The Creation of the City of Baghdad: Striking a Balance Between Religion and Quest for Power (PART ONE)

{jcomments on}Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia


Islamic theory of general planning and urbanization is as old as the Muslim community. Its fundamental principles have been comprehensively laid in the Holy Qur’an, as well as in the sayings and practices of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Certainly, the best manifestation of the early Islamic planning and urbanization is the establishment of the Muslim society in Madinah in the wake of the migration from Makkah. The matter henceforth was evolving steadily correspondingly with both the rapid spread of Islam throughout the world, and the incredible growth of the civilization and culture inspired by the Islamic world-view.

In this article, we shall focus on the creation of the city of Baghdad,[1] a new capital city of the vast Muslim empire, by the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Mansur. The task commenced in the year 145/762 and was all but completed in the following year. While undergoing planning and building activities as well as after its completion, the city served to the caliph al-Mansur as an avenue to consolidating his position in particular and that of the Abbasid family in general on the Islamic political scene, apart from many a religious and societal responsibility that he in his capacity as the leader of the Muslims intended to discharge thereby and at the same time help his subjects do the same. It is really interesting to learn the methods and means by which the caliph tried very hard to strike a balance between various, sometimes conflicting, interests and aspirations, firstly within himself and then in others. In the whole exercise al-Mansur admittedly was fairly successful.

Due to the enormous weight of the factors that demanded this mammoth project to be undertaken, they will be dwelled on first. Next, we shall discuss the process of surveying and choosing the city site. And finally, some light will be cast on the most remarkable features of the city plan, its construction and the architectural design of some of its edifices.

Need for a New Capital

The ‘Abbasid movement to topple the Umayyad government started as a secret propaganda with the region of Khurasan as its birthplace and the subsequent nucleus of all revolutionary activities. However, in the wake of the triumph of the revolution, Iraq was chosen to serve as the core of a new administration. This move is quite understandable and could have been anticipated for Iraq was able to serve best as a link between the remote eastern region of Khurasan, both the symbol and, with its people, the instrument of the ‘Abbasid reign, and the rest of the provinces that entered their domain. But which part of Iraq, for it was a vast territory with a number of well established urban environments? It is true that al-Kufah played a prominent role during the revolutionary period: it housed from the very beginning some distinguished revolutionaries; Abu al-‘Abbas, the first caliph in the realm, decided during the final stage of the revolution to join the movement’s apparatus clandestinely situated there; there, in the main mosque, the investiture of the first caliph and swearing the oath of allegiance to him took place – despite all this, though, al-Kufah was deemed unsuitable, yet dangerous, for housing a new infant and still fragile regime. A series of provisional administrative centers, therefore, were established in its vicinity: al-Hashimiyyah, al-Anbar and al-Rusafah.[2] They served the ‘Abbasids until the second caliph, al-Mansur, constructed the city of Baghdad. In deciding upon the geographical locations for each of these centers, the ‘Abbasid rulers succumbed to the attractions of an established urban environment; however, their political, social and security concerns required that the actual administrative complex be situated some distance from the existing cities.[3]

There was undoubtedly a calculated risk in choosing Iraq to serve as an administrative center of the new government, on account of it having been de facto the focal point of both Shi’ah political identity and its perpetual antagonistic activities, for which reason the Umayyad political establishment on several occasions had been shaken to its fundamentals. The trend was unlikely to desist, supposing the general political climate, now contrived and dictated by the ‘Abbasids, failed to appease them and win their support and cooperation. In retrospect, ‘Ali, the fourth orthodox caliph, had been compelled to move from Madinah, hitherto the capital of the Muslim state, to al-Kufah, so as to accommodate and tackle head-on the new challenges created by the new political, economic, social and religious milieu in the state. While so doing, al-Kufah served as his interim capital. Having been assassinated by a member of his Kharijiti opposition, the collapse of ‘Ali’s cause became dramatically accelerated; so was the rise of the Umayyads and their cause commensurately with the former. Soon afterward, the caliphate was formally transferred to Syria. People responded with a combination of sympathy for the Shi’ah cause and a desire to endorse its legitimacy by joining their endless struggle against the allegedly unjust government in Syria. Consequently, Iraq, especially al-Kufah, fast gained the reputation of a turbulent province in which frequent intrigues and occasional uprisings have been occurring throughout the course of the Umayyad rule.

