Baghdad: Eye witness accounts throughout the ages

Though the name ‘Baghdad’ is synonymous with the Islamic Golden age, it in fact never even existed in the collective consciousness of the Muslim empire until 130 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

Baghdad: Eye witness accounts throughout the ages

Mohanned Rahman

Two years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 634 CE, Muslim armies during the reign of Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab (RA) expanded into the region of Iraq, which at the time was part of the Sassanid Persian Empire. During this time which also included decisive victories against the Persians at Qadisiyyah the caliph ordered the foundation of two cities to protect the new territory: Kufah (the new capital of the region) and Basrah (the new port city). These two cities were the main centres of Iraq throughout the Rashidun and Umayyad period. 

Though the name ‘Baghdad’ is synonymous with the Islamic Golden age, it in fact never even existed in the collective consciousness of the Muslim empire until 130 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. In 762 CE Baghdad was founded as a completely new city on the west bank of the Tigris by the second Abbasid caliph Abu Jafar Al-Mansur, who made it his capital. Since ancient Babylonian times, a settlement as far back as 1800 BC had existed on part of the site of where Al-Mansur’s Baghdad was built. Also, a city of Baghdad is mentioned in pre-Islamic texts, including the Talmud, and the Abbasid city was likely built on the site of this earlier settlement. The word Baghdad comes from ancient Persian ‘bagh’ meaning God, and ‘dad’ meaning gift: "the gift of God". Al-Mansur chose the name ‘Madinat al-Salaam’ or ‘City of Peace’. This was the official name on coins, weights, and other official usage, although the common people continued to use the old name and it stuck.

For about five hundred years the city was the symbolic capital of the Islamic Empire and boasted the cream of intellectuals and culture, a reputation gained during the reigns of the Caliphs al-Rashid (809 CE), al-Ma’mun (833 CE), al-Mu’tadhid (902 CE) and al-Muktafi (908 CE). It was the world’s richest city and centre for intellectual development, being second in size only to Constantinople, with over a million inhabitants. Home of many eminent scholars, artists, and poets, this period of its utmost glory is reflected in the Thousand and One Nights, in which many of the tales are set in Baghdad. 

This article sets out to provide five eyewitness accounts of travellers to Baghdad throughout the ages and they include: a native, a Jew, a Christian, a visitor from Al-Andalus and traveller from Morocco. Three of these accounts come from before the Mongols sacked the city in 1258 CE and destroyed nearly all of its splendour, one from just after when the city was rebuilt and another much later account from the early nineteenth century.

Al-Mas’udi’s account – 10th century Baghdad

Abu al-Ḥasan Ali al-Masʿudi (896 – 956 CE) was an Arab historian and geographer, often described as ‘the Arab Herodotus’. Mas’udi was a late product of the ‘Abbasid Renaissance’ and was deeply inspired by contact with Greek philosophy and science. This small extract of his account of Baghdad was taken from his classic multi-volume work ‘The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems’, a world history. He was one of the first to combine history and scientific geography in a large-scale work.

Mas’udi praises his birthplace:

I was born in the central clime of the world, and although the passing of days has separated us and my travels have taken me away, I feel a great nostalgia for it in my heart, for it is my native land and my home.

It is in the clime of Babil [Lower Iraq, ancient Babylonia]. This region was greatly esteemed by the kings of Persia and was the object of their solicitude. They passed their winters in Iraq and most of them spent the summer in the Jibal [the mountainous region north-east of Baghdad], moving alternatively from hot country to cold, depending on the season. Similarly, fashionable Muslims, such as Abu Duluf al-Qasim ibn ‘Isa al-‘Ijli, passed the winter in the warm area – that is to say, Iraq – and summer in the cool region – that is to say, the Jibal. This is why Abu Dulaf said:

I do as Chosroe did:

summer in the Jibal

and winter in Iraq.

Indeed, this region unites every advantage: the earth is fertile, life is easy and everything is available in abundance. It two benefactors, the Tigris and the Euphrates, bring it wealth; all its people are secure, knowing no ills. Lastly, it is the mansion of the sun, situated in the centre of the earth in the midst of the seven climes. Thus, the ancients compared its position in the world to that of the heart in the human body, for the world extends all around the clime of Babil, whose inhabitants spread light in every direction on the meaning of things, just as knowledge emanates from the heart.

