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The city of Baghdad, third major seat of the Islamic polity after Medina and Damascus following the prophet Muḥammad 's death, is located on the Tigris River in modern-day Iraq. Founded and built by the caliph Jaʿfar ʿAbd Allāh al-Manṣūr in 762 CE, Baghdad was intended to serve as capital of the Islamic empire under the leadership of the newly established ʿAbbāsid caliphate, which had recently wrested power from the Umayyad dynasty. However, the area was inhabited by pre-Islamic populations given its proximity to several ancient and vibrant civilizations, including the city of Babylon which was just 56 miles south. The city was named Madīnah al-Salām (City of Peace) by the caliph and also referred to as the Round City, in reference to its circular design which mimicked contemporaneous Persian urban centers. The name “Baghdad” is the remnant of a pre-Islamic settlement in the area. Archaeological evidence indicates the name Bag-da-du dates from as early as 1200B.C.E. It is also held that Baghdad is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (fifth century B.C.E.), as part of the name of Rabbi Hanna Bagdataʿa. Islamic sources corroborate the city 's pre-Islamic roots, suggesting it is of Persian Sassanian descent and means “garden of god,” or “given by god.” The site of the new capital was likely chosen for its proximity to the ʿAbbāsid 's support base, its distance from the Umayyad centers of Damascus and Harran, and for its potential as an agricultural, economic, and cultural center. It was abandoned as capital between 833 and 896CE when Samarra served as the seat of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate.

Cultural and Intellectual Achievements.

Baghdad emerged as the cultural and intellectual center of the ʿAbbāsid Golden Age and flourished during the reign of Hārūn al-Rashīd (786–809 CE). Students, scholars, inventors, scientists, philosophers, poets, and musicians quickly transformed Baghdad from palatial city to world capital, where state-of-the-art observatories and hospitals flourished, the solar year was accurately measured, and algebra was invented. In 830 CE the research library Bayt al-ḥikmah (House of Wisdom) was founded in Baghdad under the patronage of the caliph al-Maʿmūn, rising from an ʿAbbāsid interest in Persian texts that begin with the dynasty 's establishment. It would be one of several centers of the Greek translation movement. The texts and scholars involved with the work of the institution translated the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Plato, and other classical authors. It was via this route, in which Greek works were translated into Arabic and eventually Latin, that Western Europe was introduced to these texts and the many commentaries and expansions written by scholars in the Muslim world. Persian and Indian works of literature, history, astronomy, biology, medicine, and mathematics were similarly popular subjects of study. Scholars of numerous religious, intellectual, and linguistic backgrounds facilitated the sharing and exchange of knowledge from all corners of the known world. Bayt al-ḥikmah was home to such scholars as al-Fārābī, (known in Europe as Alpharabius), al-Rāzī (Rhazes), and al-Kindī (Alkindus). The world-renowned university, al-Madrasah al-Niẓāmīyah, was founded in Baghdad in 1091 and included among its scholars Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (Algazel). Baghdad also proved to be an important gateway through which contemporary technologies reached Europe. The paper mill, for example, was introduced to the West from China by way of Baghdad and Muslim Spain. Pride in these achievements among natives of Baghdad, and their sophistication and confidence inspired the creation of the verb tabaghdada, to be haughty, to swagger, or to show off.

The Mongol Invasion and Its Legacy.

As the power of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate deteriorated, Baghdad was attacked and taken by the Būyids and Seljuks in 945 CE and 1055 CE respectively. Both conquerors maintained figurehead ʿAbbāsid caliphs. The city remained a seat of the ʿAbbāsid empire until its complete destruction at the hands of Mongol invaders in 1258 CE Inhabitants and institutions alike suffered a mortal blow, and Baghdad was never to regain the glory it had as a medieval center of government, business, culture, and knowledge.

