Founding of an Eternal City

Parvez Mahmood on the historical and geographical factors which played a role in the Abbasid decision to found Baghdad

Founding of an Eternal City
The founding of Baghdad in 762 AD marked the birth of the Islamic ‘Golden Age’ of learning in the natural and secular sciences. At the zenith of Abbasid power in the 9th century AD, the city was the most prosperous in the whole world. It was not only the seat of the sole superpower of the time but also the hub of scholarship.

This author chanced upon an interesting book titled Baghdad during Abbasid Caliphate written in 1900 by a British orientalist named Guy Le Strange. The book contains detailed maps of the original city and relies heavily, among other Arab historical works, on volume 28 of the History of Prophets and Kings by al-Tabari (839-923), Description of Mesopotamia and Baghdad by Ibn Serapion written around 900 AD and Book of Countries, a geographical book by al-Yaqubi (d. 897-898). All these books are now available in English language on the internet. They are rewarding reading besides being a testament to Muslim scholarship in that era.

This article benefits from all these books to describe the historical significance of the site and the process of its selection in 762 AD for the construction of this great city.

Irrigation in ancient Iraq

The Umayyad Caliphate, founded by Muawiyah bin Abu Sufyan, was administered from its power base in Damascus, Syria. When the Abbasids overthrew them in 750 AD in a bloody revolt, they shifted their capital to Kufa, which was a hotbed of intrigues with sympathies for the Shia faction. The Abbasids had gained power in the name of the House of Hashim with the help of pro-Shi’ite factions in Iraq, Hijaz and Khorasan. Meanwhile, the descendants of Hazrat Ali (AS) continued to show defiance, given their claim to the Caliphate – which their supporters held to be divinely ordained.

Feeling threatened in the Umayyad power-base of Syria and the Shia-affiliated Kufa, al-Mansour, the second Abbasid Caliph, sought to shift his capital to a central location in Iraq. His desire in this regard had historical correspondence.

Depiction of Al-Mansour in modern Baghdad

When Seleucus I became the king of Hellenic conquests in Asia in 305 BC, in the post Alexander era, his empire extended from the Taurus mountains in the northwest to the River Syr/Jaxartes in the northest, the River Indus in the east and the Arabian Sea in the South. This constitutes an area, excluding Egypt, similar in extent to what the Abbasids inherited from the Umayyads. Seleucus established his capital at Seleucia, a town that was developed about 30 km south of Baghdad on the western bank of the Tigris. Later, when the Parthian Empire, originating from west of Caspian Sea and expanding westward at the expense of Greeks and Romans, moved its capital from Nisa, near modern day Ashkhabad in Turkmenistan, to a more central location in their expanding empire, they chose a site on the left bank of the Tigris, opposite to the Greek capital of Seleucia, and called their capital  Ctesiphon. The Arabs called the twin cities al-Madain, which meant “two cities” in their language.

The Sassanids (224-651 AD) originated from Fars in the south west of Persia and replaced the Parthians. At their widest, the Sassanids also ruled an area that included Egypt and was identical to the realm of the Abbasids. The Sassanids, too, shifted their capital from Istakhr in Fars to Ctesiphon.

Even longer before that, in the thick fog of antiquity, during the Neolithic Akkadian Empire (c. 2334 – 2154 BC), which extended between the Euphrates and the Tigris from the mouths of these two rivers to the southern slopes of the Northern Zagros mountains, the capital was the city of Akkad, which though not as yet identified, is believed to be on the east bank of the Tigris somewhere between Baghdad and Samarra; the later city being the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate between 836 and 892 AD.

The Akkadian rulers shifted their capital because their predecessors the Sumerians ruled from the city of Ur over a smaller area in lower Mesopotamia and they needed a more central place to lord over a more extensive empire. Ur, also known as Uruk, is the birthplace of unitarian religions, where the epic traditions of a confrontation between the Prophet Abraham and King Nimrod is set.

Al-Mansour, therefore, chose the site after a lot of deliberations. According to al-Tabari, the Caliph was weary of the intrigues against him in the lower Euphrates area, where the early Muslim conquerors had established many cities. He decided to move his capital to the Tigris and personally reconnoitred the entire length of Tigris from its delta in Basra to al-Madain before travelling through Baghdad, Raqqa, Samarra and Takrit all the way up to Mosul. He then came back to camp at Baghdad.

