Baghdad under the Abbasids, c. 1000 CE
[Introduction (adapted from Davis)]
Baghdad "the city of the Arabian nights" was founded in 764 CE. by the
Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur. It was in its prime about 800 CE., during the reign of the
famous caliph Harun-al-Rashid. What this city - which represented the crown of Medieval
Muslim civilization - resembled, is told by an author who saw Baghdad in its glory.
Yakut: Geographical Encyclopedia:
The city of Baghdad formed two vast semi-circles on the right and left banks of the
Tigris, twelve miles in diameter. The numerous suburbs, covered with parks, gardens,
villas and beautiful promenades, and plentifully supplied with rich bazaars, and finely
built mosques and baths, stretched for a considerable distance on both sides of the river.
In the days of its prosperity the population of Baghdad and its suburbs amounted to over
two millions! The palace of the Caliph stood in the midst of a vast park several hours in
circumference which beside a menagerie and aviary comprised an inclosure for wild animals
reserved for the chase. The palace grounds were laid out with gardens, and adorned with
exquisite taste with plants, flowers, and trees, reservoirs and fountains, surrounded by
sculptured figures. On this side of the river stood the palaces of the great nobles.
Immense streets, none less than forty cubits wide, traversed the city from one end to the
other, dividing it into blocks or quarters, each under the control of an overseer or
supervisor, who looked after the cleanliness, sanitation and the comfort of the
The water exits both on the north and the south were like the city gates, guarded night
and day by relays of soldiers stationed on the watch towers on both sides of the river.
Every household was plentifully supplied with water at all seasons by the numerous
aqueducts which intersected the town; and the streets, gardens and parks were regularly
swept and watered, and no refuse was allowed to remain within the walls. An immense square
in front of the imperial palace was used for reviews, military inspections, tournaments
and races; at night the square and the streets were lighted by lamps.
There was also a vast open space where the troops whose barracks lay on the left bank
of the river were paraded daily. The long wide estrades at the different gates of the city
were used by the citizens for gossip and recreation or for watching the flow of travelers
and country folk into the capital. The different nationalities in the capital had each a
head officer to represent their interests with the government, and to whom the stranger
could appeal for counsel or help.
Baghdad was a veritable City of Palaces, not made of stucco and mortar, but of marble.
The buildings were usually of several stories. The palaces and mansions were lavishly
gilded and decorated, and hung with beautiful tapestry and hangings of brocade or silk.
The rooms were lightly and tastefully furnished with luxurious divans, costly tables,
unique Chinese vases and gold and silver ornaments.
Both sides of the river were for miles fronted by the palaces, kiosks, gardens and
parks of the grandees and nobles, marble steps led down to the water's edge, and the scene
on the river was animated by thousands of gondolas, decked with little flags, dancing like
sunbeams on the water,
and carrying the pleasure-seeking Baghdad citizens from one part of the city to the
other. Along the wide-stretching quays lay whole fleets at anchor, sea and river craft of
all kinds, from the Chinese junk to the old Assyrian raft resting on inflated skins.
The mosques of the city were at once vast in size and remarkably beautiful. There were
also in Baghdad numerous colleges of learning, hospitals, infirmaries for both sexes, and
From: William Stearns Davis, ed., Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts
from the Sources, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the
West, pp. 365-367
Scanned in and modernized by Dr. Jerome S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State
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© Paul Halsall, July 1998