The City of Peace: Reconstructions of the Round City of Baghdad
Polina Ignatova | Lancaster University
‘I mention Baghdad first of all because it is the heart of Iraq, and, with no equal on earth either in the Orient or the Occident, it is the most extensive city in the area, in importance, in prosperity, in abundance of water, and in healthful climate. It is inhabited by the most diverse individuals, both city people and country folk; people emigrate to it from all countries, both near and far; and everywhere there are men who have preferred it to their own country'
Muslim geographer Ahmad al-Ya'qubi wrote in the ninth century. While today Baghdad is predominantly associated with war, tragedy, and grief, the Baghdad of the eighth and ninth centuries, also known as Madinat-al-Salam, or the City of Peace, was one of the most advanced cities in the world.
Built of the baked brick, the city’s walls have long since crumbled, leaving no trace of Madinat-al-Salam today. Yet it is important to attempt to reconstruct the city, which once was a major architectural achievement of its time, both in terms of planning and scale. For historians, reconstructing the city on the basis of the preserved descriptions, Madinat-al-Salam represents a perfect case study for Muslim urbanism, while modern architects, writers, and artists draw inspiration from its unique cityscape.
Madinat-al-Salam was founded by the second Abbasid Caliph Abu Ja’far Abdallah ibn Muhammad al-Mansur in 762 CE, with the aim of moving the capital closer to Khurasan – the region which had supported the Abbasids in their struggle for power against the previous dynasty – the Umayyads. It was comprised of three perfectly round walls – the outer, the main, and the inner – pierced by four gates, with the Caliph’s residence in the middle. According to the Persian historian Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, before the constructions began, Caliph Al-Mansur commanded to draw the outline of the city in ashes. After walking around the city’s imaginary streets and courtyards, Al-Mansur ordered cotton seeds and oil spread along the outline, which was then set on fire for the Caliph to see the city as a whole.
Al-Mansur was only the second Caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. The city’s outline was modelled on ancient Persian cities, such as Gur (modern Firuzabad), reflecting his ambitions to retain and consolidate power. It is no coincidence that the new city was also located near Ctesiphon – the former capital of the Sasanian empire. Even the building materials were to be obtained from the demolition of Ctesiphon’s palace of Khursaw, but the cost of breaking down the palace walls and then transporting the stone and brick upstream proved to be too high.
Madinat-al-Salam was clearly an Islamic place. Its name was a reminder of a Qur’anic expression (6:127) Dar-el-Salam, ‘the House of Peace’, which refers to Paradise (the name Baghdad comes from the village situated on the site chosen for the new capital). The city’s Kufa gate (South-West) pointed at Kufa, the starting point for pilgrimages, and more importantly, at Mecca. The other three gates were located at regular intervals from Kufa gate and were named by the Caliph himself according to the destinations for which they gave access. The gates were high enough to allow a horseman carrying a banner or a lance to come through, and had double iron doors, so heavy that several men were needed to open and close them. According to the legend narrated by Al-Tabari, the four iron doors in the main wall, and one in Al-Mansur’s palace, were originally crafted for King Solomon by shaytans, or demons.
In the centre of the city, protected by the inner wall, stood, side by side, the palace of the Caliph, also known as the Golden Gate, and the Great Mosque. The palace was crowned by a green dome with a weathervane in the shape of a horseman visible from all quarters of Baghdad. It was believed that the horseman was endowed with magical powers and pointed his lance in the direction from where the enemies of the Caliph were going to appear. Later the figure and the green dome were destroyed by a thunderbolt. On the North-West side were the barracks for the Caliph’s horse-guards and a portico, presumably occupied by the palace governor. The space surrounding these buildings was kept free of houses, but further away stood the palaces of the Caliph’s children, his servants’ dwellings, and public offices. Al-Mansur ordered that no one except himself could enter the central area riding, so everyone else had to leave their horse or mule outside of the inner wall, to the great annoyance of the Caliph’s frail and gout-ridden uncles. One account claims that Al-Mansur also built a secret passage leading to beyond the city walls to provide escape in case of a siege.
The gatehouses in the main wall – the sturdiest of the three – were also topped with green cupola supported by the columns of teak wood. At the top story of each gatehouse, there was a chamber overlooking the city. The one above the Khurasan gate was a favourite resting place of Caliph Al-Mansur. On one occasion, while the Caliph was there an arrow, bearing a warning, was shot up and fell by his feet. Al-Mansur had nothing to fear though – it was believed that no Caliph would die in Baghdad.
Modern historical reconstructions of the Round City of Baghdad range from maps to 3D models and Minecraft cityscapes, while architectural artistic re-interpretations of Madinat-al-Salam demonstrate the importance and vibrancy of its legacy today. Indeed, for centuries the round shape remained the mark of wealth, prestige, and hopes for peace and prosperity. In 1804 French architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux published the project for a round ‘ideal city’ of Chaux – the constructions, however, never began.
The one modern round city project which was completed is Apple Park, constructed in the shape of a ring. In his presentation for the Cupertino City Council, Steve Jobs did not give any particular reasons as to why he had chosen the circle structure except that ‘this is not the cheapest way to build something’. Like Madinat-al-Salam at the time of its prime, Apple Park boasts the most advanced structure of its time. To date, it is the world’s biggest naturally ventilated building covered with the largest panels of curved glass.
Meanwhile, the works of fiction re-imagine the round city to a large extent due to its defence structures. A fortress composed of three concentric circles with a similar four-gate system and a royal palace in its core features in a Japanese manga and anime series Attack on Titan as a stronghold, protecting the humanity from flesh-eating giants. However, even this dark interpretation is not completely without utopian sentiments. Later we learn that the fortress’s main purpose is to keep its inhabitants from engaging in the conflicts outside of the walls, it is also the city of peace, its revealed name – ‘Paradis’ – clearly echoes Madinat-al-Salam’s aspirations to be compared to Dar-al-Salam, or Heaven.
More connections to Baghdad appear in the final season, which features another round structure with four gates crucially as a stronghold belonging to a fictional Mid-East Alliance.
The echoes of the Round City can also be found in modern fantasy novels. The Daevabad Trilogy, by S. A. Chakraborty, brings together many of the literary and folk elements of the Middle Eastern culture. The titular city of Daevabad is described as a perfectly round structure, surrounded by a wall and divided into quarters. As well as being integral to the divisions found in the plot, it also reflects the early Muslim way of building cities with different quarters belonging to different Arab tribes.
While no tangible traces have yet been discovered of the eighth-century Madinat-al-Salam, and as it is currently impossible to conduct excavations in Baghdad, one can only hope that one day material evidence may be discovered. Yet its legacy lives on – through academic works and state emblems, utopian aspirations and ambitious architectural projects, as well as fictional places, the Round City of Baghdad survives in our collective imagination as a symbol of power, prosperity, and peace.
Dr Polina Ignatova has recently completed her PhD in history at Lancaster University and is particularly interested in how knowledge was generated and received in the Middle Ages. She is currently working on developing her thesis into a monograph, provisionally titled 'Raising the Dead: The Meaning and Purpose of Restless Corpses in Medieval English Narratives'. She is also looking at the ways aquatic organisms were studied in the Middle Ages and hopes to develop this research into a postdoctoral project. Click here to find out more.