A depiction of Al-Mansour

The alluvial riverine area between the Tigris and the Euphrates had been a center of agriculture since centuries gone by. In fact, the Ubaidian people who had settled the land probably 20 centuries before Christ may have been the inventors of agriculture itself and given rise to Sumerian culture, which, along with the Minoan, Ancient Chinese, Peruvian and Indus valley cultures, is one of the first civilizations of the world. Its inhabitants learned how to tame the river and built a number of canals. Some of the canals, such as the Nahr el-Melik and Nahr Yezdejerd, that the Muslims found watering the productive fields, were built as far back as the 3rd century AD by the early Sassanid rulers. The region known as Sawad, or black, referred to the darker rich river alluvium deposited by the rivers during their annual flooding. The inter-river plain below Tikrit on the Tigris and al-Anbar on the Euphrates was thus the richest land in the East.

Ibn Serapion has given a detailed and brilliant account of all the canals that originated from the two rivers. He divided his description into canals that originated from each river and rejoined it downstream, and others that originated from the Euphrates and joined the Tigris to drain their surplus waters. He has also mentioned the sub-branches of each canal and the bridges built over them. I am not aware of any work that enlists the entire canal system of even modern-day Pakistan with the kind of accuracy and description that Ibn Serapion achieved.
Initially, the new town was named by the Caliph as “Madinat-ul-Islam”, the city of peace; a name that Pakistan adopted for her capital (Islamabad) eleven centuries later. However, the people knew what it was and called it “Madinat-ul-Mansour”

Coming back to the story of Baghdad, the site had a few settlements of Persian Zoroastrian “dehqan” meaning landlords. There were some Christian churches, too, in the vicinity. Among the many villages in the area, there was one by the name of Baghdad that the city later adopted. Initially though, the new town was named by the Caliph as “Madinat-ul-Islam”, the city of peace; a name that Pakistan adopted for her capital (Islamabad) eleven centuries later. However, the people knew what it was and called it “Madinat-ul-Mansour” or the City of Mansour. It was entirely based on the need for a new capital: and this influenced the choice of site, plan of the city, materials to be used, nomination of supervisors for the construction and allocation of land. It was all overseen and decided by the Caliph himself.

Baghdad is located where the Euphrates and the Tigris, the two mighty biblical rivers, come closest in their journey and then soon thereafter loop in the opposite direction away from each other to form the wide fertile lower Mesopotamian plain before turning again inwards to their confluence at al-Qurnah. Their combined 200-km long channel that empties in the Persian Gulf was called the “Blind Tigris” but is now known as Shatt-al-Arab and forms the tempestuous boundary between Iran and Iraq.

When al-Mansour selected the site, he camped on the side of the Sarat canal; a sub-branch of the Isa canal. This waterway, the Isa canal, built in the pre-Islamic era, originated from the Euphrates below Anbar, joined the Tigris below Baghdad at a place called al-Farda and its various branches flowed around Baghdad, providing the new city defensive rings besides catering for domestic-use water. Al-Farda means “the harbour” and it had a place called al-Muhawwal meaning “Place of Unloading”. Isa canal allowed large goods boats to ply through it and the above-mentioned two place-names are self-explanatory and revelatory.

Before finally choosing the exact place for construction, al-Mansour asked the inhabitants of the area about its weather conditions in summer and winter, and its rainy and dry conditions. He also inquired about the insects in the area. He then dispatched some men to spend a night each in the villages around it and report the conditions therein.

The caliph, according to al-Tabari, said that it was a good place for an army camp with “nothing” between it and China. He added that all that the sea could bring (from India and China through the Tigris), as well as provisions from the Jazirah, Armenia and surrounding areas (from north through the Tigris) could arrive here unhindered. Further, he thought that there was the Euphrates from which ships could bring everything from Syria, al-Raqqah, and surrounding areas (through the Isa canal).

His words were prophetically fortuitous. Over a hundred years later, while writing about Baghdad, al-Yaqubi observed,

“The two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, flow along its borders, so that goods and provisions come to it by land and by water with such ease that every object of trade which can be exported from the east or the west, whether from Islamic or non-Islamic lands, makes its way there. So many goods are imported to it from India, Sind, China, Tibet, the country of the Turks, Daylam, the country of the Khazars, Ethiopia, and other countries that there may be more of a commodity here than in the country from which it was exported.”

Baghdad would emerge as one of the most magnificent centres of scholarship and commerce. It represented perhaps the finest face of Islamic civilization. It would be occupied by many invading forces and destroyed in the process but would never lose its significance.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: