Baghdad, Iraq by Aly Abouzeid

Baghdad – Navel of the Universe

Image of the city of Baghdad

We may all know Baghdad as the sprawling city it is today, one known by all and frequented by many. However, the relationship between individual man and urban order, social order and city, varies significantly from century to century. Although we can observe the elements of the city today, its architectural evolution and foundation is important in understanding a city so obviously politically and economically significant, that it has survived until today.

Caliph Al-Mansur founded Baghdad – named Madinat Al-Salam then – in 762, aimed at securing a basis for his imperial army and a center for his administration. His search sought to find a fertile place along the main lines of communication to the peripherals of his empire. At this time, it is important to note that Arabs were familiar with the administrative and legal organizations of neighboring countries and by allowing their conquered cities to follow established traditions, they had assumed control of two prevailing systems at the time – Byzantine and Sassanian. Al-Mansur aimed at creating a city unlike all others, one that showed a new type of urban development. Situated on the Tigris, the site was thickly cultivated with many piercing canals that served numerous functions such as defense, irrigation and communication. Foundations for Al-Mansur’s planned city were laid at a time chosen by his astrologer, Nawabakht, and only started building when his skilled and unskilled labor force numbered in the thousands. It was a massive undertaking that dwarfed all others at the time, initially completed in 766 with the help of engineers, architects, and experts in measuring. Although an absence of definitive archaeological evidence remains describing the topography and daily life of the city in its infancy, we are able to put together a general understanding from later literary documents.

Baghdad was planned as a Round City, which when completed, consisted of three architectural elements: The outer fortifications, inner residential area of symmetrically arranged streets and the vast inner courtyard where the central mosque and Caliph’s palace residence were situated. A circular city was advantageous to a square city, where in a square city, if a monarch is at the center, some places would be closer than others, while regardless of the divisions everything is equidistant in a circle from the center. The outer fortifications were made up of two concentric walls separated by an intervallum (fasil) and surrounded by a moat. The inner wall was much larger and flanked by roundels. Four gates – Kufa, Damascus, Basra and Khurasan – were created as access points to the inner city equidistant from each other beginning from the outer wall and ending in the central courtyard. Surrounding the central courtyard were also the treasury, arsenal, residences for Al-Mansur children, servants, slaves, public kitchen and various other government agencies – all of which surrounded central courtyard but were not in it. Only a guardhouse and the portico of police occupied the central area with both the palace and mosque, presumably for the Caliph’s security.

Most interestingly, is the Round city of Al-Mansur lacked any luxury establishments or recreation places such as theatres, gymnasiums, gardens, statues and public monuments. Even the Khuld palace and the great palaces of his sons were built outside the Round City. All merchants and commercial activity were centered in Al-Karkh, an adjacent city a short distance from Baghdad. Baghdad imitated the previous model of Sassanid capital, Ctesiphon, and its adjacent commercial center Seleucia across the river. This allowed the affairs of government to be conducted away from the general population. Baghdad showed signs of an early Arab amsar (garrison town), such as Kufa, but possessing a preconceived permanence before its foundation that differentiated it from all other cities. With this, Baghdad cannot be categorized as an integrated city but rather a palace precinct serviced by its commercial surroundings.

People from all over the empire flocked to Baghdad as demand for laborers, artisans, and craftsmen to meet needs created an influx of immigration disrupting the Caliphs plans. The city inevitably expanded beyond its walls as its geographic position made it at the same time a major inland port and a center of religion and culture across the empire – the navel of the universe.


Lassner, J. “The Caliph’s Personal Domain, The City Plan of Baghdad Re-Examined,” in Hourani and Stern, The Islamic City: A Colloqium. Pp. 103-18.

Lassner, J. The topography of Baghdad in the early Middle Ages: text and studies, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1970.

C. Wendell, “Baghdad: Imago Mundi and Other Foundation Lore,” IJMES 2 (1971): 99-128