City of Peace, City of Blood--A History in Thirteen Centuries


By Justin Marozzi

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Over thirteen centuries, Baghdad has enjoyed both cultural and commercial pre-eminence, boasting artistic and intellectual sophistication and an economy once the envy of the world. It was here, in the time of the Caliphs, that the Thousand and One Nights were set. Yet it has also been a city of great hardships, beset by epidemics, famines, floods, and numerous foreign invasions which have brought terrible bloodshed. This is the history of its storytellers and its tyrants, of its philosophers and conquerors.

Here, in the first new history of Baghdad in nearly 80 years, Justin Marozzi brings to life the whole tumultuous history of what was once the greatest capital on earth.



The old man strokes his beard and shakes his head. He is a bookseller on Mutanabbi Street in the dusty heart of old Baghdad, yards away from the River Tigris. ‘The Iranians are controlling us again,’ he says, swatting flies from his piles of books. ‘We got rid of the Turks and the British, we got rid of the dictator Saddam, we got rid of the Americans, and now it’s the Iranians. They’re the ones running Iraq,* making trouble for us and causing divisions between Sunni and Shia. By God, some things never change.’

The old man’s hostility towards Iraq’s neighbour reflects the historical antagonism between largely Sunni Arabs and Shia Iranians. Conspiracies originating in Tehran are a common currency in this city of seven million. Yet what he does not say during his toothy harangue against the old enemy is that, had it not been for some concerted Iranian meddling and intriguing in Iraq 1,300 years ago, Baghdad, glory of the Islamic Empire, once the cultural lodestar of the world and centre of the greatest civilization on earth, not to mention the bookseller’s home for eight decades, might never have existed.


The revolution had been smouldering since around 719, when plotters in the holy Muslim town of Kufa on the banks of the Euphrates in what is now southern Iraq – today’s Iraq was divided into the eastern provinces of Jazira, Jibal, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Iraq – lit the first spark by sending a clandestine mission to Humayma, an unremarkable little village south of the Dead Sea in Jordan. Here, among the orchards and olive groves of a small country estate, a messenger disguised as a perfume-seller fanned the tiny flames of opposition to the Umayyad Dynasty, rulers of the Islamic Empire from their capital of Damascus, whispering rebellion into the ears of a distant descendant of the Prophet Mohammed’s family.

In time, further secret missions were dispatched from Kufa to Khorasan, then the easternmost corner of the Islamic world, a wide-skied region that today stretches across eastern Iran into Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Khorasan, the western half of which was once the ancient region of Parthia, seat first of the Parthian Empire (247 BCAD 24) then a province of the Persian, was a vast world of steppe studded with the rich and storied oasis cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Nishapur, Herat, Balkh and Merv, its high-walled capital. Here too were the snow-covered mountain passes, and the waters of the Oxus and Herat Rivers, crashing down from the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush (known to later Arab geographers as the Stony Girdles of the Earth) to water the Kizil Kum (Red Sand) and Kara Kum (Black Sand) deserts. Captured by Alexander the Great in antiquity, Khorasan fell in 650 to the Arab armies from the Arabian peninsula blazing a trail of Islamic conquest. Over the next decades it became a melting-pot, with the Arab conquerors settling alongside the newly converted Turkish nomads, Iranian princes, dirt-poor peasants, prosperous Soghdian merchants and the masters of the Silk Road caravan trade. All were ruled by the Umayyad caliphs from distant Damascus.

After the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632, a succession of four caliphs – Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman and Ali – led the emerging Islamic world until 661, when Muawia, brother-in-law of the Prophet and governor of Syria, seized power and established the hereditary Umayyad Dynasty, which traced its origins to Mecca. Through its expansion of Islamic dominions from its capital of Damascus, it came to rule one of the greatest empires the world had ever seen, extending from North Africa and the Iberian peninsula in the west to Central Asia and the borders of China and India in the east in a relentless procession of military conquests. But over time, opposition to the increasingly autocratic Umayyads grew within Khorasan, encouraged by reports of their astonishingly luxurious lifestyle and neglect of the faith brought by the secret missions from Kufa; here increasing dissent led to a number of armed revolts that were quickly crushed by Syrian troops. The rebels were backing a man described with calculated vagueness as a member of the Prophet Mohammed’s family. Oaths of allegiance were sworn to Al Rida min al Mohammed (An Acceptable Member of the House of the Prophet). This ruse, which was central to ‘the earliest and most subtle propagandist movement in political Islam’, was devised to widen the appeal of the rebellion to the Shiat Ali – or the Shia, to use the common abbreviation – the followers of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed and the fourth caliph, murdered in 661.1

