Baghdad history began during the Islamic Golden Age when the city was founded by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur. From humble beginnings, the city would rise to become the sprawling capital of the Abbasid Caliphate and the center of the Islamic world.
The city acquired fame as the center of learning and scientific innovation. Discover the fascinating story of Baghdad, the jewel of the Muslim world.
History of Baghdad Before the Arab Conquest
The site where Baghdad was built has been continuously inhabited by various people since the dawn of civilization. During antiquity, the territory of the modern-day country of Iraq was called Mesopotamia, a Greek word meaning ‘between the two rivers.’
The city lies in the plain, at the geographical center of Iraq, on the banks of the Tigris River, which flows through the middle of the city, splitting it in half.
The Nearby Cities of Babylon and Ctesiphon
Babylon, one of the most known cities of the ancient Near East, was located 50 miles south of Baghdad, on the Euphrates River. During the height of power of the Babylonian Empire, the city was arguably the largest in the world. Although its glory slowly waned, Babylon remained an important city throughout the Hellenistic and Persian eras until its eventual abandonment around 1000 AD.
The Parthians and the Sassanids moved their capital to Ctesiphon, another great city on the banks of the Tigris, 20 miles southeast of modern Baghdad.
Caliph Al-Mansur Chooses a Small Persian Village as the New Capital
Mesopotamia was the birthplace of many empires. Later, during the period of Persian dominance in the Near East, the region was of great strategic importance in the centuries-long struggle between the Roman and Persian Empires.
The latter fell to Islamic invaders from the Arabian Peninsula in the mid 7th century AD. The Umayyad Caliphate, the second great Islamic caliphate, ruled Mesopotamia and the entire Middle East from 661 to 750. Upon the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate, the new Abbasid Caliph transferred the capital from Damascus to Kufa.
When Was Baghdad Founded?
The second Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mansur (r. 754 – 775), worked to secure the newly-found dynasty. To achieve that, the Caliph needed a seat of power from which he could exert effective control over a vast empire. He chose a small Persian village on the Tigris River located between present-day Al-Kazimiyyah and Al-Karkh (the site of Ancient Baghdad).
Baghdad was officially founded in 762 as Madinat al-Salam (the City of Peace in Arabic). The city was contained within the circular walls called the ‘Round City.
Baghdad Was Built as a Round City
According to classical Arabic sources, the Caliph employed over 100,000 workers to build his new city. Carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, and laborers were brought from across the Abassid Caliphate to excavate the foundation of the city, which measured 3000 yards in diameter.
From a Government Complex to a Bustling City
The original Round City served as a government complex to house Abbasid officials and the Caliphs retinue. Four main roads were built, connecting the Caliph’s palace and the grand mosque at the center of the city with the rest of the Abbasid Caliphate.
Soon after building the city walls, however, the Caliph’s new capital attracted people from all parts of the empire. The city outgrew its initial confines, expanding outside the walls of the Round City.
Within a Few Decades: New Suburbs Outside the Original City
Already during the reign of al-Mansur, three suburbs were formed around the Round City. These were called Rusafah, Al-Shammasiyyah, and Al-Mukharrim. Rusafah soon rivaled the wealth and splendor of the Round City, being home to many markets, gardens, and lavish dwellings of the wealthy. The development of the bustling suburbs marked the beginning of Medieval Baghdad.
‘I Have Never Seen a City of Greater Height’
Writing in the 8th century, the famous Arab writer Al-Jahiz, praised the new capital:
“I have seen the great cities, including those noted for their durable construction. I have seen such cities in the districts of Syria, in Byzantine territory, and other provinces, but I have never seen a city of greater height, more perfect circularity, more endowed with superior merits or possessing more spacious gates or more perfect defenses than Al Zawra (Baghdad), that is to say, the city of Abu Jafar al-Mansur.”
8th and Early 9th Century: Baghdad Was the World’s Richest City
Baghdad experienced continuous growth under the reign of Al-Mansur’s son, Al-Mahdi, and his heir, Harun al-Rashid (r. 786 – 809), whose reign is often described as the pinnacle of Arabic art, science, and culture. For a century and a half, Baghdad was unmatched as the center of learning, as well as high culture.
The City of Poets, Artisans, Philosophers, and Scholars
Many of the records of life during the Baghdad golden age have been preserved in the famous collection of Arab and Indian stories, known as The Thousand and One Nights. Many of the stories take place during the period when Baghdad’s wealth and fame were without parallel.
Harun al-Rashid and his son, the later Caliph Al-Ma’mun (r. 813 – 833), attracted thousands of scholars to the city. The Caliph was a patron of art and science; during his reign, classical Greek works were translated into Arabic, preserving precious knowledge that would later lay the foundation for the flourishing of art and science during the European Renaissance.
Baghdad Was the Home to First True Hospitals
How wealthy and advanced Baghdad was at the time is reflected in the fact that the city could boast of having the first true hospitals. An observatory was built as well, enabling Arab scholars to expand their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics.
Significant advancements were made in the field of engineering, making it possible to devise a complex irrigation system, boosting food production required to feed a growing population.
