Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 April 2003
Issue No. 634
Baghdad Supplement
Current issue
Previous issue
Site map
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
Text menu
Comment Recommend Printer-friendly


945 Buwayhids; 1055 Seljuks; 1258 Mongols led by Hulagu; 1340 Jalayrs; 1393 & 1401 Mongols led by Tamerlane; 1411 Turkoman Black Sheep; 1469 Turkoman White Sheep ; 1508 Safavids ; 1534 Ottomans under Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent; 1623 Safavids; 1638 Ottomans under Sultan Murad IV; 1917 British; 1941 British again to depose pro-German government; 2003 Anglo-American invasion

Its famous names

Amina Elbendary revisits the tumultuous history of the city of peace

Click to view caption
The Mongol seige of Mosul from a manuscript of Rashid Al-Din's Jami' Al-Tawarikh, 14th century; Baghdad's famous college Al-Mustansiriyya; The Library of Basra from a manuscript of Al-Hariri's Maqamat, 1237
As one flips through the television channels to watch live just what "anarchy" and "fitna" are about, the mind wanders to January 1258. In that year, Baghdad fell to the invading Mongol armies in one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of the Arabs and of Islam, second perhaps only to the martyrdom of Al-Hussein in Arab-Muslim collective consciousness.

1258 was not the first siege that the city had experienced, nor would it be the last time that it fell to invaders, yet the parallels with the present situation are inescapable. One can sense why the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols was so traumatic to the mediaeval Arabs and why the invading US forces are repeatedly being referred to as the "New Mongols".

Baghdad had been the seat of the Abbasid caliphs since Al- Mansur laid its foundations in 762 as a round city on the Tigris that would become the nucleus for a bigger metropolis. Baghdad had many names: Madinat Al-Mansur and Madinat Abu Ja'far, of course, after its founder, as well as Madinat Al- Khulafa (City of the Caliphs). It was also called Madinat Al- Salam, city of peace -- a reference to paradise -- and Al-Zawra' because one of its inner gates was askew. Quarters such as the trade centre of Al-Karkh and the garrison of Al-Harbiyya eventually meshed together into a huge metropolis that grew beyond the city's original limits.

The Tigris River divided Baghdad into eastern and western sections, each of which had its suburbs, mosques, markets and even cemeteries. The city stood on a fertile plain, and it was conveniently placed on the Khurasan road. Mediaeval writers extol its healthy climate, making it fairly safe from mosquitoes, though modern residents decry the unbearable summer heat and humidity. Most of the traces of the historical city have not survived the centuries, especially since Iraq lacks stone quarries, meaning that many of Baghdad's buildings were constructed from sun-dried mud bricks that were susceptible to fires and floods, both of which repeatedly attacked the city. These included palaces, which are said to have reached 23 by the end of the eighth century, and walls that had to be repeatedly rebuilt because of destruction and because of the growth of the city and its many public works.

Al-Mansur's original Round City was surrounded by a moat and a double wall, inside which officers and loyal followers of the Caliphs were allowed to build houses, and then, further inside, there was a third, higher wall that encircled the Caliph's palace with its famed green dome and mounted horseman on top, as well as the city's great mosque, diwans and the headquarters of the guards and the police. Baghdad's main gates were the Khurasan Gate to the northeast, the Basra Gate to the southwest, the Syria Gate to the northwest and the Kufa Gate to the southeast.

Many travellers, geographers, historians and poets have praised the city, as well as its natural beauty and its magnificent treasures. It was, as the mediaeval writer Yaqut Al-Hamawi described it, the "mother of the world, mistress of nations, heaven on earth, city of peace, dome of Islam". It inspired many works in the fad'ail or "virtues" genre, such as Manaqib Baghdad by Ibn Al-Jawzi (d.1200); indeed, the literary reputation of the city was so great that visitors were often disappointed when it failed to live up to their expectations.

Hearing of, and reading about, Baghdad from a distance was a very different experience for educated mediaeval Muslims, who expected the city to be unlike any city they had ever known, than actually seeing it. One senses Arab disappointment in Baghdad once more these days, when many people believed the rhetoric of people like Mohamed Said Al-Sahhaf, much against their better judgement, and expected a siege unlike any they had ever known.

