Al-Mustansiriyya Madrasa | Baghdad’s oldest seat of learning

In 1227 CE, the thirty-seventh Abbasid Caliph al-Mustansir Billah (reigned 1226-1242 CE) commissioned the construction of Al-Mustansiriyya madrasa in the capital city of Baghdad named in his honour. Construction lasted for six years and the school opened in 1234 CE. It was one of the oldest madrasas in the world. 

The Madrasa taught many different subjects, including medicine, mathematics, literature, grammar, philosophy, and Islamic religious studies. However, the major focus of education was in Islamic law. It was the first effort at one site to unify the four orthodox Sunni law schools: Hanbali, Shafii, Maliki, and Hanifi — each school occupied a corner of the madrasa. It became the most prominent and high-ranking centre for Islamic studies in all of Baghdad.

The Mustansiriya Madrasa is one of the only buildings still standing that provides evidence for Baghdad’s role as a centre for Islamic Art and for the city’s role in the development of geometric ornament. Situated on the Tigris River, this brick, two-story, rectangular madrasa is organised around a central courtyard. Three iwans open onto the court while the fourth side leads down a long corridor off of which are three open spaces that functioned as an oratory. The entrances exhibited arabesque-sculpted terracotta and geometric patterned masonry work, featuring vegetal themes that recall earlier Abbasid and even Umayyad motifs.

Main entrance of the Madrasa
Main entrance of the Madrasa (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Madrasa has experienced several periods of decline and reemergence throughout its history. The most significant degradation to the Madrasa’s architecture and position within Baghdad was the Mongol Siege of Baghdad. This great institution of medieval scholarship in central Baghdad was sacked by Hulagu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, during the 1258 Mongol invasion, its students put to the sword, books dumped into the Tigris River, not unlike what happened recently upstream in Ninewa and Mosul, seven and a half centuries later, at the hands of Daesh terrorists. Under Hulagu’s leadership, the siege of Baghdad destroyed Baghdad’s standing in the Islamic world and ended the Abbasid Dynasty in 1258. The siege is also considered to mark the end of the Islamic Golden Age.

The school at one point had a library that contained some 450,000 books and volumes. Al-Mustansiriyah rose again and witnessed two more Mongol invasions of Baghdad, by Timur (Tamerlane) in 1392 and in 1400, in which all schools were sacked again. After the 13th century, the Madrasa experienced a period of decline in prominence, followed by fluctuating centuries of purpose and power. The widespread annihilation and conquest of the Mongols throughout the Middle East resulted in the first stages of transformation for the complex.

Mustansiriya-Madrasah-Christian-Lindgren-link

In 1534, the Ottoman Turks sieged control, maintaining a stable reign until the British accession in the early 20th century. During the late 18th to the early 20th century, the Mustansiriya Madrasa was used largely for military purposes such as serving as a place of rest and resource, as well as a storage house for soldier uniforms. The building eventually became something of a caravanserai for traders passing through Baghdad. In 1865, the madrasa was converted to a customs office under the Ottomans. 

In 1973, the Mustansiriya Madrasa was overseen by the Directorate of Antiquities in Iraq. Since then, the complex has been in a consistent state of reconstruction. The modern businesses surrounding the Madrasa have since been demolished with the intention of restoring the original perimeters of the complex and it is now a part of the Al-Mustansiriya University.

Al-Mustansiriyah Madrassa stands as a testament to Iraq’s resilience and endurance over the centuries and demonstrates that barbarism and terrorism of any kind, at any period, cannot prevail over culture and knowledge.