Middle of the Silk Road: Baghdad Profited From International Trade
For much of Antiquity and the Middle Ages, a complex network of trade routes linking China and the Far East with Europe brought wealth and prosperity to the Abbasid Caliphate. The main route connecting China with Europe passed through Iran and northern Mesopotamia.
Baghdad occupied a central place near the most important trade routes; the proximity to the Silk Road funneled wealth to the city, stimulated commerce and exchange of ideas. During this period, the Abbasids actively traded with both India and China.
Decline of Power
Starting in the mid 9th century, the Abbasid Caliphate entered into a period of stagnation. Several complex reasons were behind the gradual weakening of Abbasid power.
Disputes over royal inheritance, declining agricultural output, wars with the Byzantine Empire, and nomad incursions eroded the Caliphate’s wealth and authority. The Round City was completely destroyed in the dynastic war between Harun al-Rashid’s sons.
The city stopped being the capital soon thereafter. After more than sixty years, the capital returned to Baghdad, but the core of the city shifted to the east bank of the Tigris.
Revival of Fortunes Under the Capable Caliph Al-Wathiq
Al-Wathiq (r. 842 – 847) succeeded as Caliph at a troubled time. Religious strife was rampant in the provinces, fueled by sectarian divisions.
Al-Wathiq had to put down several rebellions and wage war against the Byzantines. Upon the death of his heir Al-Mutawakkil, the powerful Turkic guard gained control of the court and the city of Samarra, then the capital of the Caliphate, ushering in a period of instability called the Anarchy at Samarra.
The Period of Foreign Dominance Begins
In the 10th century, Baghdad was still a large and wealthy city and the cultural capital of the Muslim world. However, the irreversible decline of the political and military power of the Abbasid Caliphate exposed the city to foreign invaders.
The Turkic Seljuks and the Iranian Buyids invaded the Caliphate, stripping it of its eastern territories. The Turkic invasion was but a foreshadowing of the dramatic events that would take place in the 13th century.
Mongol Invasion Results in the Destruction of Baghdad
In the early 13th century, Genghis Khan launched a series of conquests that would leave him in control over large parts of the Eurasian landmass, thus creating one of the largest empires in world history.
The Mongols conquered Persia in 1219 but took several decades to subdue the Iranian Plateau completely.
A Bloody Siege: the Mongol Armies Lay Waste to the Once Great City
In the Battle of Baghdad, the Mongol forces led by Hulagu Khan defeated the defenders of the city. After a thirteen-day-long siege, the Mongols breached the city walls and sacked the city.
The infamous sack of Baghdad (1258) left much of the city in ruins and left it depopulated. Hulugu Khan’s armies destroyed and pillaged the city, burning palaces, markets, hospitals, and even destroying the Grand Library, until then the largest repository of knowledge in the Medieval world. Many priceless books were damaged, the Mongols also executed scholars and philosophers they found in the city.
Mongol Sack of Baghdad is commonly thought to have ended the Islamic Golden Age. The Abbasid Caliphate was nominally preserved, but the succeeding caliphs would be little more than puppets of powerful Mongol and Turkic sultans.
Early Modern Baghdad
The city did not regain its former glory during the period of Mongol rule. Although it was made a provincial capital and an important outpost, the Il-Khanids, Jalayirids, and the Timurids did little to restore Baghdad.
The Safavid Persian Empire gained control of the city in 1508, ruling it until it fell to the Ottomans in 1534. This period of Baghdad’s history is characterized by further decline. Incessant warfare between the Safavids and the Ottomans and Baghdad’s proximity to the frontline reduced its importance.
Ottoman Rule Over Baghdad Ended Only After World War I
For the first time, Baghdad was opened to European influences in the 19th century. The trading relationship between Europe and the Middle East brought back economic prosperity to the ancient city.
European countries were interested in developing the city’s infrastructure; steamship travel on the Tigris was opened in the 1860s. In the second half of the 19th century, Ottoman governors made several improvements with the aim of bringing Baghdad into the modern age.
Iraq Gains Independence Under British Mandate
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, a new independent state of Iraq was created in Mesopotamia. Iraq was a British protectorate until 1932 when it became an independent monarchy.
As the new Iraq capital, Baghdad underwent a rapid population growth: from only 140,000 inhabitants in 1900 to 580,000 half a century later.
Ba’ath Party: Prosperity to the Modern City
Under the rule of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath party, Baghdad experienced a period of prosperity. Iraq benefited from high oil prices in the 1970s when the government made significant investments in infrastructure and social welfare.
The development of the city of Baghdad was cut short in the 1980s and 1990s due to costly wars with Iran and the West. International sanctions and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 initiated a period of internal instability that still grips Iraq today.
During its golden age, Baghdad was the center of the Islamic world and the engine of scientific and artistic progress.
Here’s what you need to remember about the history of Baghdad:
- Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur founded the city in the 8th century AD
- It was the capital of the Abbaside Caliphate until it was sacked by the Mongols
- For almost two centuries, it was the world’s richest city
- Countless scholars and scientists lived and worked there
Only a few cities could rival Baghdad at its heyday, making the Iraqi capital one of the world’s most important cities.