Many writers, mediaeval as well as modern, concur that the golden age of the city was under the Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid (786-809). Modern historians, however, have scrutinized this view: to what extent was Haroun's capital exceptional, they ask. Was Haroun's reign conceived as glorious in retrospect, by writers witnessing a city suffering from political turmoil and natural disasters? Were they nostalgically projecting a myth of Baghdad onto Haroun's reign? All of Iraq's regimes seem to have wanted to compare themselves to the Abbasids. But was post-Haroun Baghdad, or even post-Mongol Baghdad, so poor a city? Ibn Jubayr found signs of decline even before the Mongol sack of the city, while Ibn Battuta found much to admire after it.

Whatever the truth may be, the classical Baghdad that lives in the collective consciousness of the Arabs, as well as on the pages of the mediaeval texts, was indeed a city of splendour and scholarship. In our minds at least, it is the setting for many of the stories of Alf Layla wa Layla, such as that of the two Sindbads, and for some of the anecdotes contained in Al-Hariri's Maqamat, notably, of course, the Maqama of Baghdad. Baghdad, centre of power and politics, was a city of palaces, bridges, mosques and madrasas. It was so large that its population is estimated to have reached a million and a half by the tenth century, an impressive figure by the standards of the time.

Baghdad was renowned as a city of scholarship and learning. Al-Ya'qubi, for example, in praising the city in the ninth century insisted that "no scholars are more learned than hers, no scribes better versed and no theologians more disputatious." Baghdad is also the home of both the Hanafi and the Hanbali schools of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence, and the shrines of Abu Hanifa, founder of the Hanafi school, and of Ibn Hanbal, founder of the Hanbali school, remain landmarks of Baghdad.

The first Muslim madrasa was the Al-Nizamiyya, founded by Nizam Al-Mulk in the eleventh century, in Baghdad. Other madrasas, such as Al-Mustansiriyya, were beacons of knowledge in the middle ages. Public libraries such as Dar Al-'Ilm were also founded as centres of scholarship. The city was so lucky in its scholars that the seminal work, Tarikh Baghdad (History of Baghdad), by Al-Khatib Al-Baghdadi (d. 1071) is for the most part a biographical dictionary of the city's scholars, the introduction being a historical and topographical study of the city. Many Sufis also lived and flourished in Baghdad alongside the traditional 'ulama. Baghdad was a city of poets, many of whom were patronised by the Abbasid caliphs.

It was also in Baghdad that the bulk of Arab science was carried out, often by non-Arabs and non-Muslims. In Bayt Al- Hikma and other Baghdad institutions, ancient knowledge from Greece, Persia and India was translated into Arabic, serving as the basis for new cultural and scientific enterprise. The city was also famous for its hospitals, such as the Bimaristan Al-Sayyid, the Bimaristan Al-Adudi and the Bimaristan Al-Muktadiri.

Baghdad's geographical position made it an important commercial centre. It had specialised markets for fruit, cloth, books (more than 100 shops), money-changing, spices and drugs, flowers, gold, livestock and Chinese merchandise. Its silk and cotton textiles were famous, as was its leather and paper manufacturing. Swords had their own market at Bab Al-Taq. The city was also famous for its mosques and public baths.

But Baghdad, a large, crowded, cosmopolitan city, also had its shortcomings for mediaeval commentators. For Al-Ya'qubi, for example, "no libertines were ever more dissipated" than Baghdad's. "The ill-conduct of the people of this town," wrote Ibn Jubayr, "is stronger than the character of its air and water and detracts from the probity of its traditions." The poet Abu Nuwwas, famed for his poetry as much as for his debauchery, was one of the city's luminaries. The city also had a reputation for corruption.

Despite the idyllic image many of us retain of Baghdad, the city has not had a smooth history. Being a centre of power, it was also a hub of political intrigue and violence. The first siege of the city also came early, in 813 at the hands of troops owing allegiance to Al-Ma'amun. Al-Ma'amun and his brother Al- Amin, sons of the Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid, had quarrelled over their father's legacy, and Al-Ma'amun laid siege to the city, which lasted 14 months, after which his forces bombarded Baghdad and destroyed many of its buildings and devastated many quarters of the city. Historians tell us that the destruction was completed by the rabble and by lawless volunteers. "Destruction and ruin raged until the splendour of Baghdad was gone," wrote the historian Al-Tabari, and the chaos continued until Al-Ma'amun returned to the city in 819, going on to become one of the celebrated rulers of the Abbasid dynasty.

When the Mongols led by Hulaghu Khan later laid siege to Baghdad the city was no longer in its heyday. Its decline, indeed the decline of the Abbasids themselves, had started long before, and by 950 the Caliphs had lost a lot of their power to successive military regimes, such as those led by the Buwayhids and the Seljuks. The power struggles between the Caliphs, some of whom were merely figureheads, and the sultans who had de facto power in the city, also took their toll. Buildings and public works were pulled down, and others constructed depending on who held power in a given year.