Thanks to this, its inhabitants have a smooth complexion and well-proportioned bodies. Among them one does not find the fair tomes of the Byzantines and the Slavs, not the black skin of the Abyssinians, nor the stockiness of the Berbers. Freed from the coarseness of other peoples, on the contrary, they unite what is best in every country; and just as they are distinguished by their outward beauty, so they are pre-eminent for their refinement and love of beautiful things.

The noblest position in this clime belongs to the city of Baghdad. How cruel Fortune was when she drove me from this noble city where I was born and from whose whom I sprang! But destiny loves to force these separations upon us and it is fate which imposes such exiles.

Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela’s account – 12th century Baghdad

Rabbi Banjamin (1130-1173 CE) was a medieval Jewish traveller from Northern Spain who went on a visit to the holy land in the 12th century. Originally written in Hebrew, his vivid descriptions of western Asia preceded those of Marco Polo by a hundred years. Benjamin of Tudela is a major figure in medieval geography and Jewish history. Below are extracts of his account from a visit to Baghdad around 1170 CE.

Two days from thence stands Baghdad, the large metropolis of the Caliph Emir-al-Mumenin al Abassi, of the family of their prophet, who is the chief of the Mohammedan religion.  All Mohammedan kings acknowledge him, and he holds the same dignity over them which the Pope enjoys over the Christians. The palace of the Caliph at Bagdad is three miles in extent. It contains a large park filled with all sorts of trees, both useful and ornamental, and all kinds of beasts, as well as a pond of water carried thither from the river Tigris; and whenever the Caliph desires to enjoy himself and to sport and carouse, birds, beasts, and fishes are prepared for him and for his courtiers, whom he invites to his palace. This great Abbasside is extremely friendly toward the Jews, many of his officers being of that nation; he understands all languages, is well versed in the Mosaic Law, and reads and writes the Hebrew tongue. He enjoys nothing but what he earns by the labour of his own hands, and therefore manufactures coverlets, which he stamps with his seal, and which his officers sell in the public market; these articles are purchased by the nobles of the land, and from their produce his necessaries are provided. 

The Caliph is an excellent man, trust-worthy and kind-hearted toward everyone, but generally invisible to the Mohammedans. The pilgrims, who come hither from distant countries on their way to Mecca in Yemen, desire to be presented to him, and thus address him from the palace: "Our lord, light of the Mohammedans and splendour of our religion, show us the brightness of thy countenance"; but he heeds not their words. His servants and officers then approach and pray: "O lord, manifest thy peace to these men who come from distant lands and desire shelter in the shadow of thy glory." After this petition, he rises and puts one corner of his garment out of the window, which the pilgrims eagerly kiss. One of the lords then addresses them thus: "Go in peace, for our lord, the light of the Mohammedans, is well pleased and gives you his blessing."… 

..All the brothers and other members of the Caliph's family are accustomed to kiss his garments. Every one of them possesses a palace within that of the Caliph, but they are all bound with chains of iron, and a special officer is appointed over each household to prevent their rising in rebellion against the great King. These measures are taken in consequence of what occurred some time ago, when the brothers rebelled and elected a king among themselves; to prevent which in future it was decreed that all the members of the Caliph’s family should be chained, in order to prevent their rebellious intentions. Every one of them, however, resides in his palace, and is there much honoured; and they possess villages and towns, the rents of which are collected for them by their stewards. They eat and drink, and lead a merry life. The palace of the great King contains large buildings, pillars of gold and silver, and treasures of precious stones.

Baghdad contains about one thousand Jews, who enjoy peace, comfort, and much honour under the government of the great King. Among them are very wise men and presidents of the colleges, whose occupation is the study of the Mosaic Law. The city contains ten colleges. The principal of the great college is the Rabbi, R. Samuel, the son of Eli, principal of the college Geon Jacob; the provost of the Levites is the president of the second; R. Daniel, the master of the third college; R. Eleasar, the fellow, presides over the fourth; R. Eleasar, the son of Tsemach, is chief of the fifth college; he is master of the studies, and possesses a pedigree of his descent from the prophet Samuel, who rests in peace, and he and his brothers know the melodies that were sung in the temple during its existence…

..Many of the Jews of Baghdad are good scholars and very rich. The city contains twenty-eight Jewish synagogues, situated partly in Baghdad and partly in Al-Kharkh, on the other side of the river Tigris, which runs through and divides the city. The metropolitan synagogue of the prince of the captivity is ornamented with pillars of richly coloured marble, plated with gold and silver; on the pillars are inscribed verses of the Psalms in letters of gold… 

…The city of Baghdad is three miles in circumference; the country in which it is situated is rich in palm-trees, gardens, and orchards, so that nothing equals it in Mesopotamia. Merchants of all countries resort thither for purposes of trade, and it contains many wise philosophers, well skilled in sciences, and magicians proficient in all sorts of enchantment.

