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

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

Surveying and Choosing the Site

No sooner had al-Mansur made up his mind to do himself and the ruling family justice and forsake the existing vulnerable seat of government, than he set out to look for a site that may meet the necessary requirements for a new metropolis. He is said to have asked for soil samples from different cities and potentially suitable sites so that a kind of study by the then available means and tools could be conducted.[1] He surely wanted to determine the soil conditions, its fertility, the moisture-retention capabilities, and to what extent it is unsusceptible to some unfavorable environmental factors as well as certain bugs and pests which may at any time severely damage plants and crops.

Al-Mansur is further said to have gone to survey the land personally, accompanied by scores of experts from various apt fields. There is a possibility that his scouts were divided into several groups, each of which had its own zone of surveying and scanning. Al-Mansur might have joined one of them, or perhaps just stayed behind supervising the whole project and contemplating the future moves. At any rate, some of his scouts soon reported to him that there is a site near Barimma – a town on the east bank of the Tigris in the province of al-Jazirah – which they commended as centrally located, comfortable for both the common people and the army, and having excellent victuals. Al-Mansur went to the site to look at it himself and even spent the night there. Searchingly he scanned the site, seeing it to be a good location. He then consulted his closest associates and advisers with different scientific as well as social backgrounds all of whom retorted that it was indeed a pleasant, fitting and congenial place. At this point, al-Mansur displayed some of his tremendous credentials and qualities stipulated for leadership not only in Islam but also in every human organization that strives for glory, such as mutual consultation, extensive knowledge and concern for the welfare of the subjects, something that rendered him one of the brilliant Muslim rulers of his epoch. He said to his scouts and advisers: “You are right; it is just as you say, yet it could not support the army, the people and the various groups. What I want is a place that is comfortable for the people and congenial for them as well as for me, a place where the prices will not become high for them and the food supplies will not prove too hard to obtain. If I live in a place where it is impossible to import anything by land or sea, the prices will be high, goods will be scarce, and shortages in the food supply will cause hardship for the people.”[2]

Al-Mansur was much concerned with weather and other environmental factors as well, because every development and urbanization activity, be it immense or otherwise, must be maximally considerate towards it. All human activities in fact must be entirely harmonious with the nature, inasmuch as the latter is subjecto man by God in order to observe, study and explore it. Within the framework rendered by divine revelation will he make his coexistence with the nature convenient, constructive and meaningful. It is reported that al-Mansur has questioned the residents of a likely site for his future city – it was apparently his practice with every other proposed spot – about the places where they lived so that he could forecast the necessary requirements for acclimatization and see to what extent they were acceptable and tolerable for both the army and ordinary people. He asked them what such places were like in heat and cold, in rainy and muddy weather, and in terms of bugs and vermin. They told him what they knew from personal experience. However, it was not enough for al-Mansur, so he dispatched his men and ordered each of them to spend one night in one of the villages. They did so and the next day reported to al-Mansur insisting that the place was really nice and pleasant, and its environment exceptionally healthy. He next studied and examined carefully what his men had told him seeking the input and advice from the specialists, whom he had summoned, and his counselors.[3] Eventually, the choice exuberantly fell on that place. It was a place between the Tigris and Euphrates, and among several waterways that branched of from these two rivers to water the distant lands. Its position was such that al-Ya’qubi termed it as an island between the Tigris and Euphrates.[4] The populace could under these circumstances settle in several sectors and live among date palms and near water. Should one sector suffer from drought and its productivity is delayed, it is less likely that the same – or the same degree of disaster – will happen to the rest.[5]

