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Constructing Ancient Baghdad Which Preserved Greek, Persian And Indian Civilizations

By Parvez Mahmood

June 19, 2020

Al-Mansur, the second Abbasid Caliph, constructed the city of Baghdad as his new capital on the western bank of the River Tigris and called it the “Madinat-ul-Islam” (City of Islam). The site was selected in 758 AD, its construction began in 762 AD and the Caliph moved to the city in 763 AD. The work on the central city, however, continued for four years till 766 AD.

This article presents some points of interest related to the construction phase of the city, based on the information assembled from the works of al-Yaqubi (d.898), al-Tabari (d.923) and Ibn-Serapion (d. early 10th century). Two other important works on the subject are Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliphate by Guy LeStrange and Capital cities of the Arabs by Philip Hitti. The last two mentioned books themselves are mostly based upon the same sources mentioned above.

The plan of the city, according to al-Tabari, was laid out by Khalid Barmaki, the great administrator of the early Abbasid Caliphs. Al-Yaqubi wrote that when the master plan for the city had been finalized, al-Mansur wanted to see for himself what it would look like, so he had its outline drawn with ashes. He walked through each gate and along its outside walls, arched areas and courtyards. He then ordered oiled cottonseeds placed on this outline. He watched as the fires flared up, seeing the city as a whole. Having thus satisfied himself with the layout of the city, he approved the design.

The Great Mosque was at the center of the planned city of Baghdad


The city had a mosque and caliphal palace at its centre, which were surrounded by tree-lined gardens. As the palace was made first, the mosque attached to it was misaligned with Ka’abah, as it was rotated way to the right. Surprisingly, we do not have a record of any heads rolling for this fumble, though al-Mansour was rather liberal with such commands and had no qualms in ordering people beheaded or strangulated, including his relatives and benefactors.

Moreover, the city had four exits in the ordinal directions. They were called the Khorasan Gate to the north west, facing the river and leading to Rayy (modern Tehran), Basrah Gate to the south east, facing the river and leading to southern Iraq, Kufah Gate to the south west, leading to Bahrain, Nejd and Hijaz, and Syria Gate leading to northern al-Jazeira, Syria and Egypt. Broad avenues ran from these gates to the central mosque.

Each exit had a double gate for a total of eight gates. It was believed that King Solomon had built a city a hundred kilometres downstream of Baghdad. That city had five large strong iron gates. In 702 AD, the famed Umayyad governor of Basrah, al-Hajjaj bin Yousaf al-Thaqafi, built a city for his Syrian troops at Wasit near Solomon’s city and used those iron gates.

Now, in 764AD, al-Mansur, too, learnt about these gates and ordered them to be brought via river to Baghdad. Four of these gates were used in the main wall and the fifth formed the main entrance to caliph’s palace. Al-Tabari has reported seeing them in his time around 900 AD but their subsequent fate is not known. The gates for the outer wall were of diverse origin. The Khorasan gate was in ancient Egyptian style, brought from Syria. The Kufah gate was brought from the city of Kufah, and the Syrian gate was made in Baghdad, and that was of the poorest quality of all gates. The origin of the Basrah gates has not been mentioned by any historian.

The Abbasid court proved a melting pot of cultural influences from the then Muslim world


The city had three concentric circular walls. The innermost wall separated the imperial residences and gardens from the government offices. The two walls, acting as a double wall at the periphery of the city, were separated by 150 feet. The inner of these two walls, which was meant to provide the main defence in case of enemy attack, was 90 feet in height with a foundation measuring 105 feet across and narrowing to 37 feet at the top. The outermost wall was less massive at 75 feet across at the foundations, narrowing to 30 feet at the summit with a height of about 60 feet. The outermost wall had battlements and 113 bastions at intervals of 60 yards. The inner main wall too had battlements and turrets, and was provided with gangways wide enough for a horseman to ride at the top of the wall. A deep moat surrounded the city. The diameter of the city, as calculated from the moat, was about 2.8 km.

Each gateway in the main wall was 30 feet long and 18 feet wide, with an upper chamber supporting a 75 feet high cupola on teak wood and decorated with tiles and gold work. On its apex was a figure serving as a wind vane, which was a novelty in those days. The upper chamber of the Khorasan Gate overlooking the Tigris was a favourite resting place for the Caliph.

The palace of Abbasid Caliph al-Nasir


To facilitate the gigantic task of building a new city, AI-Mansur collected craftsmen and labourers from all parts of empire. He commanded that people endowed with virtue, integrity and intelligence should be brought to Baghdad. According to al-Yaqubi, the Caliph wrote to every region under his command to send persons who understood anything about construction. He didn’t start the work until he had gathered 100,000 skilled workers and craftsmen. Al-Tabari notes that, to enhance efficiency, the Caliph appointed one commander for each quarter of city.