Ibn Jubayr of Al-Andalus’s account – 12th century Baghdad

Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217 CE) was a medieval geographer, traveller and poet from al-Andalus. His travel chronicle describes the pilgrimage he made to Mecca from 1183 to 1185, in the years preceding the Third Crusade. His chronicle describes Saladin's domains in Egypt and the Levant which he passed through on his way to Mecca. These are extracts from his visit to Baghdad around 1184 CE.

A note on the City of Peace, Baghdad, May God most High protect it:

Baghdad is an ancient city, and although it has never ceased to be the Capital of the Abbasid Caliphate and the pivot of the Qurayshite, Hashimite Imam’s claims, most of its traces have gone, leaving only a famous name. In comparison with its former state, before misfortune struck it and the eyes of adversity turned towards it, it is like an effaced ruin, a remain washed out, or the statue of a ghost. It has no beauty that attracts the eye, or calls him who is restless to depart to neglect his business and to gaze. None but the Tigris which runs between its eastern and its western parts like a mirror shining between two frames, or like a string of pearls between two breasts. The city drinks from it and does not thirst, and looks into a polished mirror that does not tarnish. And the beauty of its women, wrought between its waters and its air, is celebrated and talked of through the lands, so that if God does not give protection, there are the dangers of love’s seductions. 

As to its people, you scarce can find among them any who do not affect humility, but who yet are vain and proud. Strangers they despise, and they show scorn and disdain to their inferiors, while the stories and news of other men they belittle. Each conceives, in belief and thought that the whole world is but trivial in comparison with his land, and over the face of the world they find no noble place of living save their own…

The stranger with them is without fellowship, his expenses are doubled, and he will find amongst them none who do not practice hypocrisy with him or make merry with him only for some profit or benefit. It is as if they are forced to this false form of friendship as a condition of gaining peace and agreement in their lives together. The ill conduct of the people of this town is stronger than the character of its air and water, and detracts from the probity of its traditions and its reports.

To the east of the town, on an eminence outside it, is a large quarter beside the quarter of al-Rusafah, where, on the bank, was the famous Bab al-Taq [Gate of the Arch]. In this quarter is a shrine, superbly built, with a white dome rising into the air, containing the tomb of imam Abu Hanifah – may God hold him in His favour, by which name the quarter is known. Near this quarter is the tomb of the imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal – may God hold him in His favour – and also in this part is the tomb of Abu Bakr al-Shibli – may God’s mercy rest upon his soul – and that of al-Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj. In Baghdad many are the tombs of pious men – may God hold them all in His favour.

…The Caliph would sometimes be seen in boats on the Tigris, and sometimes he would go into the desert to hunt. He goes forth in modest circumstances in order to conceal his state from the people, but despite this concealment his fame only increases. Nevertheless, he likes to appear before the people, and show affection for them. They deem themselves fortunate in his character, for in his time they have obtained ease, justice, and good-living, and great and small they bless him.

In 1258 CE, Baghdad suffered a terrible blow when the city was ransacked by Mongols. Most of the citizens were slaughtered and parts of the city were destroyed along with the irrigation systems.

Mongol emperors ruled Baghdad until the city was attacked again, in 1401, this time by the Turkic conqueror, Timur.

Ibn Battuta of Tangiers’s account – 12th century Baghdad

In June 1325, at the age of twenty-one, Ibn Battuta (1304 – 1369 CE) set off from his hometown on the Hajj pilgrimage. He would not see his native Tangiers again for twenty-four years. Ibn Battuta is considered one of the greatest travellers of all time. This extract was taken from his visit to Baghdad around 1327 CE, around 70 years after the Mongol destruction.

…Thence we travelled to Baghdad, the Abode of Peace and Capital of Islam. Here there are two bridges like that at Hilla, on which the people promenade night and day, both men and women. The town has eleven cathedral mosques, eight on the right bank and three on the left, together with very many other mosques and madrasas, only the latter are all in ruins. The baths at Baghdad are numerous and excellently constructed, most of them being painted with pitch, which has the appearance of black marble. This pitch is brought from a spring between Kufa and Basra, from which it flows continually. It gathers at the sides of the spring clay and is shovelled up and brought to Baghdad… 

…The western part of Baghdad was the earliest to be rebuilt, but it is now for the most part in ruins. In spite of that there remain in it still thirteen quarters, each like a city in itself and possessing two or three baths. The hospital (maristan) is a vast ruined edifice, of which only vestiges remain. The eastern part has an abundance of bazaars, the largest of which is called Tuesday bazaar.On this side there are no fruit trees, but all the fruit is brought from the western side, where there are orchards and gardens.

