The ancient city Madinat al-Salam - Baghdad’s Round City

The Punctilious Planning, Design, and Construction of the Ancient Round City of Baghdad


Baghdad is the capital of Iraq but whereas the country of Iraq was founded only in 1958, the city of Baghdad had been established about 1200 years before by the Abbasids. Baghdad was built originally as a round city and was considered to be an architectural marvel at that time. It was soon overshadowed, however, by the settlement that was established on the opposite side of the river, which developed into the city’s core and remains so till this day.

The Round City of Baghdad went into decline in the centuries following the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate, and the last traces of this ancient city were destroyed during the 19 th century.

Establishing the Round City

According to the archaeological evidence, various peoples had settled on the site of Baghdad prior to the conquest of Mesopotamia by the Arabs in 637. Prior to the founding of the Round City, however, there was no major settlement at the site. In 750, the Abbasid Revolution broke out and successfully overthrew the ruling Umayyad Caliphate . In the decade that followed, the Abbasids ruled from Kufa, a city to the south of Baghdad that had been founded by the Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second of the Rashidun caliphs.

In 762, the second Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur, decided to establish a new capital for the Abbasid Caliphate. This was a meticulously planned project, from the selection of the site all the way to the construction of the city, and it seems that al-Mansur was heavily involved in this endeavor. For example, the caliph is recorded to have sailed up and down the Tigris River in order to find a suitable location for his new capital.

The Round City of Baghdad in the time of Caliph al-Mansur

The Round City of Baghdad in the time of Caliph al-Mansur. (Cplakidas / Public Domain )

Eventually, al-Mansur chose a site on the west bank of the Tigris River, not far from the Sarat Canal, a network of waterways that connected the Tigris to the Euphrates. As the canal was deep enough to accommodate commercial traffic, al-Mansur foresaw that his new capital would be perfectly positioned to exploit both the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Once the site had been selected, the design of the city was made. Once again, credit for this work is given to al-Mansur, who is said to have designed the city himself. The caliph chose to build a round city. It has been speculated that this design may have been inspired by Central Asian ideas on urban planning, or by the geometric writings of the Greek mathematician Euclid (whom the caliph admired), or that it held some symbolic meaning. In any case, a round wall required less resources to build and was a better structure for defensive purposes.

Structure of the Round City

Within the massively fortified double outer walls were two additional layers of walls, thus making the Round City a city of three concentric circles. The immensity of the walls is described by Al Khatib al-Baghdadi, a Muslim scholar and who lived during the 11 th century. al-Baghdadi mentions that each wall consisted of 162,000 bricks for the first third of its height, 150,000 for the second third, and 140,000 for the final third. Additionally, al-Baghdadi notes that the outer wall rose to a height of 24 meters (80 feet), and was crowned with battlements, and flanked by bastions.

Reproduction of a gate of the round city of Madinat al-Salam

Reproduction of a gate of the round city of Madinat al-Salam. (Nicolle McBride / histoireislamique)

The city was divided into quarters by four straight roads that ran from the city’s center to the four gates in the outer walls and onwards to the various parts of the Abbasid Caliphate. At the center of the city was the mosque and the caliph’s Golden Gate Palace. It was also in this circle, though on its margins, that the palaces of the royal family, barracks for the horse guards, the royal kitchens, and the homes for the caliph’s officials and servants, were built. The two outer circles were occupied by residential and commercial buildings.

Once the design was finished, al-Mansur had workers trace the plans of his city in the ground with cinders. Having checked the work and thoroughly satisfied, the caliph showed his approval by ordering cotton balls soaked in naphtha to be placed along the outlines, thus setting it alight. Construction of al-Mansur’s Round City commenced on the 30 th of July 762, as this was determined by the royal astrologers to be the most auspicious day for the building work to begin. The Round City was completed four years later, in 766.

The plan for the round city included four straight roads that ran from the city’s center to the four gates in the outer walls

The plan for the round city included four straight roads that ran from the city’s center to the four gates in the outer walls. (GifTagger / Public Domain )

The Round City is Completed and Named

al-Mansur named his newly built city Madinat al-Salam (meaning ‘ City of Peace ’). Not long after this city was constructed, a complementary settlement known as Mu’asker al-Mahdi was established on the east bank of the Tigris. Although a round city had many advantages one of its major flaws is that space was limited. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that this was now the heart of the Abbasid Caliphate and many people came to settle in the city. Thus, the creation of Mu’asker al-Mahdi was necessary. In addition, in 773, the markets were relocated by al-Mansur outside the city walls, in the area of al-Karkh.

The Round City was the heart of the Abbasid Caliphate

The Round City was the heart of the Abbasid Caliphate. (Paolo Porsia / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The Madinat al-Salam did not retain its status as the heart of Baghdad for long. Between 836 and 892, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate was transferred to Samarra, due to problems with the caliph’s Turkish troops in Baghdad. When the caliph, al-Mu’tamid, returned, he decided not to stay in the Madinat al-Salam and settled on the eastern side of the river.

The city that al-Mansur built continued to be inhabited in the centuries that followed. In 1258, Baghdad fell to the Mongols and the Abbasid Caliphate came to an end, though a branch of the family continued to serve as caliphs in Cairo under the Mamluks. As the Abbasids were no longer in control of Baghdad, the city, including the Madinat al-Salam gradually went into decline. Finally, the last traces of the Madinat al-Salam were razed to the ground by Midhat Pasha, the reformist Ottoman governor, during the early 1870s.

Top image: The ancient city Madinat al-Salam - Baghdad’s Round City. Source: histoireislamique.

By Ḏḥwty


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