Jul 302016


According to well certified documents, the city of Baghdad was founded on this date in 762.  The founding of Baghdad was a milestone in the history of urban design and a landmark in cultural history. A city was born that would quickly become the cultural lodestar of the Old World. It horrifies me to think what the name Baghdad conjures up nowadays – war, famine, pestilence, horror. For me as a boy it was (and is still) the city of 1,001 Nights, of magic lamps and flying carpets. It was a center of learning that scholars gravitated towards. It was a great jewel that was much more magnificent than anything Westerners could conceive, let alone build. Yet now ignorant Westerners (which I hope is not the majority) look down on large swathes of the Middle East, cast aspersions on their culture, and drop bombs on their people. I’m not saying that living under a caliph in the 8th century was a picnic.  But would you rather live in Baghdad under a caliph, or in Europe under the warmongering, illiterate Charlemagne whose greatest educational triumph was being able to write a capital “C” (his initial) on his thumbnail when he was an old man?


After the fall of the Umayyads, the first Muslim dynasty, the victorious Abbasid rulers wanted their own capital to rule from. Choosing a site north of the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon (and also just north of where ancient Babylon once stood), the caliph Al-Mansur commissioned the construction of Baghdad. Once Al-Mansur had chosen the site, he supervised the design. He had workers trace the plans of his round city on the ground in lines of cinders. The perfect circle was a tribute to the geometric teachings of Euclid, whom he had studied and admired. He then walked through this ground-level plan, indicated his approval and ordered cotton balls soaked in naphtha (liquid petroleum) to be placed along the outlines and set alight to mark the position of the massively fortified double outer walls.


On 30 July 762, after the royal astrologers had declared this the most auspicious date for building work to begin, Mansur offered up a prayer to Allah, laid the ceremonial first brick and ordered the assembled workers to get to work. The scale of this great urban project is one of the most distinctive aspects of the history of Baghdad. With a circumference of four miles, the massive brick walls rising up from the banks of the Tigris were the defining signature of Mansur’s Round City. According to 11th-century scholar Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi whose History of Baghdad is our chief source – each course consisted of 162,000 bricks for the first third of the wall’s height, 150,000 for the second third and 140,000 for the final section, bonded together with bundles of reeds. The outer wall was 80ft high, crowned with battlements and flanked by bastions. A deep moat ringed the outer wall perimeter.

The workforce itself was enormous. Thousands of architects and engineers, legal experts, surveyors and carpenters, blacksmiths, and laborers were recruited from across the Abbasid empire. First they surveyed, measured and excavated the foundations. Then, using the sun-baked and kiln-fired bricks that had always been the main building material on the river-flooded Mesopotamian plains in the absence of stone quarries (think the Tower of Babel), they raised the fortress-like city walls brick by brick. This was by far the greatest construction project in the Islamic world, with as many as 100,000 workers involved. The circular design was supposedly innovative (according to Al-Khatib), although there is archeological evidence of other, earlier circular cities. Four equidistant gates pierced the outer walls where straight roads led to the center of the city. The Kufa Gate to the south-west and the Basra Gate to the south-east both opened on to the Sarat canal – a key part of the network of waterways that drained the waters of the Euphrates into the Tigris and made this site so attractive.


The city’s growth was helped by its excellent location, based on at least two factors: it had control over strategic military and trading routes along the Tigris and had abundant water in a dry climate. There were water supplies on both the north and south ends of the city, allowing all households to have a plentiful supply: most uncommon for any city at this time.

Baghdad eclipsed Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persian Empire, which was located some 30 km (19 mi) to the southeast. Today, all that remains of Ctesiphon is the shrine town of Salman Pak, just to the south of Greater Baghdad. Ctesiphon itself had replaced and absorbed Seleucia, the first capital of the Seleucid Empire. Seleucia had earlier replaced the city of Babylon.

The bricks used to make the city were 18 inches (460 mm) on all four sides. Marble was also used to make buildings throughout the city, and marble steps led down to the river’s edge. The city consisted of two large semicircles about 19 km (12 mi) in diameter. The city was designed as a circle about 2 km (1.2 mi) in diameter, leading it to be known as the “Round City”. The original design shows as single ring of residential and commercial structures along the inside of the city walls, but the final construction added another ring inside the first. Within the city there were many parks, gardens, villas, and promenades. In the center of the city lay the mosque, as well as headquarters for guards. This style of urban planning contrasted with Ancient Greek and Roman urban planning, in which cities were designed as squares or rectangles with streets intersecting each other at right angles.


