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Baghdad (Madinat al-Salam)

Reconstruction of plan of eighth-century Round City of al-Mansur (Baghdad) (after Creswell)

Reconstruction of plan of eighth-century Round City of al-Mansur (Baghdad) (after Creswell)

Baghdad was founded by the Abbasid caliph al- Mansur in 762. According to historical accounts al- Mansur built a round city with four gates and a palace and mosque at the centre. Leading from the four gates to the centre there were streets lined with shops and markets whilst the area between these streets were quarters reserved for different groups of people. The round shape of the city may be derived from Central Asian ideas of planning or may have some symbolic significance. In any case a round city wall would be both cheaper to build for a given area and would be easier to defend (no weak corner points). The defensive nature of the city is further emphasized by the bent entrances and the double wall. Unfortunately nothing remains of al-Mansur’s city with the possible exception of a mihrab in the Iraq museum. The round city was built on the west bank of the Tigris and shortly afterwards a complementary settlement was founded on the east bank known as Mu’asker al-Mahdi. In 773 al-Mansur moved the markets outside to a place called al-Karkh. From 836 to 892 the capital was transferred to Samarra because of troubles with the caliph’s Turkish troops in Baghdad. When Caliph al-Mu’tamid moved back to Baghdad he settled on the east bank of the Tigris which has remained the centre of the city to the present day.

The Buwaihids built a number of important buildings, such as the Bimaristan al-Aduli (hospital) and the Dar al-Alim (house of science) but the Seljuk conquest found the city in a ruinous condition because of the conflict between the Buwaihid amirs and their soldiers. In 1056 Tughril Beg separated his residence from the rest of the city by a broad wall.

Although few buildings of the Seljuk period survive, an idea of the appearance of the city in the thirteenth century (before the Mongol invasion) can be gained by looking at the illustrations of al-Wasiti to the Maqamat of al-Harriri (MS Arabe 5874).

During the period of the later Abbasid caliphate (twelfth to thirteenth century) a massive defensive wall was built around east Baghdad which for centuries marked the boundary of the city. The walls had four gates of which only one survives, the Bab al-Wastani. The gate stood in the centre of a moat and was connected to the city wall and the outside by two brick bridges. The arch of the main entrance is decorated with geometric interlace and is flanked by two lions in relief. Other buildings which survive from this period are the Zummurud Khatun Tomb, the Mustansiriya Madrassa, the building known as the Abbasid palace and two minarets. The Zummurud Khatun Tomb built in 1209 consists of a conical muqarnas dome built on an octagonal base. The sides of the base are decorated with decorative brickwork set over a series of blind niches. Until the eighteenth century a ribat and madrassa built at the request of Zummurud Khatun (mother of the Abbasid caliph al-Nasir) were located near the tomb. The Mustansiriya Madrassa was built between 1227 and 1233 and is the most famous surviving building in Baghdad. It . was built by the caliph al-Mustansir and contained four Sunni law schools (i.e. Sha’fi, Hanafi, Maliki and Hanbali). The madrassa is a rectangular courtyard building with four large iwans, one for each law school. The courtyards and iwans are faced with ornate hazarbaf brickwork and carved interlace. The building now known as the Abbasid palace was probably originally the madrassa of al-Sharabiyya built by Sharif al-Din Iqbal in 1230. The building is situated within a rectangular enclosure of 430 square metres and is dominated by a vaulted hall over 9 m high. The brickwork decoration of the building is identical to that of the Zummurud Khatun Tomb. The surviving pre- Mongol minarets belong to the Jami’ al-Khaffin and the ‘Ami Qumuriyya Mosque; both structures comprise a cylindrical shaft resting on a square base with muqarnas corbelling supporting the balcony.

madrasa al-Mirjaniya. Bagdad. 1357/ 758

madrasa al-Mirjaniya. Bagdad. 1357/ 758

The most important remains of the Ilkhanid period are Khan Mirjan and the Mirjaniya Madrassa. The khan was built in 1359 to support the madrassa which was completed in 1357. The madrassa is mostly destroyed apart from the gateway which is a monumental portal with carved brickwork similar to that of the Abbasid palace. Khan Mirjan is a remarkable building built around a central covered courtyard. The roof of the courtyard is made of giant transverse vaults which in turn are spanned by barrel vaults. This system made it possible to cover a huge interior space as well as providing light to the interior (through windows set between the transverse vaults).

Many buildings survive from the Ottoman period, the most significant being the shrine of al-Kadhimiyya which houses the tombs of the imams Musa al- Kadhim and Muhammad Jawad. The shrine has been successively rebuilt and much of the structure belongs to the eighteenth or nineteenth century. The shrines stand in the middle of a large courtyard lined with two storeys of arcades. The tombs are covered by tall golden domes and flanked by four minarets, a porch runs around three sides of the tomb structure and there is a mosque on the south side.

The traditional houses of Baghdad are built of brick around small central courtyards. Many houses had projecting wooden balconies often with carved wooden screens. Most of the houses had wind- catchers (mulqaf) which would keep the houses cool during the oppressive summer heat.


Source of this article: Dictionary of Islamic Architecture

See also: Iraq Further reading:

J.Lassner, The Topography of Baghdad in the Middle Ages,

Wayne State University Press, Detroit 1970. V.Strika and J.Khalil, The Islamic Architecture of Baghdad,

Naples 1987. J.Warren and I.Fethi, Traditional Houses in Baghdad, Horsham, UK 1982.



About the Author
Dr.Andrew Petersen is Director of Research in Islamic Archaeology at the University of Wales Lampeter. He has carried out fieldwork in many parts of the Islamic world including Iraq, Oman, Jordan, Palestine, UAE and Qatar. His current research interests include Islamic urbanism, pilgrimage routes and fortifications. For the last two years he has been working on the archaeology of coastal settlement in northern Qatar in collaboration with the Qatar Museums Authority and the Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage project.
2 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. vorrei acquistare una copia del libro . dove posso trovarlo ? io abito a Firenze -Italy
    Lucia Filacchione

  2. @lucia filacchione: We have updated the article with links to the sources of this article.

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