When Ibn Jubayr visited Baghdad in 1184 he felt the city's decline: "This ancient city, though it still serves as the Abbasid capital, has lost much of its distinctive character and retains only its famous name. Compared to what it once was -- before it fell victim to recurrent misfortunes and repeated calamities -- the city resembles a vanished encampment, or a passing phantom." After recounting his visit to the city, Ibn Jubayr concluded that it "is greater than can be described," but he couldn't resist lamenting, "but what is she to what she was? Today we may apply to her the saying of the lover: You are not you, and the houses are not those I knew."

Baghdad resisted the siege of 1258 for 50 days, following which came 40 days of terror. The Caliph Al-Musta'sim and the men of his household were put to death, Baghdad was plundered mercilessly, and its citizens beheaded. Ibn Kathir's account gives an idea of how complete the destruction was: many people hid in wells, latrines and sewers for fear of the killing. Those who hid in the caravanserais did not survive, and neither did those who hid in mosques or Sufi ribats. After 40 days of Mongol pillaging and killing, only a fraction of the city's population survived, Ibn Kathir writes, wretched, hungry and plagued. Corpses lay strewn on the roads, and the stench was so great that an epidemic broke out, spreading to Syria.

The air was contaminated. People coming out of their underground hiding places could no longer recognise each other. Accounts differ as to how many died in Baghdad at its sack: some said 800,000, others a thousand thousand, and others yet two thousand thousand. Such inflated figures, though inaccurate, at least clarify the extent of the damage and how catastrophic the invasion was perceived to have been. The endowments of institutions such as madrasas were confiscated and their libraries plundered. In modern Arab collective consciousness the enduring image of the sack of Baghdad is of corpses and books thrown into the Tigris for the Mongol armies to cross over -- testimony both to the cultural richness of the city and the ruthlessness of the invaders.

The moral bankruptcy of the late Caliphate is aptly conveyed by the dramatic scene in which Ibn Kathir describes the fall of Baghdad. Al-Must'asim was in his palace enjoying the dancing of one of his concubines, seemingly oblivious to the siege of his capital by Hulaghu's forces. Suddenly, an arrow shot through a window, killing the concubine, and, when he lifted the arrow the Caliph read these words inscribed on it: "When God wishes to accomplish His decree, he deprives men of reason of their reason."

According to Ibn Kathir, the Caliph was betrayed by Abbasid officials who had gone over to the Mongols. These included the governor of Mosul, and the wazir Ibn Al-'Alqami. For Ibn Kathir, Shi'i-Sunni strife and animosity was also at the heart of the betrayal (Al-'Alqami was Shi'i) -- another recurrent theme in Baghdad's history. It was the wazir who had misadvised the Caliph, this historian claims, consistently working to reduce the army so that there were only some 10,000 troops to defend Baghdad against Hulaghu's 200,000.

Indeed, the Abbasids' lack of preparation for the siege is attested to in Mongol, as well as in Western sources. Marco Polo, for example, recounts the encounter between Hulaghu and Al- Musta'sim in this picturesque translation: "Once he had taken the town, Alau [Hulaghu] found that the Calif (sic) possessed a tower full of gold, silver and other treasures, such as had never before been seen collected in a single place. When he saw this great treasure, he marvelled greatly, and, sending for the Calif, summoned him to his presence. Then he said: 'Calif, why hast thou gathered together such a great treasure? What didst thou intend to do with it? Didst thou not know that I was thine enemy, and that I was coming against thee with so great an army to dispossess thee? And knowing this, why didst thou not take thy treasure, and give it to thy knights and soldiers to defend thee and the city?' The Calif answered nothing, for he knew not what to say."

In this and in other non-Arab accounts, Hulaghu then starved the Caliph, with his treasures, to death.

The philosopher Nasir Al-Din Al-Tusi (d.1274), who was present with Hulaghu at the time, recounts the encounter between the two rulers in similar terms: "He [Hulaghu] went to examine the Caliph's residence and walked about it in every direction. The Caliph was fetched and ordered presents to be offered. Whatever he brought out the King at once distributed amongst his suite and emirs, as well as among military leaders and all those present. He then set a golden tray before the Caliph and said: 'Eat!' 'It is not edible,' said the Caliph. 'Then why didst thou keep it,' asked the King, 'and not give it to thy soldiers? And why didst thou not make these iron doors into arrow-heads and come to the banks of the river so that I might not have been able to cross it?' 'Such,' replied the Caliph, 'was God's will.' 'What will befall thee,' said the King, 'is also God's will.'"

