History and Significance of Ancient Baghdad

Published 19 Dec 2016

Baghdad developed into a jeweled center of great learning, science, and urban organization. An immense library and academies were established. Civilization soared as dozens of scientists, physicians, mathematicians, philosophers, scholars, and artisans converged to advance human knowledge and achievement. Boasting more than peace, scholarship, and governance, Baghdad arguably became the world’s most exotic city, spawning such stories as A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. (Black 37)

The ancient city of Baghdad had been a relatively minor settlement in the Middle East until the 8th century AD, when it rapidly developed into the capital of an early Islamic empire. Baghdad spreads over both banks of the Tigris River, about 30 miles from the Euphrates River. The land between these two rivers had fertile soil for farming, unlike most of the arid Middle East. This area was part of the land that was historically known as Mesopotamia. Some of the world’s greatest ancient civilizations were developed in this area. This region is often called the Cradle of Civilization. Powerful and important cities have flourished in the region for thousands of years: Uruk, Sumer, Babylon and Nineveh. The Persian Empire was ruled from Ctesiphon, just 20 miles south of Baghdad, until A.D. 637. However, Baghdad had itself been a small Persian hamlet, until the Abbasid Caliph Abu Mansur laid the foundations of his new city in A.D. 762.

Mesopotamia witnessed the world’s most ancient states with highly developed social complexity. The emergence of urban societies in Southern Iraq occurred almost four thousand years before the golden age of Greece circa 5th century BC. The conquest of Alexander the Great marked the “end” of Mesopotamia, and the beginning of a period of Hellenization of the Near East. However, the ancient Mesopotamian city and civilization did not die out suddenly with the end of Mesopotamia’s political independence.

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Many traditional aspects of urban life continued to exist from the fifth century BC long into the first centuries of the common era. New influences altered aspects of religion and culture, and the economy of certain cities was changed due to the enormous expansion of international trade. The urban civilization of Mesopotamia may have really begun to disappear only during the agricultural decline of the region in the early Islamic period. Even then, centers like Baghdad perpetuated the earlier traditions. Baghdad truly inherited the power and prestige of Babylon and Ctesiphon.

When spotted by Mansur, the site of Baghdad had every advantage for trade, communications and water supplies (the waters of the Diyala flowed down in abundance from the Zagros mountains). The Caliph began zealously preparing the ground for a city, with a great army of forced labor. The canals in the area were improved, developed and covered over, aqueducts and fortifications were built, and the city was planned so as to absorb near-by small settlements. Mansur established a military encampment. He assigned lands surrounding the city as fiefs to his relatives, followers and officers. He called his new city Madinat-as-Salaam (“City of Peace”). However, in common parlance, the older name Baghdad soon took over. The main feature of Mansur’s City was that it was circular.

Mansur’s Round City, surrounded by three ramparts and a moat, was about a mile and a half in diameter. The Caliph considered that the sovereign should live in the center of all and equidistant from all, and therefore in the center stood the Caliph’s palace (Called the Golden Gate), next to the Friday Mosque. Surrounding these, and arranged symmetrically as the decorative motifs of a carpet, stood twenty administrative buildings pided equally into four sectors. The walls of Baghdad were built with sun-dried bricks of extraordinary size. The circular ramparts had four gates. These were arranged in accordance with the natural features of the site and not, as was more usual, at the cardinal points. The concentric scheme of the city was an innovation in the plan of a Moslem city. Thus the city of Baghdad began on a grand note.

Over the centuries, this city would stand second only to Constantinople in size, and was unrivalled for splendor throughout Western Asia, and became the capital of “Mesopotamia.” Wars sieges, the removal for a time by the Caliphs of the seat of government to Samarra (higher up the Tigris) have not affected the supremacy of Baghdad as capital of the Tigris and Euphrates country. Even the razing down of the entire down by the Mongols in A.D. 1258 could not permanently put it down; it definitely marked the end of Baghdad’s golden era, but the city was resilient enough to rise again and thrive.

According to some sources, the etymological meaning of “Baghdad” is traced to Persian, with “Bagh” meaning God and “dad” meaning gift. Although, “the gift of God” sounds too farfetched for a small hamlet that Baghdad was in the pre-Islamic times, it had been a flourishing center for a brief period. Once it became the capital of an empire, however, Baghdad shone resplendent as the center of the Moslem world for over five centuries during the medieval times, during the golden age of the Islamic civilization — and stood true to its name (Huda).

Soon after its founding, Baghdad developed into a hub of learning and commerce with astonishing rapidity. In those dark ages, when Europe and Western Civilization languished under the burden of ignorance and religious dogma, learned men of the Muslim world were making seminal contributionsin various fields of philosophy, sciences and arts, includingmedicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and literature. As a bristling metropolis of the Abbasid dynasty, Baghdad became a city of libraries, museums, hospitals, and mosques.

