Today in Middle Eastern history: Happy birthday Baghdad (762)

This whole “today in Middle East history” thing that I do is a little bit of a cheat, since most events in the Middle East at least from the founding of Islam have been happening, officially, on the Islamic (Hijri) calendar, which is a lunar calender and thus never quite lines up with the Western solar calendar. Identifying specific solar dates for specific events is a little bit of a shot in the dark, especially as you go back further in time, because for one thing surviving older sources may not be totally reliable, and for another thing there’s some inherent error built into the process of converting a date from the Hijri calendar to our Gregorian one. At any rate, these posts recognize a lot of anniversaries that would not actually be recognized in the Middle East, since formally those events happened on a specific date on the lunar calender, and that day, like any other day on a lunar calender, moves around every year according to our solar calendar.

This is all very esoteric, but we can look at a concrete example in today’s anniversary, the founding of Baghdad by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur in 762 CE. July 30, 762 corresponds (give or take) to the Hijri date 4 Jumada al-Ula (the fifth month of the Hijri year) in the year 145. This year, which is 1436 on the Hijri calendar, July 30 falls on 14 Shawwal (the tenth month of the year). But for people using the Hijri calendar, the anniversary of Baghdad’s founding is 4 Jumada al-Ula, which this year fell on February 23. Now I don’t know if anybody marks the Hijri anniversary of Baghdad, or the Gregorian one, to be honest. One of the ways I reconcile this whole dating thing in my head is that I try to remember not to use Gregorian calendar dates commemorate the birthdays of individuals who presumably wouldn’t have celebrated their own birthdays according to a solar calender while they were alive (though I know I’ve done this a couple of times in the past, despite myself). But cities aren’t people, so I feel like we can acknowledge that Al-Mansur broke ground on the city on this date in 762.

Baghdad was intended as a replacement for a couple of much older cities. It replaced the old Sasanian capital, Ctesiphon, which was founded in the second century BCE and was only about 20 miles southeast of Baghdad, as the major city of the “Persian” part of the Caliphate (the site was also close to the more ancient city of Babylon), and it replaced Damascus, which has been an important city since the second millennium BCE and has had people living on its site at least as far back as the 6000s BCE, as the Caliphal capital. It was meant to symbolize a break with the Umayyad dynasty as well as a way to move the empire’s center of power closer to the Abbasids’ base of support in eastern Iran, without moving it so far east that it might become impossible to control Syria and Egypt. Al-Mansur situated his new capital at a spot where the Tigris and Euphrates flow close together, which put it in a great position for trade and communication. It was built as a circular city, in keeping with earlier Sasanian models, with rings of housing and commercial spaces inside the wall, surrounding a central area that contained the palace, the city’s communal mosque, and quarters for soldiers.

Baghdad as it was designed in 762
Baghdad as it was designed in 762
Al-Mansur called the new city Medinat al-Salam, or “the City of Peace,” and that was initially the city’s official name. The name “Baghdad” can be traced back to the third millennium BCE in Assyrian and Babylonian records, though not necessarily referring to a settlement at that particular site. There does seem to have been a Christian village called “Baghdad” near the site where the city was built, and it’s likely that the name was simply taken from that village and applied (in informal, common usage) to the new city. Common usage eventually displaced the official name, and the city became “Baghdad” for both formal and informal uses a couple of centuries after it was founded.

You could write whole books on the history of Baghdad, but let’s just note today that there was a centuries-long period, from the construction of the city until it was sacked by the Mongols in 1258, when you could reasonably have argued that Baghdad was the preeminent city in the world. It was a center for learning and translating ancient Greek, Aramaic, and Sanskrit texts into Arabic, for innovations in science and philosophy, and for trade and culture. Its population reached half a million people, which may not sound like much today but was a huge number for a pre-modern city. Baghdad declined after the Mongols came through, though it remained an important city, and of course its current problems should be well-known to anybody reading this blog. But don’t let the problems of today overshadow the city’s incredibly rich past.

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