Cities in Iraq: Baghdad

Cities in Iraq: Baghdad Last updated on Tuesday 20th April 2010

Founded in AD762 by Abu Jafar al-Mansur, the second Abbasid caliph, the city of Baghdad was originally built on the west bank of the Tigris River.

Circular walls enclosed the city and, although its original name was Madinat as-Salam (City of Peace), it was more popularly known as the Round City. At the city's centre were the caliph's palace and the grand mosque, with four roads radiating out from these central buildings. The city's gradual expansion caused it to extend beyond the original walls, and as it spread across to the river's east bank, its two halves were joined by a bridge built of boats. The eastern section was called Rusafah.

During the 8th and 9th centuries AD, Baghdad was at the height of its commercial prosperity. Under the rule of the caliphs Mahdi and Harun, it became the centre of many important trade routes between the east and west. Its many impressive buildings and magnificent gardens gave it the reputation of the richest and most beautiful city in the world.

In the latter half of the 9th century, the Abbasid caliphs' power was weakened by internal strife leading to civil war. When the Mongols invaded Baghdad in the 13th century, the caliph was murdered, many buildings and the irrigation system were destroyed, thus adding dramatically to the city's decline. When in 1534 it became part of the Ottoman Empire, the city fell into obscurity and neglect for several hundred years.

Improvements were made on a modest scale at the beginning of the 20th century, when some schools and hospitals were built. The oil boom of the 70s brought increased wealth to Baghdad and the city began to develop on a much more impressive scale, with the construction of middle-class residential areas. New sewers and water lines were laid and above ground a network of super-highways was constructed, as well as a new airport. All such improvements, however, were brought to an abrupt halt by the war with Iran in the 80s and by the Gulf War which immediately followed it.

An added bonus of the large-scale construction work in the late 70s was the discovery of many buried artefacts, dating back to a more glorious past. These have been removed to Baghdad's many excellent museums. It is not known, as the time of writing, to what extent these still exist.

Today's city is perhaps not as impressive as those images of old Baghdad which may be conjured by the imagination. It stretches along both banks of the Tigris, with the district of Rusafah on the east and the district of Karkh on the west. Eleven bridges connect the two halves of the city.

Tahrir Square, standing on the river's left bank at one end of the Jumhuriyah Bridge, is the heart of Baghdad and from it radiate the city's main streets. Saddam Hussein's picture, mostly larger than life, is displayed everywhere.

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