The Glory That Was Baghdad

by His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the March 2006, A.S. XL issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

For much of the Middle Ages, Baghdad was the cultural center of the Muslim world. While Mecca was predominate as the religious center, it plays little role in the events of Islamic history after the founding the Islamic religion. It was to Baghdad that all else was compared, and though which goods, peoples, and ideas passed. Yet the history of Baghdad is not a happy one as political, economic and religious turmoil roiled the city. This is its story.

The city was founded in 762 by the second Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur, though planning had begun four years earlier. Its original and official name was Madinat-al-Salam, meaning City of Peace. Yet from the start it acquired the name Baghdad, Persian for City of God. (Poetically, it was also known as al-Zawra meaning the winding city, an allusion to the Tigris River.)

Mansur founded the city as his capital to be closer to his supporters in the Persian regions and to remove himself from Damascus which was the capital of the previous dynasty. The original layout was that of mile and a half diameter city surrounded by 100’ high wall 145’ thick at the base pierced by gates at the cardinal compass points, further protected by a moat. The caliph’s palace and mosque occupied the center while lesser residencies, offices, and markets ringed around it. This Round City as it was called was located just north of what is now downtown Baghdad. The city soon expanded beyond the walls and across the river criss-crossed by canals.

Yet the Round City was not used long. In 775 Mansur built another palace on the western bank of the Tigris outside the fortifications. His successor built another one on the east bank. After the civil war of 811-13 which heavily damaged the Round City, the original palace was abandoned. After the caliphate returned from its stay in Samara in 889, the court permanently moved to the east bank, and shortly thereafter the outer wall was order destroyed.

Perhaps the most enduring image of Baghdad comes from the “Arabian Nights”. The source of most of these stories, including the framing story of the story telling wife is Indian. These stories reached Baghdad and were translated into Arabic in the first half of the ninth century at the height of Baghdad’s glory. Thus providing the opulent setting of the current form of the stories and why the caliph Harun al-Rashid, who ruled from 786 to 809, is often, though mistakenly, associated with these tales.

The glory that does rightfully belong to Harun is making Baghdad the intellectual center. While the collection of works from other cultures, principally Indian and Greek, started with Mansur, it gained speed under Harun and reached its peak under his son Mamun. By 795 a paper mill was operating in Baghdad to support the flurry of translation effort. As the translation proceeded, original work was produced in tandem. Studies in science, medicine, philosophy, literature, and law flourished.. Mamun even created an Academy of Wisdom to support the effort. However by the end of the 9th century this activity had all but burned itself out. While it did not end, it only sporadically matched its creativity. The names of these Arabic scholars are now but barely remembered in their Latinized forms when their works were translated in Spain during the 12th century.

There was also a dark side to Baghdad. Factions rived the population, and disputes all to readily became riots. The most important of these divisions was that between the Sunnites and the Shiites, the two rival sections of Islam. While the caliph was the spiritual head of the Sunnites, the Shiites formed a signification portion of the population that would be periodically repressed or given concessions depending the relative strength of the caliph. A major wildcard were the ayyar, who were a sort of mercenary Mafia, that at times was a shadow government, and would create chaos whenever it could take advantage of it.

Political unrest was not the only problem to plague Baghdad. Fire and natural disaster would also periodically sweep through the city. Floods were a frequent occurrence causing major destruction, and epidemics would often follow. Fires would often follow riots, and the Karkh district, the main market area and Shiite stronghold, was particularly hard hit.

The pretensions of Baghdad ended in 1258. While it retained the facade of its earlier glory, for the past three centuries Baghdad had been a plaything for various regional warlords, the caliph little more then a spiritual figurehead. For two decades the Mongol threat hovered just over the horizon. Finally the Mongol general Hulagu besieged Baghdad on January 11, taking it just short of a month later. The city was sacked with the usual Mongol ruthlessness and efficiency. The caliphal family was eliminated, ending that institution.

Despite the destruction of the Mongols, the city survived. First as a provincial capital for the Mongols, then later for the Ottomans, with various minor dynasties in between. But it was a shadow of its former self, more town then city. In 1401 Baghdad was again savaged by the Mongols, this time under Timberline. While a point of contention between the Ottomans and the Persians, Baghdad would remain a backwater output until 1921 when it became the capital of the newly formed Kingdom of Iraq under the British mandate that followed the collapsed of the Ottoman Empire as a result of World War I.

The heyday of Baghdad lasted barely two centuries. But even as it began decay set it. First Spain in the west then the Persian provinces in the east declared their independence. By 1000 the Abbasid Empire was a mere fiction. Little remains of the structures of Medieval Baghdad. Yet Western Civilization owes much to the Baghdad of this period for much the classical literature we have derives from the translation efforts of the Islamic scholars of Baghdad. And that is its lasting glory.



Hitti, Philip K. Capital Cities of Arab Islam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973.

Wiet, Gaston. Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate. Trans. by Seymour Feiler. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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