The month of July has now started. Just recollected that the Baghdad city was founded in the month of July, 1258 years ago. Where Iraq stands today is historically known as ‘the cradle of civilisation’. This land, also called Mesopotamia — the fertile land around the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, saw the rise and fall of great ancient empires like the Sumerian, Babylonia, Assyria, and the Akkadian empire.

Founded by the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur as the new seat of his Islamic empire, the city was given the name Madinat al-Salam (City of Peace). This was the official name on coins, weights, and other official usage, although the common people continued to use the old name, Baghdad. The name Baghdad is pre-Islamic, and its origin is disputed. The site where the city of Baghdad developed has been populated for millennia.

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Once al-Mansur had agreed the site, it was time to embark on the design. As per an article in the Guardian, this was entirely the caliph’s work. Under strict supervision 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 July 30, 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 cracking. By 766 Mansur’s Round City was complete. July month was chosen as the astrologers believed that it should begin under the astrological sign of Leo.

Bust of al-Mansur in Baghdad
Bust of al-Mansur in Baghdad

According to 11th-century scholar Al Khatib al Baghdadi – whose History of Baghdad is a mine of information on the construction of the city – 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 30 m high, crowned with battlements and flanked by bastions. A deep moat ringed the outer wall perimeter.

As Baghdad was built on the trade route which linked central Asia with eastern lands, it became a trade hub with markets offering goods not only from all parts of the Muslim world but from Europe and far off countries like India and China. According to the ninth-century Arab geographer and historian Yaqubi, author of The Book of Countries, its trade-friendly position on the Tigris close to the Euphrates gave it the potential to be “the crossroads of the universe”. Baghdad became the center of various rich traditions and cultures for the next few centuries.

The foundation of Abbasid caliph al-Mansur’s Round City, Baghdad in 762 was a glorious milestone in the history of urban design. It developed into the cultural centre of the world.

This rapid growth was paralleled by the flourishing of a cultural and academic enterprise that made Baghdad the world’s most famous centre of learning. The founding of The House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma) by Caliph Harun al-Rashid in 830 was an impetus for the bolstering of cultural activity such as writing, translation, and research. The House of Wisdom was an academic institution founded originally to welcome translators and preserve their works, but it soon became a contact zone where ideas met, grappled, and flourished; a place for cultural, scientific, and philosophical debate and the largest library in the world. Under the stewardship of Caliph Al-Ma’mun, the house had the largest number of translated manuscripts and books from Greek, Latin, Persian, Syriac, Chinese, and Sanskrit.

Many of the One Thousand and One Nights tales, widely known as the Arabian Nights, are set in Baghdad during this period. Historians call this era the Islamic Golden Age, before being conquered and subsequently ravaged by the Mongol ruler Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan in February 1258, which was a blow to the Islamic civilization, a major event in Islamic history marking the end of an era of learning and culture. The Mongol army wreaked havoc in the city, killed the Abbasid Caliph and his entire family. The invaders perpetrated atrocious massacres against a million Baghdadis, destroyed the House of Wisdom, and threw its books into the Tigris River. It is said that water in the Tigris River remained black for days because of the ink from the huge number of books. The city that had thrived for five centuries was devastated in only a few days by a horde of bloodthirsty savages.

From the time of the Mongol invasion in the 13th century until its independence from British rule, Iraq was not in control of its own destiny. Baghdad experienced foreign aggressions, but like the Phoenix, it has always arisen.

The city was rebuilt and flourished under Ilkhanid rule but never rose to its former glory again. It was again sacked by Timur in 1401 and fell under Turkic rule. It was briefly taken by Safavid of Persia in 1508, before falling to the Ottoman Empire in 1534. Under the Ottomans, Baghdad continued into a period of decline, partially as a result of the enmity between its rulers and Iranian Safavids, which did not accept the Sunni control of the city. Between 1623 and 1638, it returned to Iranian rule before falling back into Ottoman hands. With the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Baghdad fell under the British Mandate in 1920 and became the capital of the independent Kingdom of Iraq in 1932.

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