One summer day in the year 762, a group of horsemen cantered toward the Tigris River where it turns west in the direction of the Euphrates. No one could mistake their leader. Jafar Abdullah al-Mansur sat on his prancing steed with the bearing of a soldier, the bridle held tautly in his left hand, his right in constant motion as he issued commands. His dark eyes, piercing as a falcon's, were those of a man who would not be disobeyed. He looked every inch the ruler of an Islamic empire.
At the riverbank, the Caliph ordered his companions to halt and, spurring his horse to a trot, he rode down to the water's edge. Carefully he surveyed the Tigris upstream and down with the practiced eye of a military man and monarch. The swiftly flowing river, he saw, was a natural defense, a hazardous obstacle for any invading army. The few farms in the area could easily be multiplied throughout surrounding fields to meet the needs of an expanding population. In short, here might stand a metropolis in peace and a citadel in war.
Such were the Caliph's thoughts as he gazed around him, twisting in the saddle to get a better view. One last long look, and he had made up his mind. Rearing his horse on its haunches, he pirouetted and galloped up the bank to his bodyguard. "This is where we will build our capital," he said.
Why a new city when he had so many old ones from which to choose? Before setting out, al-Mansur had explained his motives.
"We 'Abbasids," he said, "are a recent dynasty. We have supplanted the Umayyads, but we cannot be safe in their Syrian capital, Damascus. We must move closer to the Persian source of our power."
He was referring to the traditional conflict of two powerful Islamic families. When Omar the Great fell under an assassin's dagger in 644, Othman of the Umayyad clan was chosen to succeed him. The Umayyads gained most of their support from Syria: hence their decision to move the center of government from Medina to Damascus.
The House of Abbas, opposing the House of Othman but temporarily defeated, retired to Persia to wait for a change in their fortunes. It came with Abu Abbas Abdullah, who overthrew the Umayyad Caliphate and founded the 'Abbasid dynasty. His brother inherited his rule in 754—Jafar Abdullah al-Mansur, the vigorous captain and statesman who extended 'Abbasid sovereignty around the huge geographical circle of Persia, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Syria.
As the Umayyads had moved from Medina to Damascus, the 'Abbasids would now move from old Damascus to—where?
The Caliph looked at the map of his empire, and placed his finger on its most strategic province. Centrally located, close to his Persian allies, Mesopotamia had been from time immemorial the base from which conquering armies dominated the civilized world. Al-Mansur saw that he could use the same base for his own imperial aims. The precise spot would be that known to the ancient Babylonians as Bag-Da-Du—Baghdad.
The commands were given. 'Abbasid Caliphate workmen, artisans and artists converged on the middle Tigris—100,000 of them before the three years of labor were over. The Caliph himself supervised the construction of the city walls around a circle three miles in diameter—making Baghdad the "Round City" of folklore. He shouted orders, exhortations and advice as two-hundred-pound blocks of stone were placed on top of one another to a height of 90 feet and a width of 40 feet. He visited the foundries to inspect the casting of four massive iron gates. He leaped into the moat to be sure that it was deep enough.
Al-Mansur summoned his surveyors and architects to periodic conferences. "Lay out the streets in straight lines with a clear view to the walls on every side," he commanded. His metropolis was to look like a fort with broad, paved avenues radiating from the center like the spokes of a wheel. He wanted his sentries on the walls, to spot an enemy outside or a disturbance inside, to have his garrison marching to the scene within minutes.
The Caliph's palace rose at the hub of the "wheel," until its lofty, emerald-colored dome, 130 feet high, dominated the city. The palace gained the nickname of "The Green Dome." It was also called "The Golden Gate" because its main portal was encrusted with the precious metal.
The palace of Baghdad formed a labyrinth of rooms and corridors leading into alcoves, cloisters and courtyards. The gardens were laced with rose bowers, dotted with splashing fountains, and ornamented with strutting peacocks. Here might the Caliph and his entourage stroll, converse and relax amid a scene that inspired delicate lyric poetry and magical tales of the Arabian Nights.
The audience chamber was an enormous room where hundreds of persons congregated on great occasions, such as royal weddings and the reception of foreign ambassadors. Down the walls of the audience chamber were hung heavy velvet drapes. Deep Persian carpets were underfoot and beautifully decorated cushions lay on every chair. In every corner flashed the sparkle of gold and diamonds.
The imperial dining room was a counterpart of the audience chamber. A thousand guests could be seated, and every dish, utensil and piece of cutlery was of silver or gold.
Thus did Caliph al-Mansur rule in Baghdad in Persian-style magnificence. His courtiers imitated him and achieved a splendor of their own. It was they who made priceless jewelry a part of everyday dress. It was they who first adopted the Persian slipper with its upturned toe and the magnificent coats of silk.
Culture flourished in Baghdad. The Caliph set an example for his subjects by patronizing scholars, poets and painters. Hakim the composer was not only al-Mansur's client but also his good friend. Schools of philosophy and science developed. A Spanish traveller who visited the city at this time remarked: "Baghdad is a hive of bees in which much honey is produced."
The capital of an empire, Baghdad soon was filled with ordinary citizens. They built houses, practiced trades, farmed the surrounding fields and did the routine jobs of any big city. But Baghdad's special flair prevented it from being just another city. The color of the palace filtered down to the populace. After the toil of the day, the citizen might frequent his choice from a thousand public baths. He might go to a polo game, or a poetry recital, or perhaps he would attend meetings of metaphysicians or wander through the darker quarters of the city in search of excitement and danger.
And there were always the bazaars filled with teeming, chattering humanity in search of a loaf of bread or an Indian diamond. Merchants became wealthy by sending caravans to Egypt and Syria and commanding ships down the Tigris to the emporiums in the Persian Gulf. The bazaars of Baghdad offered wares from the known world: African ivory, Indian teak, Chinese porcelain.
In spite of the aura of fantasy that lay over his metropolis, the Caliph al-Mansur was not a ruler who left the affairs of state to his subordinates. He chose able officials to carry out his laws and issued a standing order that appeals from the common people must be referred directly to him. He took the field at the head of his army and waged military campaigns against the Byzantine Empire, the Khazars of the Caucacus and rebels in Khorasan. These campaigns forced respect for his authority and frontiers. At home, the Caliph assumed more mundane duties, visiting the farms so that there might be no dereliction by his farmers or any danger of famine.
The second of the 'Abbasid Caliphs built so well that he remains one of the master city planners of history. He turned a primitive village into a scintillating imperial metropolis. He selected its site so wisely and gave it such strong political and economic foundations that it continued to grow long after his death in 775. A generation later Baghdad would reach yet another pinnacle of its glory under Haroun al-Rashid.
For five centuries it was a beacon of power and culture. 'Abbasid Caliphs lived in the palace, sending out decrees to an empire until the city was stormed and sacked by the ferocious Mongols in 1225. The splendor came to a devastating end amid flames and rubble. Its fame did not end, nor has it ever ended. Today, few remember the builder—Jafar Abdullah al-Mansur. But everybody remembers what he built—medieval Baghdad.