There is a general agreement that with Muhammad ibn ‘Ali, a grandson of ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas, the history of the ‘Abbasid propaganda commenced to unfold. But this was not until Abu Hashim, a grandson of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib and the heirless inheritor of the latter’s mantle, under vague circumstances bequeathed the sacred authority, together with divine wisdom and knowledge vested in him, to Muhammad b. ‘Ali, his close friend and kinsman. On that account did the origins of the ‘Abbasid revolution carry pretty much the Shi’ah substance. That is not all, much of its final success ought to be ascribed to its association with the Shi’ah too, as it evolved from their stratum and, at times, expanded significantly on their expense.[4]

But the ‘Abbasids, after their resounding victory over the Umayyads, were not willing to share the fruits of the revolution with their kinsmen. This became evident as early as during the first days of Abu al-Abbas’s rule when he ordered that Abu Salamah, “vizier (al-wazir) of the family of Muhammad” and the head of the revolutionaries in al-Kufah who is believed to have possessed some Shi’ah inclinations, be beheaded. After Abu al-‘Abbas’s short reign (132-136/749-753), the reins of power passed to al-Mansur, his brother. He predictably encountered many a glaring problem on numerous fronts, as the downright shift from the revolutionary strategies to the process of creating and enduring the state was yet to be completed. Such shift, it seems, began to occur somewhat during the second period of Abu al-‘Abbas’s reign, but got into full swing when al-Mansur climbed to the caliph’s throne. To this effect, Ibn Tabataba remarked that it was al-Mansur who laid down the foundation of the ‘Abbasid state, organized it, arranged its fundamental principles, and stabilized its renown.[5]

One of the biggest difficulties faced by the new caliph was the swelling menace of the Shi’ah and their shadowy anti-governmental activities. The caliph decided to emphatically deal with the predicament and under no circumstances allow anyone to weaken or imperil his position and the position of the new government. Ultimately, the year 145/762 – the same year in which al-Mansur embarked on building the city of Baghdad – witnessed the two bloody Shi’ah rebellions: the first in al-Hijaz headed by Muhammad b. ‘Abdullah, and the second in al-Basrah, Iraq, headed by Ibrahim b. ‘Abdullah, the former’s brother. Both rebellions failed but al-Mansur came to terms with the actual weaknesses of the ruling family. They badly needed a strong base, a compelling political, social, military, religious and intellectual center, which will be solely associated with the ‘Abbasids and their cause. It  will further serveas the nucleus, as well as the identity, of their politically coherent existence. They could thence press and defend quite conveniently their claims and, at the same time, ward off any counter-claims by any opposition party.

Apart from the political factors, al-Mansur resolved to establish a new city also because some neighboring cities such as al-Kufah and al-Basrah, which had been built as garrison cities during the reign of ‘Umar b. al-Khattab, outlived its usefulness and as such could not comfortably cope with the new economic, social and urban demands of the ever-growing population.[6] Al-Mansur, therefore, wished to create a new pleasant, fitting and congenial city with a healthful environment, convenience, and the capacity to support both the army and the common people. The geographical and topographical advantages of the potential sites, plus the societal, economic and safety determinants, were foremost taken into account and most carefully thought about.[7]

Moreover, by virtue of being the ruler of the Muslims with majestic pretensions, al-Mansur sensed that it was essential to build a city, the seat of government, proportionate with its unique plan, design and imposing edifices to the vast and robust Islamic empire, its culture and civilization. That being the case, the city proper would at all times be capable of impelling the non-Muslim minorities within the boundaries of the state, as well as the bordering enemies of diverse kinds, to hold the religion of Islam and the Muslims in awe and utmost respect, serving thereby as a new means of da’wah islamiyyah (propagation of Islam). It is reported to this effect that a Byzantine patrician, who in the wake of the completion of Baghdad had come as an ambassador and to whom al-Mansur had granted an audience, was taken on a tour of the just completed city and its surroundings so as to see the development and the monumental structures. He had gone up on the walls of the city and in the domes of the gates. When the tour was finished, the caliph asked: “What do you think of my city?” So the patrician answered complimenting the achievement and recommending some corrections in areas where he believed a room existed for them.[8] It is also narrated that the whole city of Baghdad with its suburbs, streets, markets, rivers, channels and gardens was pictured to a Byzantine king, who was then frequently scrutinizing and looking at it singling out the elements that he admired most.[9]

In addition to this, al-Mansur seemingly conceived that the stage was set for creating a city that would in due course become eclectic and cosmopolitan, in the truest sense of the word, and be even transmuted someday into a melting-pot in terms of the populace, concocted systems, contrivances and ideas. Al-Mansur was fully cognizant of the verity that such a move had become quite essential, and when created, the entire new atmosphere shall but reciprocate by contributing to the intensity of the already unwavering religious and intellectual dynamism, paving the way for advancing further the frontiers of the culture and civilization inspired by the Islamic world-view. The looming phenomenon could not come as a surprise to many, the least of all to the caliph himself, for it in fact was only commensurate with and resultant from the character and social structure of the Islamic vast empire, its cosmopolitan culture and civilization, and, of course, the very nature of the ‘Abbasid revolution that had brought the ‘Abbasids to the throne. So compelling and assertive the emerging tendencies were that they eventually held sway over the ‘Abbasid immense and conglomerate bureaucracy, including the central governmental apparatus.