The four surrounding walls of Baghdad were named Kufa, Basra, Khurasan, and Syria; named because their gates pointed in the directions of these destinations. The distance between these gates was a little less than 2.4 km (1.5 mi). Each gate had double doors that were made of iron; the doors were so heavy it took several men to open and close them.  The walls were 30 m high, and included merlons, a solid part of an embattled parapet usually pierced by embrasures. In fact there was a double outer wall surrounded by a moat.

In the middle of Baghdad, in the central square was the Golden Gate Palace. The Palace was the residence of the caliph and his family. In the central part of the building was a green dome that was 39 m high. Surrounding the palace was an esplanade, a waterside building, in which only the caliph could come riding on horseback. In addition, the palace was near other mansions and officers’ residences. Near the Gate of Syria a building served as the home for the guards. It was made of brick and marble. The palace governor lived in the back part of the building and the commander of the guards in the front.


Within a generation of its founding, Baghdad became a hub of learning and commerce. The House of Wisdom was an establishment dedicated to the translation of Greek, Middle Persian and Syriac works. Scholars headed to Baghdad from all over the Abbasid Caliphate, facilitating the introduction of Persian, Greek and Indian science into the Arabic and Islamic world at that time. Baghdad was likely the largest city in the world from shortly after its foundation until the 930s, when it was rivaled by Córdoba. Several estimates suggest that the city contained over a million inhabitants at its peak.


Among the notable features of Baghdad during this period were its exceptional libraries. Many of the Abbasid caliphs were patrons of learning and enjoyed collecting both ancient and contemporary literature. Although some of the princes of the previous Umayyad dynasty had begun to gather and translate Greek scientific literature, the Abbasids were the first to foster Greek learning on a large scale. Many of these libraries were private collections intended only for the use of the owners and their immediate friends, but the libraries of the caliphs and other officials soon took on a public or a semi-public character. Four great libraries were established in Baghdad during this period. The earliest was that of the famous Al Mamun, who was caliph from 813 to 833. Another was established by Sabur Ibn Ardashir in 991 or 993 for the scholars who frequented his academy. Unfortunately, this second library was plundered and burned by the Seljuks only seventy years after it was established. This was a good example of the sort of library built up out of the needs and interests of a literary society. The last two were examples of madrasa or theological college libraries. The Nizamiyah was founded by the Persian Nizam al Mulk, who was vizier of two early Seljuk sultans. It continued to operate even after the coming of the Mongols in 1258. The Mustansiriyah madrasa, which owned an exceedingly rich library, was founded by Al Mustansir, the second to last Abbasid caliph, who died in 1242. This would prove to be the last great library built by the caliphs of Baghdad.

The death struggle between the Islamic empires of the East and the Christian empires of the West waged on in earnest for several centuries, with the Jews caught in the middle. I wonder when the great cultures of the peoples of the books of Abraham will learn to live in harmony. Not in my lifetime, I fear.

Getting at what exactly Persians ate in the 8th century is next to impossible, although we can hazard a guess. Iranian food today has ancient roots, obviously, but it is an eclectic mix. Curiously, our old pal Apicius and his De re coquinaria might come to our aid. This is a 5th century Roman cookbook of course, but it does contain a few recipes which he calls “Parthian” – i.e. Persian. Here’s Parthian lamb:

Haedun sive agnum particum: Mittes in furnum. Teres piper, rutam, cepam, satureiam, damascena enucleata, laseris midicum, vinum, liquamen et oleum. Fervens collitur in disco, ex aceto sumitur. (Apicius 3.6.5)

True to form this is not much to go on, but it’s a start. Basically it tells you to put a whole lamb in an oven and make a sauce with pepper, rue, onion, savory, pitted prunes, asafetida, wine, liquamen, and oil.


I don’t have the ingredients to experiment with this recipe right now, nor the guests to serve it to – a whole roast lamb feeds a bunch. I’d more than likely use a leg of lamb anyway, but you’re still talking about 4 – 6. What’s more, it’s stinking hot and humid right now in Mantua, so I’m not about to roast anything. The sauce seems to be a classic Eastern blend of sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, and salty, so I will give it a try at some point. Getting the proportions right for modern taste buds is going to be a challenge.