That the Caliph was then killed is not in doubt. But how was this done: was he starved, drowned, strangled, or wrapped in a carpet and kicked to death? Some accounts claim that the Mongols did not want to spill the Caliph's blood in order that they could later avoid his being revenged, writes Ibn Kathir. But the accounts also tell us that all the males of the Abbasid family were killed, so who would live to take revenge?

Baghdad survived the Mongol invasion only to be invaded several more times, including twice by Hulaghu's grandson, Timur, in 1393 and 1401. The second time, much of the population was indiscriminately beheaded, and many public buildings and quarters were destroyed, dealing a devastating blow to the surviving centre of the city. Though it was never to be the seat of an empire again, Baghdad then passed from dynasty to dynasty, finally being taken by the Ottomans in 1534 and becoming the capital of an Ottoman province. In 1921, Baghdad became the capital of the modern state of Iraq.

Politics, however, were not the only forces working to the detriment of the city. Nature also took its toll, with floods being responsible for recurring destruction. In 883, a flood ruined some 7,000 houses in the Karkh district of Baghdad, and another flood in 983 swept through the Kufa Gate and into the city. In 920 and 921, Karkh suffered from fire, and in 934 the fire that spread through the same area spilled over into the market for pharmacists, ointment sellers, jewellers and others, being so destructive that its traces could still be seen years later.

The sources also talk about the turbulence of the crowds and sectarian strife taking their toll on the city. The coming to power of the Shi'i Buwayhids as the city's de facto rulers in the tenth century aggravated Shi'i-Sunni conflict, with these conflicts sometimes turning destructive, as in 949 when Karkh was pillaged, or in 959, when fighting led to destruction and fire in Bab Al-Taq.

In 971, trouble led to the burning of Karkh, and, Ibn Al-Athir tells us, 17,000 people perished, and 300 shops, 33 mosques and many houses were destroyed. In 1030, many markets were ruined during more trouble: these were unstable times of political chaos and economic hardship, and the violence of the mob was directed against the city's wealthier classes, as well as against the merchants and dignitaries. Popular gangs, the 'ayyarun, gained virtual control of the city during such times of strife, terrorising many among the population during the later years of Buwayhid rule. These gangs would levy taxes from the markets, break into houses, and spread havoc by sword and fire: one of their leaders practically ruled Baghdad for four years from 1030-1033, and it took the coming of another military regime, this time Sunni, the Seljuks, in the 1050s to bring back law and order.

Today, multiple forces are once again at play in Baghdad. Politics, intrigue and men's passions are running wild and wreaking havoc on the city. There are differences, of course, but history tells us that Baghdad survived both the Mongols and its own demons.

Finally, a poem by a certain Taqiaddin Ibn Abil-Yusr, quoted in Al-Dhahabi's Tarikh Al-Islam (The History of Islam), and translated by Joseph de Somogyi, describes the destruction of 1258:

"How many an inviolate household has the Turk taken captive with violent hands, though before that curtain were many protecting bastions;

How many [youths like] full moons [in beauty] upon Al- Badriyya have been eclipsed, and never again shall there be a rising of full moons therefrom;

How many treasures have become scattered abroad through plundering, and passed into the possession of infidels;

How many punishments have been inflicted by their swords upon men's necks, how many burdens [of sin] there laid down;

I called out, as the captives were dishonoured and licentious men of the enemy dragged them to ravishment --

And they were driven like cattle to the death that they beheld, "The Fire, O my Lord, rather than this -- not the shame."


"After the capture of all the house of Al-Abbas, may no brightening illumine the face of the dawn;

Nothing has ever given me pleasure since their departure save the Sayings of the Prophet that I pass on and Traditions of the Fathers;

There remains for neither the Faith nor the world, now that they are gone, any market of glory, for they have passed away and perished.

Truly the Day of Judgement has been held in Baghdad, and her term, when to prosperity succeeds adversity.

The family of the Prophet and the household of learning have been taken captive, and whom, think you, after their loss, will cities contain?"


© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Comment Recommend Printer-friendly

Issue 634 Front Page
Egypt | Region | IRAQ | BAGHDAD | Economy | Opinion | Letters | Features | Sports | Profile | People | Time Out | Chronicles | Cartoons
Batch View | Current issue | Previous issue | Site map