Al-Mansur was fully aware that this geographically conducive location will invariably give the new city access to the main overland trade routes, as well as to the major inland water carriers.[6] The easy, smooth and effective transportation of all kinds of material and supply thus shall be assured, and trade with Syria, Wasit, al-Basrah, Armenia, and as far as Egypt on west and China and India on east shall soon become set to intensify. As a result, supply of goods will exceed, or at least match demand for them, keeping the prizes at a desirably low level – something that al-Mansur was remarkably concerned about in his quest for the appropriate  site. Any unjustified prize hike intended by some unscrupulous traders could be then without much effort precluded and things fast brought under control. The markets will be able to cater to the needs of the populace, be they necessities and foodstuffs or simply conveniences and luxuries.[7] The people’s income will grow large; so will the expenditure, because the two balance each other in every city. And if both income and expenditure are large, the inhabitants become more favorably situated, and the city develops and expands rapidly. At the end, the state treasury will be enriched by the taxes collected from the thriving businesses, making it a considerable source of earning which, if properly managed, would always have potential to grow and flourish. New swelling revenues could be generously used, among other things, for further development, urbanization, intellectual pursuit, and sustaining and advancing the military whose contributions in both protecting the regime and fortifying and expanding the frontiers of the state were at that point and, sure thing, in a foreseeable future as fundamental as ever. All this will only promote the new city, locally and internationally, and with it the whole state and the religion of Islam. The favorable universal milieu of the city will render it attractive for the masses, professionals and intellectuals alike. They will all throng to it aiming at settling in it or in its immediate vicinity. Most of them will aspire to become part of the ‘Abbasid enormous bureaucracy or to engage in trade. The region will in return be converted into a hub of all sorts of productive and beneficial activities. Ultimately, the city will supersede and outshine almost in every respect other Islamic cities and live up to its reputation as the seat of the new and perhaps never before more potent Islamic government. That is exactly what al-Mansur had in mind on deciding to build Baghdad, and so it in due time occurred. It was not long before Baghdad de facto became not only the political capital of the expansive Muslim empire governing most of its provinces, but also its military, religious, intellectual, scientific and industrial awesome midpoint.[8] Philip K. Hitti rightly wrote to this effect: “In a few years the town grew into an emporium of trade and commerce and a political center of the greatest international importance. As if called into existence by a magician’s wand this city of al-Mansur fell heir to the power and prestige of Ctesiphon, Babylon, Nineveh, Ur and other capitals of the ancient Orient, attained a degree of prestige and splendor unrivaled in the Middle Ages, except perhaps by Constantinople…”[9]

The marked location was also satisfying the tough security requirements set by al-Mansur. At that time, every proper organization of the cities demanded making walls, trenches and fortresses for defense, but the natural position of the surrounding rivers and waterways of the Baghdad site was pretty well serving the purpose. Al-Mansur knew that once built, no enemy shall be capable of reaching the city except by a floating or fixed bridge. But if the former is cut and the latter destroyed, the enemy will helplessly be stranded on the other side and no one will set foot in it.[10]

It is true that the chosen site had what it takes to become one day transformed into an imposing metropolis. Yet, the whole enterprise, mainly due to the ‘Abbasid recentness in the political arena, has from the very outset still needed some mythological and verily divine substance and character, so as to accelerate the promotion of the future city and make it for many their favorite and most revered destination. In so doing, the ‘Abbasids were also helping themselves in legitimizing and defending their rule vis-a-vis the ceaseless and intense claims and pretensions to the same by other parties. It is reported in this connection that one of al-Mansur’s scouts, while searching for the site, fell behind in al-Mada’in – a city situated to the south of Baghdad – afflicted with an eye inflammation. As he stayed to have his eye treated, a physician, in all likelihood a Christian, asked him where the caliph was heading. After he had been given the answer, the physician retorted that in one of their books they find it written that a man named Miqlas will build a city between the Tigris and the Sarat canal. When subsequently informed of this, al-Mansur exclaimed: “By God, I am that very man! I was called Miqlas as a lad but then the name for me fell into disuse.” Besides, the physician prophesied the eruption of the two unsolicited revolts by the Shi’ah in al-Hijaz and al-Basrah in the same year in which the construction of the city will commence, i.e. 145/762. The whole project will thus be temporarily interrupted. The second revolt, that is the one in al-Basrah, will be more difficult for the incumbent sanctioned leader, but neither will succeed, and shortly will the leader emerge victorious and embark on completing the job. Thereafter, the leader will be given a long life and sovereignty shall remain in his progeny.[11]

According to some accounts, al-Mansur was the one who met a monk at the selected site and asked him whether he finds in their holy books anything prophesied about someone who will build a city there. The monk told him then about a certain Miqlas who will do that. Al-Mansur’s reaction to this was like that to the statement made by the aforementioned physician. Anotstories however allege that the monk – or another one – told al-Mansur that the only one who is to build a city there is a king called Abu al-Dawaniq. To this, al-Mansur chuckled to himself, revealing that he, in fact, is Abu Dawaniq[12] – he earned the name because of his stinginess.[13]

There is a real possibility that these and other similar accounts on the matter have been invented during the time of al-Mansur himself by some venal adulators of the Abbasid cause – including some religious scholars as well – who have been capitalizing on the caliph’s ostensible tolerance towards the steep and embellished promotion of the new metropolis, so as to parallel the same already accomplished, yet somewhat amplified at that time, about other pretentious cities. Deplorably, it was not long before the things spiraled out of control and many uninvited individuals, some of whom were insincere and possessed certain clandestine agendas, took part in the campaign. One of the ensuing and, sure thing, most unsought outcomes of the whole exercise was the sordid and unscrupulous fabrication and forgery of numerous sayings of the Prophet, peace be upon him, in favor of Baghdad and against its rival cities.[14]

