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Baghdad as the Abbasid Capital, The Foundation of

The ancient city of Baghdad is located near the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, near the ancient (and once-great) Mesopotamian cities of Babylon, Kish, and Eshnunna. Baghdad was one of the oldest cities in Mesopotamia, but it was not until the rise of Abbasid caliphate (750-1258) that the city became the center of the Islamic world. Baghdad is listed as the Abbasid Capital on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History in 762 AD.

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The Umayyad Caliphate established the Syrian city of Damascus as their capital in 661 AD during the reign of Caliph Mu’awiya who found the city ideal for a number of reasons. First, Damascus sat on a fertile land with its back near the Hejaz region where the holy cities of Medina and Mecca are located. It was also located near the Arab heartland where the Umayyad rulers could easily call on their soldiers whenever the Byzantines harassed them or whenever they wanted to raid the Byzantine cities.

The family’s rule unraveled less than ninety years later during the reign of the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, and Abu al-Abbas, the elected leader of the rebel Banu Hashim clan, ousted them to start the Abbasid caliphate. Al-Abbas was aptly nicknamed as As-Saffah (the Slaughterer or ‘he who sheds blood’) after his purge of the whole Umayyad clan and his bloody capture of the caliphate. Al-Mansur succeeded As-Saffah as caliph of the Muslims after his brother’s death in 754 AD. As long as he was alive, The Slaughterer never dared set foot in nor rule from Damascus.

Al-Mansur founded Baghdad

Al-Abbas stayed in Kufa (a city in modern-day southern Iraq) because he thought he was safe in his stronghold from the revenge of anyone who survived the purge he masterminded against the Damascus-based Umayyad family. Damascus was also too far from Persia where most of the Abbasids’ supporters were based. The Syrian city was also too near Asia Minor where the Byzantines could easily harass them on land or at sea. The Abbasids focused on an easier eastward expansion into Central Asia, rather than a westward expansion where they encountered defeat many times in the hands of the Byzantines.

Al-Mansur, upon his accession as caliph, immediately looked for a new city on which he would build the Abbasids’ capital, but eliminated Kufa from the list as it was too near the rebellious Shiites and Arab tribesmen. He also removed the possibility of another Abbasid stronghold, Hashimiyah, as it was the base of the fanatical (and troublesome) Rawindis who worshiped him as a god. Another reason that pushed al-Mansur to move out of Kufa was that it was too near Mesopotamia’s desert border with Arabia. He wanted a more well-watered, fertile area that could support the local population.

He traveled north from Jarjaraya to Mosul by way of the Tigris river, and chanced upon the hills of Jabal Hamrin which seemed ideal at first, but eliminated it because food and other supplies were scarce in the area. On the way back to Kufa, al-Mansur saw Baghdad (then a Persian hamlet) located near the west bank of the Tigris. It was well-watered by the Sarat Canal which al-Mansur thought as ideal for his new capital. He had the foundations laid out in 762 AD.

Although it was not as ancient compared to the long-gone cities that once surrounded it, Baghdad was in existence by the time of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. The origin of the city’s name came from the Persian words for ‘a garden’ (bagh) of a person or deity called ‘Dad or Dadwayh.’ ‘Bagh’ was also the name of a local god, while ‘Dad’ meant ‘gift of’; meanwhile, another possibility is that ‘bagh’ meant God and ‘dadh’ meant ‘founded by.’ Some Muslims renamed the circular core of the city as Madinat as-Salam (The City of Peace) because they wanted to disassociate it with any remnant of Baghdad’s pagan past. But the name persisted and the city was known for many centuries and into the modern times as Baghdad.

As much as 100,000 men worked to build the city’s circular core (Madinat as-Salam). By 763 AD, the Abbasid administrative offices were located inside Baghdad. Madinat as-Salam was finished by 766 AD. Baghdad continued to be the Abbasid capital until the arrival of the Mongol horde during the 13th century.

Picture By Francisco de Zurbarán – Immediate image source unknown; possibly [1], [2], or [3], Public Domain,
“Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate from Contemporary Arabic and Persian Sources.” Internet Archive. Accessed August 24, 2016.
Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
Marozzi, Justin. Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood. Penguin UK, 2014.
Wollaston, Arthur N. “The Sword Of Islam.” Internet Archive. Accessed August 24, 2016.
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