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Unknown Baghdad

Cleaning up at Baghdad’s tomb of the unknown soldier Cleaning up at Baghdad’s tomb of the unknown soldier Shutterstock
13 Jan
2015
Geographical selects neglected episodes from a distinguished city

‘Baghdad has been a cosmopolitan city from the start, and I would argue that the city is at its best when it is at its most cosmopolitan,’ says Justin Marozzi, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and author of Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood. The title ‘City of Peace’ is one of Baghdad's earliest names and dates back to the caliph al-Mansur, who founded the city in 762.

Sandwiched between the Euphrates and Tigris, Baghdad is a relative upstart in the region, says Marozzi. Babylon’s ruins lie 53 miles south of the city while Nineveh lies to the north.

‘A girdle of canals link the city, an auspicious place for Mansur to build his new capital,’ says Marozzi. ‘The heart of the city was the caliph’s circular city.’ Contemporaries were staggered by the size, monumentality and the designs in the new city.

‘I’ve never seen a city of greater height, more perfect circularity, more endowed with superior merits or provided such wide gates and perfect defences than the city of al-Mansur,’ wrote Jahez, a contemporary writer and theologian who authored 231 books,  including the seven-volume Book of Animals. ‘Some of his fans – although this may not be realistic – argue that Jahez anticipated Darwin’s theory of natural selection,’ says Marozzi.

There was no subject Jahez did not consider. ‘He writes about the superiority of black men over whites, theology, pigeon racing, miserliness, the Aristotelian view of fish and whether women should be permitted to make noises of pleasure during sex,’ says Marozzi. 

These are some of the more overlooked aspects of the cosmopolis, perhaps not worthy for inclusion in a Jahez epic but interesting nonetheless.  

Floods
shutterstock 94687813Traditional Baghdad buildings captured in 1867 (Shutterstock/Marzolino)

Ancient buildings in Baghdad were built with backed mud bricks. When the Tigris burst its banks it destroyed ancients sites resulting in the city having very few very old ruins, according to Marozzi. Only in 1832 was the first fixed bridge across the Tigris built. Until then the city relied on pontoon bridges that could be folded back during storms and high water.

Science
shutterstock 7992937An Iraqi 1,000 dinar banknote commemorates the astrolabe and a Baghdad mosque (Adam Middleton/Shutterstock)

‘Baghdad is a city where in the 15th century more discoveries were made in mathematics, science and astronomy than in any previous period,’ says Marozzi. Not least was the astrolabe. ‘The city became a magnet drawing in some of the greatest minds in Central Asia. The caliph Mahmoud established the ‘House of Wisdom’,  which combined think tank, library, Royal Archive and a Royal Geographical Society,’ he says. In the ninth century, Baghdad was already the largest repository of books in the world. When the Mongols invaded in the 1258, the story goes that the Tigris ran black with ink from books destroyed in ransacked libraries.

Food
shutterstock 90922103(Shutterstock/Northfoto)

Expertise in the kitchen was so prized in Abbasid Baghdad that a companion to the caliph was expected to master at least ten exotic dishes. Great cooking contests took place with the caliph as judge, says Marozzi. Ordinary Baghdadis were sometimes enlisted to judge the competitions, according to legend. Depending on how the caliph was feeling there were great rewards or terrible punishments for ordinary Baghdadis willing to be truthful when tasting the dishes, says Marozzi.

Architecture
shutterstock 85106746Arizona State University in Tempe features a dome structure similar to Wright’s plan for Baghdad (Shutterstock/Tim Wright Photography)

Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned in 1958 to plan a new Baghdad, says Marozzi. His ‘Plan for Greater Baghdad’ called for an opera house to seat 7,000 people, a new university campus, and a 300ft statue of the city’s fifth caliph, Harun al-Rashid. When King Faisal II was overthrown, the new Iraqi government decided there were better priorities and the redevelopment never took place.

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