin or religious affiliation of any member. The group seems to have drowned itself in logic and epistemology, but its existence indicates intellectual fervour in the capital.[31]

Al-Mamun (ruled 813-833) sponsored philosophers, philologists, traditionalists, and other jurists, mathematicians, physicians, astronomers, and chemists.[32] He organized the House of Wisdom, which included a library and an observatory.[33]  It was primarily a research and translation institute.[34] Artz lists in it a library, scientific equipment, a translation bureau, and an observatory.[35] Instruction in Bayt al-Hikma included rhetoric, logic, metaphysics and theology, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, physics, biology, medicine, and surgery.[36]

Figure 6. The Byzantine embassy of John the Grammarian in 829 to Ma'mun (Source)

Baghdad, soon, became the place where was founded the precursor of our modern university college: the Madrasa.[37]  Madrasa, commonly translated as "theological college," the word madrasa (Turkish: medrese; Maghribi: medersa) derives from the Arabic verb darasa, meaning "to study."[38]

Figure 7. Nizam al-Mulk monument in Mashhad (Source)

It denotes an Islamic building, usually erected under state patronage but often by private benefactors, which housed students and the salaried staff that taught them there.[39] Many madrasas were erected during the later eleventh century in the major cities of the Seljuk Empire by the celebrated Nizam al-Mulk (assassinated 1092), who was the vizier of two Seljuk rulers, Alp-Arslan and Malik Shah, these madrasas named Nizamiyas in his honour.[40] For Abu Shamah ‘The schools founded by Nizam al-Mulk are very famous all over the world. No single village lacks one of these schools....’[41] The largest and most splendid of such was the Nizamiyah in Baghdad, founded by the same Nizam al-Mulk in 1065. From the descriptions, it seems, the Nizamiyah stood between the Bab al-Azaj and the Tigris bank, not very far from the Basaliyah gate of the town wall.[42] The Nizamiyah had celebrated lecturers that included the great theologian Al-Ghazali and Baha Eddin, the celebrated historian of Salah Eddin al-Ayyubi.[43] Close to the Nizamiyah was another college called the Bahaiyah next to which stood the hospital called the Tutushi, named after Tutush, one of the Seljuk rulers, who fought during the crusades (died 1114).[44] A century after its founding, the Nizamiyah was still standing, and was visited by Ibn Jubayr in 1185, who describes it in ‘glowing’ terms.[45] The traveller Ibn Jubayr attended prayers in the Nizamiyah on the first Friday after his arrival in Baghdad, and he describes it as ‘the most splendid’ of all thirty colleges which then adorned the city of East Baghdad.[46] Ibn Jubayr reports that in his day the endowments derived from the domains and rents belonging to the college amply sufficed both to pay the stipends of professors and to keep the building in good order, besides supplying an extra fund for the sustenance of poor scholars.[47] Nizam al-Mulk, himself, visited the madrasas to discuss with the pupils and took it upon himself to guide the most intelligent in their choice of a career.[48] Those whom he considered would make good teachers were immediately installed as such; he opened a new school, complete with library, especially for them.[49] The madrasas were put in place when the Muslim world was experiencing its worst phase of utter disintegration from within, torn by diverging factions. Hence, according to Wiet et al:

It was the colleges, the madrasas, that formed the minds of those who later substantially contributed to the resistance to Crusader and Mongol alike. It may be justifiably claimed that, politically, the madrasa saved Islam.[50]

In 1234 was constructed the Mustansiriyah college in Baghdad by Caliph al-Mustansir the penultimate Abbasid Caliph, the father of al-Mutasim, who was subsequently to be put to death by Hulagu, the Mongol general. Located immediately south of the Gharabah gate, on the eastern side of the Tigris

Figure 8. Mustansiriya University in Baghdad (Source)

River in a large walled-in compound, known as the Harim or Sanctuary.[51] The college as described by many sources,[52] was built as a large two storied structure. It was oblong in shape with a great open court in the centre. Around the courtyard there were rooms for teachers and students, opening out to arched cloisters.[53] Nearby, the Great Mosque of the Palace (Jami al-Kasr) was also restored by Mustansir, who also restored the four platforms (Dikkah) on the western side of the pulpit.[54] There, the students sat and held their disputations after the Friday public prayers. The remains of this mosque still exist to the present.[55] Lodging and food were provided to those who needed them, and it was said that a monthly payment of a gold dinar was given to the poor students.[56] The students also received medical care in addition to free tuition. Daily rations of bread and meat were provided to all inmates by a large kitchen.[57] Somewhere in the building were store rooms and bathing facilities (hamam), and attached to the college was a hospital with a dispensary and rooms for teaching medicine.[58] One of the curiosities of the institution was a famous clock, with twelve doors opening to announce the hours.[59] The students were taught by a head professor and his assistants, the curriculum including not only the traditional linguistic, legal and religious subjects, but also arithmetic and the division of inheritance, land surveying, history, poetry, hygiene, the care of animals and plants and other phases of natural