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This Week In History

The Foundation of Baghdad. July 30, 762.

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Located along the Tigris River, the city was founded in the 8th century and became the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. Within a short time of its inception, Baghdad evolved into a significant cultural, commercial, and intellectual center for the Islamic world. This, in addition to housing several key academic institutions (for example, the House of Wisdom), garnered the city a worldwide reputation as the “Centre of Learning“.

Baghdad was the largest city of the Middle Ages for much of the Abbasid era, peaking at a population of more than a million. The city was largely destroyed at the hands of the Mongol Empire in 1258, resulting in a decline that would linger through many centuries due to frequent plagues and multiple successive empires. The recognition of Iraq as an independent state (formerly the British Mandate of Mesopotamia) did not come until 1938.

After the fall of the Umayyads, the first Muslim dynasty, the victorious Abbasid rulers wanted their own capital from which they could rule. They chose a site north of the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon (and also just north of where ancient Babylon had once stood), and on 30 July 762 the caliph Al-Mansur commissioned the construction of the city.

“This is indeed the city that I am to found, where I am to live, and where my descendants will reign afterward”.

Caliph Al-Mansur

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Thousands of architects and engineers, legal experts, surveyors and carpenters, blacksmiths, diggers and ordinary labourers were recruited from across the Abbasid empire. First they surveyed, measured and excavated the foundations. “They say that no other round city is known in all the regions of the world”, Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi noted. 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. The Sham (Syrian) Gate to the north-west led to the main road on to Anbar, and across the desert to Syria. To the north-east Khorasan Gate lay close to the Tigris, leading to the bridge of boats across it. By 766 Mansur’s Round City was complete.

Within a generation of its founding, Baghdad became a hub of learning and commerce. Baytul-Hikmah or the “House of Wisdom“, initially founded as a library for private use by Harun al-Rashid, flourished into an unrivaled intellectual center of science, medicine, philosophy, and education and had the largest selection of books in the world by the middle of the 9th century. Baghdad was likely the largest city in the world from shortly after its foundation until the 930s, when it tied with Córdoba. Several estimates suggest that the city contained over a million inhabitants at its peak. Many of the One Thousand and One Nights tales, widely known as the Arabian Nights, are set in Baghdad during this period.

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