The effect of the fall of Baghdad on Arab and Islamic consciousness was profound. The magnitude of the destruction was exacerbated by its correlation with the dissolution of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate. For the first time in Islamic history the Muslim world was faced with the prospect of non-Muslim rule and the lack of a central power, even if in name only. The fall of Baghdad figured immediately and heavily in Islamic legal texts and literature. Famed historian Ibn Kathīr (1301–1373 CE), in his al-Bidāyah wa al-Nihāyah (The Beginning and the End), records the effect on the Muslim psyche of his age with descriptions of what he considered one of the most cataclysmically transformative events to befall the Muslim people. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Arabism is another stark example of the affect of Baghdad 's fall on the Arab and Islamic worlds. In its narrative, pre-Mongol Baghdad becomes the coveted Golden Age, the height of Arab civilization and true representation of Arab-ness. Popular Arab-Islamic sentiment draws a comparison between the 2003 American-led invasion of Baghdad and the city 's fall in 1258.

The Diminution of Baghdad.

The ʿAbbāsid dynasty retained nominal power as figureheads of the Mamlūk Sultans in Cairo from 1261 to 1517 CE From the twelfth to fourteenth centuries Baghdad was repeatedly sacked by various regional/tribal powers, including Tamerlane in 1401 CE and the Ṣafavids in 1508 CE The city eventually fell to Ottoman rule, first in 1534, and then permanently in 1638 CE, under which it remained without much distinction until the twentieth century.

Baghdad in the Modern Period.

In 1917 Baghdad was taken by the British army. With the establishment of the independent state of Iraq (1932), Baghdad was once again made capital, first as seat to a new monarchy and then, following the military coup in 1958, a republic. Iraqi authorities experimented with various forms of government, including military and dictatorial. Oil wealth brought prosperity and growth to Baghdad starting in the 1970s, and the city revived its role as a literary, artistic, educational, and intellectual capital of the Middle East. The Iran-Iraq (1980–1988) and Persian Gulf (1990–1991) wars, however, hindered Baghdad 's progress, redirecting financial resources and creating international tensions. Baghdad fell to American-led forces in April 2003, in a controversial invasion prompted by concerns about then-president Saddam Hussein 's weapons programs and tyrannical rule.

Contemporary Religious Demographics.

Historically, Baghdad has been home to sizable populations of both Shīʿī and Sunnī Muslims, as well as Christians and Jews. The Jewish presence, dating back more than 2,500 years, has diminished over the course of the twentieth century. As late as the 1940s there were around 200,000 Jews in Baghdad. While reliable statistics are difficult to come by during war, by October 2006, there reportedly only remained about a dozen Jews in the city, the youngest being in his early 40s. The major decline in population is credited to two waves of migration out of Iraq, the first in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the establishment of the state of Israel, and the second in the 1970s following an outbreak of state-sanctioned violence against Jewish men. Founded in 1942, the Meir Taweig Synagogue is the only functioning Jewish sanctuary remaining in Baghdad. As of 2006 the synagogue is outwardly unidentifiable and nonfunctional. Christians are also a historical reality of Baghdad and make up about 3–4 percent of the population. Since the second century c.e. the presence of various Christian sects has been evident, including Chaldean Catholic, Nestorian, and Armenian Catholic and Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Orthodox, Anglican, Evangelical, and Presbyterian. While they have not dwindled in number as dramatically as the Jewish community, many are seeking to emigrate to Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan where other sizable Arab-Christian communities can be found.

Effect of Recent Wars on Baghdad.

Baghdad was damaged extensively in the Persian Gulf War and the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq and subsequent war. In addition to civilian casualties, the cultural and intellectual heritage of the city and Iraq were attacked. In 2003, the Iraq Museum, which housed Mesopotamian artifacts dating as far back as 9000 B.C.E., was looted and at least 15,000 pieces were stolen. A number of major libraries and research centers, including the National Library and Archive (Dār al-Kutub wa-al-Wathāʿiq) were bombed, burned, and their voluminous manuscript and document collections were destroyed.

See also IRAQ.


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  • Hitti, Philip Khuri. History of the Arabs. New York, 2002. Find it in your Library
  • Kennedy, Hugh. When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam 's Greatest Dynasty. Cambridge, Mass., 2006. Find it in your Library
  • Le Strange, Guy. Baghdad during the ʿAbbāsid Caliphate from Contemporary Arabic and Persian Sources. Mansfield Centre, Conn., 2005. Find it in your Library
  • Levy, Reuben. A Baghdad Chronicle. Philadelphia, 1977. Find it in your Library
  • Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K., 2002. Find it in your Library
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