Baghdad’s founder Abu Mansur himself was a religious fanatic who used to put people to death for their secular beliefs. His son Al-Mahdi was equally a protector of Islam. The movement of cultural and intellectual efflorescence got a massive boost only during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Al Mamun (rule 813-833). Al-Mamun summoned scholars of many religions to Baghdad, treating them with respect and tolerance. Although he too was a staunch believer, he was not a fundamentalist and had a liberal and more rationalist orientation of mind. Al-Mamun searched for knowledge, wherever it may be found. He tried to secure copies of original books from wherever he could. He particularly gathered the works of Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Euclid, and Ptolemy. He got them translated and urged his subjects to study them. A scientific and cultural movement was underway.

Thus, Baghdad was not merely of vital importance to Islamic culture, but to the whole modern civilization. In and around the tenth century, it was de facto intellectual capital of the world (Wiet). From the 8th to the 12th century Baghdad was the most civilized city in the world, and sparked a vigorous cultural and intellectual life. Ironically, the Moslem city of Baghdad was exactly what Alexandria could have been if the latter had not been devastated by Muslim hordes. Men of letters and of science, of various religious backgrounds, had gathered in Baghdad from many parts of the ancient word. They would have been officially invited by the Caliph for their expertise, or they could have come naturally drawn by the intellectual aura of the city.

The only downside to it was, and one which essentially differentiated it from a place like Alexandria, for example, was the excessive importance given to Koran and Islam, in stark contrast to all the open-minded enquiry and rational, philosophical thinking that was going on. If only Baghdad and other centers of learning stood true to the spirit of philosophical and scientific enquiry, and broke out of the yoke of religious dogma, Renaissance could have taken place in the Middle East and not in the Europe — and much earlier. However, mysteriously, or not so mysteriously, the openness to ideas, the intellectual ferment, and the spirit of innovation that created many wonders for a few centuries got utterly dried up, and Islamic peoples slipped into the nescience of dogma and belief, never to recover again.

In the end, the prolific scholarship of Islam’s golden age could only succeed in passing down the Church-suppressed Greek philosophical thinking to Europe. From Thomas Aquinas onwards, European thinkers and reformers got introduced to the works of Plato, Aristotle and other through the writings of Islamic scholars such as Avicenna and Averroes. Hence, Baghdad was very instrumental in preserving the integrity of the Western Civilization. The legacy of Greek intellectual traditions was kept alive in Baghdad during a long and crucial epoch, and herein lies the city’s true significance for civilization and humanity.

Besides, the achievements and contributions of the Islamic learned men in their own right were of no mean proportions. In Baghdad, during Al Mamun’s reign, Al-Khwarizmi wrote a mathematical treatise that for the first time used the word al-jabr — algebra — to describe the process of solving equations; Hibat Al-Baghdadi wrote about different systems of arithmetic in a work of great importance in the history of mathematics, he was also a poet, litterateur and maker of astronomical instruements; three Baghdad brothers produced pioneering works in mechanical engineering;

Ibn Duraid was was a geographer, genealogist, poet, and philologist, and wrote a large Arabic dictionary; Ibrahim ibn Sinan was a mathematician and astronomer who studied geometry, and made advances in the theory of integration; Al-Jawahari wrote a commentary on Euclid’s Elements – and thus the list goes on. Enthusing over the explosion of knowledge of the times, Al-Baghdadi observed in ca. 1120, as translated by Franz Rosenthal, in “Al-Asturlâbî and as-Samaw’al on Scientific Progress” (King):

The ancients [Greeks] distinguished themselves through their chance discovery of basic principles and the invention of ideas. The modern scholars, on the other hand, distinguish themselves through the invention of a multitude of scientific details, the simplification of difficult (problems), the combination of scattered (information), and the explanation of (material which already exists in) coherent (form). The ancients came to their particular achievements by virtue of their priority in time, and not on account of any natural qualification and intelligence. Yet, how many things escaped them which then became the original inventions of modern scholars, and how much did the former leave for the latter to do!

Thus, Baghdad and the Arabic culture it sustained merely did not serve as transit of classical ideas from Greece, but considerably worked upon them, expanded on them, and made them fit to be easily assimilated by the Renaissance thinkers of Europe. For instance, astronomy was at the forefront of science that drove European sciences, but it is claimed that little was achieved in Europe in astronomy until the middle of the 16th century that had not been achieved previously by Muslim scholars in the time between the 9th and the 15th century. However, most sadly, what was transmitted to Europe in the latter Middle Ages was in fact only a portion of the knowledge developed in Islamic world. Most of the manuscripts were destroyed during the Mongol plundering of Baghdad in the 13th century. Though Baghdad survived and thrived the Mongol invasion, it would never again be the queen of the world.


  • Black, Edwin. “Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq’s 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict.” Hoboken, NJ : John Wiley & Sons, 2004.
  • Gaston Wiet. “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate.” Norman, OK : University of Oklahoma Press, 1971. Available on the net. 04 March 2007 <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/med/wiet.html>
  • Huda. “Baghdad in Islamic History.” 2007. About. com. 04 March 2007
  • King, David A. “The Renaissance of Astronomy in Baghdad in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries: A list of publications, mainly from the last 50 years.”11 June 2003. University of Frankfurt. 04 March 2007 < http://web.uni-frankfurt.de/fb13/ign/astronomy_in_baghdad/bibliography.html>
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