My arrival at Baghdad coincided with a visit of the sultan of the two Iraq’s and of Khurasan, the illustrious Abu Sa’id Bahadur Khan, son of Sultan Muhammad Khudabanda whose conversion we related above. He was an excellent and generous king. He was still a boy when he succeeded his father, and the power was seized by the principal amir, Juban, who left nothing of sovereignty but the name…

In 1531 CE, the city's rule once again changed hands when the city was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Baghdad declined significantly during this period and was repeatedly contested by Persians and Turks until 1638 CE, when it became part of the Ottoman Empire. By that time the city's population had dwindled to only a few thousand. 

Reverend Anthony Norris Groves’s account – 19th century Baghdad

Rev. Anthony Norris Groves (1795-1853 CE) was an English missionary who launched the first Protestant mission to Arabic-speaking Muslims, and settled in Baghdad. In 1829 (1245 AH), Groves and his wife set out for Baghdad (population 60,000), together with their two young sons. He experienced a year of intense misery, with civil war, plague, floods and famine, in which Groves suffered the death of his wife and a recently born baby daughter. The below describes an extract from his journal dated April 10th 1831, the second year of his residence in Baghdad:

As to the numbers of those who have died of the plague, on this side of the river alone, in little more than one fortnight, all agree in making it about 7,000. The poor inhabitants know not what to do: if they remain in the city, they die of the plague; if they leave it, they fall into the hands of the Arabs, who strip them of everything, or they are exposed to the effects of the inundation of the Tigris, which has now overflown the whole country around Baghdad, and destroyed they say, 2,000 houses on the other side of the river, but I think this must be exaggerated: the misery of this place, however, is now beyond expression, and may yet be expected to be much greater. Dreadful as the outward circumstances of this people are, their moral condition is infinitely worse; nor does there seem to be a ray of light amidst it all. The Mohammedans look on those who die of the plague as martyrs, and no wailing is made for them, so that amidst all these desolations there is stillness, which when one knows the cause, is very frightful.

April 12th – The accounts of the deaths are truly terrific; they say, the day before yesterday 1,200 died; and yesterday, Major T.’s man of business obtained a statement that they amounted to 1,040 on this side of the river. If this can be relied on, the mortality within and without the city [Baghdad] must be truly appalling, and should it not please the Lord soon to stay the destroying angel’s hand, the whole country must become one wide waste. Some very kind Armenians have offered to provide what is necessary for our journey to Damascus, if we will go with them…

…May 13th -…I have just heard that the streets begin again to be crowded, shops here and there to be opened, and the gardeners are bringing things from without into the city. To think that so near the end we should have been thus visited, how mysterious!

In 1921, the Kingdom of Iraq was established under British rule and the area that was known to most of the world as Mesopotamia became known as Iraq. This saw the end of the Ottoman rule as control of Baghdad shifted to the British. In the 20th century, Baghdad was held up as a gleaming example of a modern Arab city with some of the region’s best universities and museums, highly educated elite, a vibrant cultural scene and first-rate health care. 

After decades of seemingly endless conflict, it is the world’s worst city when assessing quality of life and measuring factors including political stability, crime and pollution. Residents of Baghdad contend with near-daily attacks, sectarian violence, a lack of electricity and clean water, poor sewerage and drainage systems, rampant corruption, regular gridlock, high unemployment and a myriad other problems. This is the most recent confirmation of the 1,250-year-old city’s fall from grace as a global intellectual, economic and political centre.

1. The Travels of Ibn Battuta (2000), Goodward, Translated by H.A.R. GIBB
2. Itinerary of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela Translated and edited by A. Asher (2 Vols) London and Berlin, 1840
3. Spirit of the East (1979), Quartet Books, Edited by Gerald De Gaury and H.V.F Winstone
4. The Travels of Ibn Jubayr (2001), Goodward, Translated by Roland Broadhurst
5. From the Meadows of Gold (2007), Penguin Great Journeys, Translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone
7. Baghdad in Rhetoric and Narrative (1996), Muqarnas, by Michael Cooperson

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