Mosque and Arch to Unknown Soldier in Baghdad

Baghdad is the Capital of Iraq with 3,2 million inhabitants, and is situated in the interior of the country on the river Tigris at the point where land transportation meets river transportation.

Baghdad was the centre of the Muslim world during the years while the Caliphate stayed in Baghdad, starting in the 760s running up to 1258. There were other cities used as capital for the Caliphate for short periods but Baghdad retained its splendour until it was destroyed by the advancing Mongols in 1258.

Baghdad kept its position to a certain degree after this, but declined after the discovery of the sea route between Europe and India in 1497.

Babylonian bricks bearing the Royal Seal of King Nebuchadnezzar (sixth century BC) were found in the Tigris here. But whatever settlement existed then, historic Baghdad was undoubtedly founded in 762 AD, by the second of the Abbasid Caliphs, Abu Jafar al-Mansur (AD 750-775), and the name Baghdad is probably a combination of two Persian words meaning ‘Founded by God’. Arabs call it ‘The City of Peace’.

The founding of Baghdad by Mansur came about in this way: the first Abbasid Caliph, Abul Abbas, had built a palace on the Euphrates at Anbar, but it didn’t suit Mansur, who at once began to search about for somewhere more centrally placed from which to administer the new empire.

Soon the site of a Sassanian village on the west bank of the Tigris caught his eye, and in ? the spring of AD 762 the lines were traced out. This first Baghdad took four years to build and Mansur employed one hundred thousand architects, craftsmen and workers from all over the Islamic world. Thus came into being the famous Round City of Mansur, with double brick walls, a deep moat and a third innermost wall ninety feet high.

Four highways radiated out of four gates and at the hub of everything were built the Caliph’s palace with a green dome. A certain amount of judicious stealing went on: many of the stones for the palace- the centre of the universe- came from the ruins of the Persian city of Ctesiphon not far away; a wrought-iron gate was taken from Wasit, another from Kufa. And a man who did more than most to help Mansur build his new city was the Imam Abu Hanifa, whose tomb you can see in Baghdad to this day.

Circular walls enclosed the city and, although its original name was Madinat as-Salam (City of Peace), it was more popularly known as the Round City. At the city’s centre were the caliph’s palace and the grand mosque, with four roads radiating out from these central buildings. The city’s gradual expansion caused it to extend beyond the original walls, and as it spread across to the river’s east bank, its two halves were joined by a bridge built of boats. The eastern section was called Rusafah.

Soon merchants built bazaars and houses round the Basra (southern) Gate and formed a district of their own called Kerkh, and this was joined by a bridge of boats to the east bank of the Tigris- where most of modern Baghdad stands in the district of Rasafa. Two cemeteries grew up- one in Adhimiya and another where Kadhimain now houses the shrines of two of the twelve Imams.

During the 8th and 9th centuries AD, Baghdad was at the height of its commercial prosperity. Under the rule of the caliphs Mahdi and Harun, it became the centre of many important trade routes between the east and west. Its many impressive buildings and magnificent gardens gave it the reputation of the richest and most beautiful city in the world.

In the latter half of the 9th century, the Abbasid caliphs’ power was weakened by internal strife leading to civil war. When the Mongols invaded Baghdad in the 13th century, the caliph was murdered, many buildings and the irrigation system were destroyed, thus adding dramatically to the city’s decline. When in 1534 it became part of the Ottoman Empire, the city fell into obscurity and neglect for several hundred years.

Baghdad was made capital of Iraq in 1921, from when it started to grow again. Baghdad is a real city, not just a large town, and its lights are still twinkling in the river at half past one in the morning. It is the river that ‘makes’ Baghdad. The Tigris, brown and swift, is the heart and soul of the City of the Caliphs.

It is an ancient city struggling awkwardly to be modern. If it lacks glamour, it has considerable charm. And if even the charm must be delved for, to me such delving seems worthwhile because, more than many cities, Baghdad reflects the most unusual, country that frames it. Iraq, after all, is the old, old Mesopotamia of Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria, of the glorious sunburst of the Abbasid Empire of Harun al Rashid, of Persian intrusions, and the affliction of four hundred dead years of Turkish rule.

In other words, Baghdad is the still-beating heart of a former cradle of civilization, a country as historically dramatic as Ancient Greece or the Nile Valley.