Among these people of “virtue, integrity and intelligence” were al-Hajjaj b. Artah and Imam Abu Hanifah. Al-Hajjaj was a Muhaddis and Faqih who lived in Kufah. He took part in the construction of the city and laid out the central mosque with the wrong Kibla’a direction, as noted above. He later served as judge for Basrah and secretary to the Caliph.

Imam Abu Hanifah, of course, is the progenitor of the Hanafi School whose work is followed by a majority of Muslims in Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. Al-Mansur wanted the Imam to serve as head of judiciary but he was averse to serving in any official capacity. The caliph swore that he would make Abu Hanifah take the office but the latter took a counter-oath not to do so. The Caliph then placed him in-charge of the construction of a section of a wall. Abu Hanifah accepted the work to satisfy the oath of the Caliph and at the same time to avoid working in the imperial judiciary. In his this capacity, Abu Hanifah is credited with adopting a computational method for counting the bricks. When the bricks were stacked and his workmen were about to count the bricks one by one, he instead asked for a measuring tape and took the dimensions to measure the volume of the stack. Then he divided the figure by the volume of one brick to get number of bricks. Now it has become a fairly standard routine method but at that time, no one had used it, at least in the Arab-Persian world. The Caliph, however, was still not mollified and put the Imam in prison on completion of the wall. Abu Hanifah died in prison in 767 AD.

Interestingly for this early Muslim Caliph, al-Mansur laid the foundations of the city on the advice of Persian astrologers.

This statue of Caliph Al-Mansur was destroyed by a bomb explosion in 2003, Baghdad­


The old city has not survived. The reason is not pillage but nature. The bricks used for its construction were not the long lasting fire-backed but of sun-dried mud that turned back into soil from which they had been cast. Each brick was 18 inches cubed, weighing over 200 kg each.

Baghdad is located in a region where there are no stone quarries. The stone used in the older structures built in the area was mined from distant regions. Al-Mansur wanted to demolish the ancient remains of al-Madain (Ctesiphon) and bring their material for his city. The Sassanids, or the “Kisras” (Chosroes), as the Arabs called them, had, however, built their capital well, and its ruins exist even in our days. The workmen found the demolition so hard that very little material was extracted in reusable form. The Abbasids were impressed by the construction standard of the ‘heathens’ before them. Half a century later, Al-Mansur’s grandson Caliph Al-Mamun told one of his engineers to construct buildings for him that were as strong as those of ‘Kisra’.

Initially, markets were made in each outer section of the city. Eight years after moving to the city, however, on the adverse observation of the Byzantine ambassador, the Caliph ordered that markets be moved out. Consequently, new markets and houses for the traders were constructed to the south west of the city in an area called Karkhya. The current Al-Karkh district on the western bank of the Tigris in the green zone, housing government and diplomatic offices, is a modern development, and, according to LeStrange, is perhaps the only relic left of the ancient city, though it is a distant irregular extension to the original Karkhya.

In the same year that of shifting the markets, al-Mansur constructed a palace called al-Khuld on the eastern bank of the river. It was destroyed in 813 AD during the war of succession between al-Mansur’s grandsons. Later this ruined building was converted to the famed Mustansiriya School in 1207 AD but it was destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 1258. It was revived in 1973 and is now part of the Mustansiriya University of Baghdad.

As is expected, an imperial city of this magnitude must have cost a fortune. According to a son of the Caliph, as recorded by al-Tabari, the expenditure on the mosque, the Palace, the markets, the intervals (between the walls), trenches, domes and gates was four million eight hundred and thirty-three dirhams. Al-Tabari also reported that in those days, a master mason was paid a Qirat (1/40th of a dirham) a day.

We can look at some calculations using these figures to compute the equivalent expenditure in Pakistani rupees in our time. Considering that a master mason is nowadays paid not less than Rs. 1,500 per day, a dirham attains a value of Rs. 60,000. The expenditure for the city thus comes to at least Rs. 240 billion. That is0 a reasonable figure for the construction of a new city. It must also be remembered that by all reports, the caliph was very stingy with money and would resort to checking the accounts himself down to the last dirham, and punishing misappropriations.

Baghdad became capital of the most glorious empire of its time. According to historian al-Yaqubi, who was grandson of the Caliph’s freed slave, the sciences that people studied and the traditions they transmitted in the city became numerous in the days of al-Mansur, who was the first caliph to appoint his clients (mawali) and slaves (ghilman) as officials and to advance them over the Arabs.

After his death, his descendants followed his example. In the process, Baghdad became the most conducive centre for learning and scholarship where the ancient knowledge of Greek, Persian and Indian civilizations was not only preserved but also advanced in multifarious ways for the benefit of future generations.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues.

Original Headline: Counting the Cost: Constructing Ancient Baghdad

Source: The Friday Times