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It was the intellectual centre of the world, a city bejewelled with rich bazaars, sumptuous gardens and libraries, brimming with knowledge and open for all.


During the eighth and ninth centuries CE, 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.[1]



Originally founded as Madinat-as-Salam (City of Peace), and then Baghdad.[2] the new rulers of the Persian Empire, called the Abbasid caliphs, founded the capital city on the River Tigris in 762 CE.


The first Abbasid Caliph, Abul Abbas, had built a palace on the Euphrates at Anbar, but it didn't suit Abu Jafar al-Mansur (the second of the Abbasid Caliphs who is credited with founding Baghdad), who wanted a more central capital to rule his empire from.


The site of a Sassanian village on the west bank of the Tigris caught his eye, and in the spring of CE 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. They created the famous Round City of Mansur, with double brick walls, a deep moat and a third innermost wall ninety feet high.[3]


The writer Yakut vividly described the city around 1000 CE:


"The city of Baghdad formed two vast semi-circles on the right and left banks of the Tigris, twelve miles in diameter. Suburbs, covered with parks, gardens, villas and beautiful promenades, plentifully supplied with rich bazaars, mosques and baths, stretched for a considerable distance on both sides of the river. Immense streets traversed the city. Every household was plentifully supplied with water at all seasons by the numerous aqueducts which intersected the town; and the streets, gardens and parks were regularly swept and watered, and no refuse was allowed to remain within the walls. The streets were lighted by lamps. The mosques of the city were at once vast in size and remarkably beautiful. There were also in Baghdad numerous colleges of learning, hospitals, infirmaries for both sexes and lunatic asylums."[4]



Baghdad became in the tenth century the intellectual centre of the world, attracting Iranians, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, men of letters and of science.


Well-stocked bookshops were often set up around the main mosque. In addition there were public libraries open to everyone. Baghdad had become an intellectual metropolis. A fertile literary centre was formed, which lighted the way for Arab letters. Poetry continued to be cultivated with the same care. Song and music became more important in Baghdad than in other regions. The great historian Ibn Khaldun wrote, 'The beautiful concerts given at Baghdad have left memories that still last.'


Scholars were held in high rank. The Baghdad Academy of Wisdom became an active scientific centre. The Academy's large library was enriched by translations. Scholars of all races and religions were invited to work there. They were concerned with preserving a universal heritage, which was not specifically Muslim and was Arabic only in language.[5]


The immense culture and learning of the Islamic world, centred on Baghdad, was the cornerstone of the rebirth of knowledge called the Renaissance in Europe. While western Europe slid into what are called the 'Dark Ages,' Arab scholars in cities like Baghdad, and the other Islamic cities that grew up in Spain such as Cordoba, Toledo and Granada, continued to thirst for knowledge and progress. They translated works by the great figures of ancient culture and science such as Aristotle and Euclid into Arabic. Translations of these Arabic works into Latin then spread the knowledge to Europe.


Historians speculate that during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (842 - 847) Baghdad was the largest city in the world, with a possible population of between 700,000 and 1,000,000 inhabitants - a cosmopolitan mix of migrants that included Arabs, Persians, Jews and Indians, among others. During this period, this centre of civilization witnessed huge scientific, theological and cultural advances, influencing immeasurably the thinkers, scientists and artists of the future.

[1] J. Down 'Civilisation - Baghdad', Down, J., Newsfinder

[2] 'History of a place called Baghdad,' McGarr, P, 2003, Socialist Worker

[3] J. Down 'Civilisation - Baghdad', Down, J., Newsfinder

[4] 'History of a place called Baghdad,' McGarr, P, 2003, Socialist Worker

[5] G. Wiet The Golden Age of Arab and Islamic Culture in Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate. University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.


Picture 1: Abassid Qasr, Baghdad, by James Gordon, Flickr

Picture 2: Baghdad Mosque, by The Poss, Flickr

Picture 3: The Swords of Qadisiya, Baghdad, by James Gordon, Flickr

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