Security factors also contributed greatly to deciding on building a new city. Al-Mansur is said to have felt that security for himself and his government was inadequate in the ‘Abbasid provisional capitals because, firstly, they were lying  in close proximity to al-Kufah, and, secondly, because he had no much confidence in the loyalty of the inhabitants of such settlements anyway and wanted to distance himself from them. He was obviously very much aware of what befell many past Muslim rulers, including the last three out of four orthodox caliphs, when some sectarian disturbances had been set in motion and the security measures had not been intensified to cope with the situation.

A turning point that forced al-Mansur to contemplate his epic move was the convulsion that in the year 141/758 the Rawandiyyah had sparked off against him. The Rawandiyyah were a heretical Khurasani group who followed Abu Muslim, the leader of the ‘Abbasid revolution, but whom al-Mansur in the wake of his investiture had killed.[10] Although the convulsion was a minor affair and was ultimately crushed, the fact that an insignificant armed mob could have penetrated an area designated for maximum security and endangered the life of the caliph, his family and other governmental officials indicated a serious and potentially disastrous deficiency in the current seat of government. Al-Mansur thereupon decided not to give his adversaries, who might have become enlivened by the incident, another chance.



[1]The city was initially called Madinah al-Salam (The City of Peace) because the Tigris, where the city was situated, was called Wadi al-Salam (The Valley of Peace), or because its establishment was aimed at harboring and disseminating peace worldwide, on the one hand, and at creating a platform for advancing the frontiers of the civilization and culture inspired by the Islamic world-view, on the other. (See a lengthy discussion on the matter in: Al-Baghdadi al-Khatib, Tarikh Baghdad, (Al-Madinah al-Munawwarah: Al-Maktabah al-Salafiyyah, n.dp), vol. 1 p. 58-62)

A comprehensive account of the origins of the word Baghdad is given by Le Strange. (Le Strange, Baghdad During the Abbasid Caliphate, (Connecticut: Connecticut Greenwood Press, 1983), p. 10)   

[2]See: Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1987), vol. 5 p. 81, 101 and 165. Al-Ya’qubi, Kitab al-Buldan, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1988),  p. 10.

[3]Lassner Jacob, The Shaping of ‘Abbasid Rule, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 144.

[4]See: Al-Baladhuri, Ansab al-Ashraf, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1992), vol. 4 p. 108. Al-Imamah wa al-Siyasah, anon., (Cairo, n.pp, 1937), vol. 2 p. 140-141. Akhbar al-Dawlah al-‘Abbasiyyah, anon., (Beirut: Dar al-Tali’ah, 1971), p. 189-191.

Excellent detailed studies on the ‘Abbasid revolution can be found in: Lassner Jacob, Islamic Revolution and Historical Memory, (Massachusetts: American Oriental Society, 1986). ‘Atwan Husayn, Al-Da’wah al-‘Abbasiyyah: Mabadi’ wa Asalib, (Beirut: Dar al-Jayl, 1984).

[5]Ibn Tabataba, Al-Fakhri, Translated by C.E.J. Whitting, (London: Darf Publishers Limited, 1990),  p. 153. Lassner Jacob, The Shaping of ‘Abasid Rule, p. 144-170.

[6]Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, Translation from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), vol. 2 p. 247-248.

[7]Al-Tabari, The History, Translated and annotated by John Alden Williams, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1985), vol. 28 p. 240-243.

[8]Al-Baghdadi al-Khatib, Tarikh Baghdad, vol. 1 p. 78. Al-Tabari, The History, vol. 29 p. 7-8.

[9]Ibn al-Faqih, Kitab al-Buldan, (Beirut: ’Alam al-Kutub, 1996), p. 309.

[10]See about the Rawandiyyah and their convulsion: Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), vol. 10 p. 78. Al-Baghdadi Abu Mansur, Al-Farq bayn al-Firaq, (Cairo: Muassassah al-Halabi wa Shurakah, n.dp), p. 163. Al-Tabari, The History, vol. 28 p. 63-68. Ibn al-Jawzi abu al-Faraj, Al-Muntazim fi Tarikh al-Umam wa al-Muluk, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1992), vol. 5 p. 29. 

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