It is equally possible that the spoken of accounts were devised at a later date during some turbulent periods which Baghdad had at all costs to pass through safely, had it coveted to continue to play the same role and occupy the same position it did in the past. Some of them might have been, for instance, devised after the year 198/218, in the aftermath of the investiture of the caliph al-Ma’mun who was pretty reluctant to move to the capital from the region of Khurasan where he previously served as a governor. The reason behind al-Ma’mun’s hesitation was the long and bloody civil war between himself, centered in Khurasan, and his brother, the incumbent caliph al-Amin, in Baghdad. Al-Amin conspired to strip al-Ma’mun the right to rule after his demise, even though the latter was the next in the line of succession according to the decree contrived by their late father, the caliph Harun al-Rashid. The war, which is often delineated as a conflict between the two regions, thus inevitably erupted between the two brothers.

To make things worse, in the year 201/221, while still in Khurasan, al-Ma’mun is said to have designated ‘Ali b. Musa al-Rida, from the Shi’ah ranks, as his heir apparent. The move expectedly caused the wrath and uproar in Baghdad. As a result, its residents, with the ‘Abbasid clan in vanguard, revoked the given oath of allegiance to al-Ma’mun and appointed Ibrahim b. al-Mahdi instead. However, after the mysterious death of ‘Ali b. Musa al-Rida, two years later, the situation tranquilized and al-Ma’mun peacefully moved to and settled in Baghdad. The future of Baghdad, nevertheless, became hugely precarious since, as diverse internal as well as external factors continued to deal severe and various in character blows to the strong and coherent government. The predicament eventually developed into the all-out fragmentation and decay with a number of petty, less competent and less effective independent states and principalities in various regions. One of the immediate setbacks, as far as Baghdad was concerned, was the transfer of the seat of government to Samara – a city in Iraq, to the north of Baghdad – during the reign of the caliph al-Mu’tasim who took the office of the caliph after al-Ma’mun had died.



[1]Al-Baghdadi al-Khatib, Tarikh Baghdad, vol. 1 p. 66.

[2]Al-Tabari, The History, vol. 28. p. 238-242. Ibn al-Faqih, Kitab al-Buldan, p. 282.

[3]Al-Tabari, The History, vol. 28 p. 242. Ibn al-Faqih, Kitab al-Buldan, p. 282. Al-Muqaddisi, Ahsan al-Taqasim fi Ma’rifah al-Aqalim, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1987), p. 107.

[4]Al-Ya’qubi, Kitab al-Buldan, p. 10.

[5]All this reminds us very much of al-Hajjaj, the Umayyad governor in Iraq, and his circumspect surveying and choosing of the site for the city of Wasit that he built in the year 86/705. (See: Al-Hamwi Yaqut, Mu’jam al-Buldan, (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1984), vol. 5 p. 347-349)

[6]Al-Ya’qubi, Kitab al-Buldan, p. 10-11. Al-Ya’qubi, The History, (Beirut: Dar Beirut, 1980), vol. 2 p. 373-374.

[7]See some examples of the incredibly low prices in the Baghdad markets during al-Mansur’s days in: Ibn Kathir:Al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 10 p. 102.

[8]See some descriptions of the overall development of Baghdad after al-Mansur in: Ibn al-Faqih, Kitab al-Buldan, p. 309-312. Al-Baghdadi al-Khatib, Tarikh Baghdad, vol. 1 p. 44-54. Al-Dhahabi, Tarikh al-Islam, (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 1991), vol. 9 p. 35. ‘Uthman Muhammad ‘Abd al-Sattar, Al-Madinah al-Islamiyyah, (Kuwait: ‘Alam al-Ma’rifah, 1988), p. 234-284. Al-Ya’qubi, Kitab al-Buldan, p. 22.

[9]Hitti Philip K., History of the Arabs, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), p. 293. A similar statement is also found in: Iraq: A Country Study, Edited by Helen Chapin Metz, (Washington: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1993), p. 21.

[10]Al-Tabari, The History, vol. 28 p. 243. Lassner Jacob, The Shaping of ‘Abasid Rule, p. 165-183.

[11]Al-Tabari, The History, vol. 28 p. 239-240.

[12]Ibid., vol. 28 p. 240. Al-Dhahabi, Tarikh al-Islam, vol. 9 p. 33-34.

[13]Al-Tabari, The History, vol. 28 p. 165.

[14]See some of those sayings or ahadith in: Ibn al-Kathir, Al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 10 p. 104-106. Al-Baghdadi al-Khatib, Tarikh Baghdad, vol. 1 p. 27-54. Al-Hasani Hashim Ma’ruf, Al-Mawdu’at fi al-Athar wa al-Akhbar, (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-Lubnani, 1973), p. 140. Ibn al-Jawzi abu al-Faraj,Kitab al-Mawdu’at, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1983), vol. 2 p. 60.

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