Baghdad – Islam’s Greatest City

For five hundred years, Baghdad, the modern-day capital of Iraq, shone as the gem in the Muslim world. Founded during the Golden Age of Islam, Baghdad quickly expanded, becoming a sprawling metropolis of houses, markets, hospitals and schools.

Founded in 762 AD by al-Mansur, the cities name is subject to lots of debate. Almost certainly it is a pre-Islamic word. Some speculate that it may be Persian, meaning “gift of god” and some say it was an Arabic name, meaning “city of peace”. However, Baghdad did not come to its demise peacefully.

As the second largest city of the 9th century after Constantinople, Baghdad was renowned as the greatest and most magnificent construction project in all of the Middle East. Over a hundred thousand architects, builders, designers and scientists came from all over the Islamic world to help on the work. It was built on the West Bank of the Tigris River, directly in the centre of Mesopotamia, the cradle of human civilisation. Initially it was an administrative centre of political capital of the Abbasid Empire, controlled by the caliphs at the time.

However, it soon became a bustling marketplace and agricultural community. With three main walls and protected by the Tigris River, Baghdad occupied a naturally strategic position. It’s four gates opened up onto four huge roads, where enormous trading centres sprung up. Trapped between the West and the East, Baghdad was slap in the middle of the Silk Road, allowing it to take advantage of the goods that flowed in and out of the city. The economy boomed, as the city quickly became a stopping place for caravan travellers and merchants.

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There was also a deep moat around the circumference of the city, and bridges to connect it to the other side of the Tigris River. A complicated system of canals allowed a constant and efficient water supply, complimented by the particularly clean waters of the river, often free from Malaria and other harmful diseases. Unfortunately, the sanitation of Baghdad would not always remain this way.

With huge industrial centres and residential regions, Baghdad was perfect for trading luxurious goods like exotic spices from the East, textiles and paper. The Bayt-al Hikma was one of the most famous jewels of Baghdad; its name meaning “the House of Knowledge”, it was a hub for scientists, poets and writers, who fully translated many Greek and Persian works of literature. In 800 AD, Baghdad had a population of several hundred thousand at least.

Sadly, with the Asian Mongols pressing in from the East and internal power struggles developing within, Baghdad edged closer and closer towards its doom. The Mongols, children of Genghis Khan, we’re heading into Western territory and having endless victories conquering new land. These peoples wanted all of the Near East, including Baghdad, the greatest centre of commerce and politics.

In 1258, a huge force of a couple hundred thousand Mongols under Helegu arrived outside Baghdad and encircled the city. Siege engines were deployed to significantly weaken the walls. The leaders of the city eventually surrendered, attempting to save the crown jewel of Islam. They commanded their men and civilians to lay down their weapons, but the Mongols mercilessly slaughtered all living creatures in the city. Several hundred thousand innocent residents were put to the sword. Libraries and scientific centres were burnt.

Diseases and floods from the Tigris River gradually wore down Baghdad following the devastating destruction at the hands of the Mongols, until the population of the city was only in the tens of thousands. Towards the end of the Middle Ages and start of the modern era, Baghdad was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, but by this time it had fallen into a state of dismay. Constantinople, in modern-day Turkey, was a much larger and prosperous capital, and Baghdad quickly lost its prestige.

However, it is a city of millions nowadays, just like it once was.

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