The Shia considered Ali the first caliph and his uncrowned descendants Mohammed’s rightful successors; while orthodox Muslims, or the Sunni, the Ahl al Sunnah wal Jamaah (The People of the Traditions of the Prophet and the Consensus of the Community), instead regarded Ali as the fourth caliph, and last of the Rashidun, or the ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’. This difference was the very root of the Sunni–Shia schism. The Shia, both in Kufa and Khorasan, regarded themselves as the proper inheritors of Mohammed’s political and spiritual power. In other words they were, in their own minds at least, those who would most likely benefit from the overthrow of the Umayyads.

The Shia, who were particularly numerous in the Umayyad province of Iraq, regarded the Damascus-based dynasty as Sunni usurpers of a caliphate that should have been ruled by the descendants of Ali. But, in fact, the loyalty of the travelling revolutionaries, though they did not declare it publicly at this time, was to the Abbasids, descendants of the Prophet’s uncle Abbas. Although the Abbasid blood ties with the Prophet were flimsy by comparison with those of the House of Ali, their powers of organization had no equal.

In low voices the agents from Iraq promised an Islamic revival, a new dawn in which Arabs and non-Arabs would be equal and united as fellow Muslims, not divided according to the Umayyad tendency to favour the Arab tribes over all other races, irrespective of whether they had converted to the true faith. The message fell on fertile soil. The divisions between the southern Arabian Kalb tribes and the northern Arabian Kays tribes, rivalries that were bedevilling successions and causing bloodshed across the Islamic world, were already consuming the Umayyad Dynasty from within.

The Abbasid movement spread its message of revolution along the trade and pilgrimage routes to Khorasan through a discreet network of supporters who adopted roles that allowed them to travel without attracting undue suspicion: most were merchants and traders, or claimed to be so, riding along the old caravan routes. They were perfume-sellers and pedlars, artisans, saddle-makers, apothecaries and arrow-makers. Between them, the seventy or so Abbasid missionaries known today represented twenty-five tribes, the entire spectrum of the Arab tribes settled in Khorasan.

Over the following decades, hatred of the Umayyads and their perceived unjust rule grew, in Khorasan and in Iraq. By the 740s the dynasty that had proudly built the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and had led Islam’s wars against infidel Byzantium was facing full-scale rebellion in the east. In 744 three caliphs came and went, and a fourth, Marwan II, was appointed amid the chaos. His partiality for the Kays tribes further alienated the Kalb tribes of Khorasan, driving greater numbers of them into the arms of the Abbasid plotters, to the alarm of Nasr, the Umayyad governor of Khorasan. ‘I see coals glowing amongst the embers, they want but little to burst into blaze,’ he wrote to Marwan, warning of impending disaster. ‘Fire springs from the rubbing of sticks, and warfare from the wagging of tongues.’2 On 15 June 747 the hitherto covert Abbasid insurgents revealed their true colours when they unfurled their black banners for the first time on the outskirts of Merv. Thousands flocked to take up arms.

The moral leader of this coalition of Shia, Khorasanian and Abbasid forces was Abu al Abbas, great-great-grandson of Abbas, the Prophet’s uncle. His military chief was Abu Muslim, a shadowy figure of unknown origin who won fame on the battlefield in a stirring series of victories over the Umayyads; and infamy off it, having reputedly killed 60,000 people in cold blood.3 Abu Muslim established himself first as the essential linchpin between Kufa and Khorasan, then as the Abbasid movement’s pre-eminent military leader, and early in 748 he made himself master of Merv and sent his armies west.

A year later a coup was engineered in Kufa, allowing the Abbasid revolutionaries to enter the city and take control. Even at this stage there was still no sign of the Abbasid family members, who had been ordered into hiding by Abu Salama, the temporizing head of the Kufa conspirators. Eventually, just as rumours were swirling that a member of the House of Ali was about to be appointed caliph, local people directed the same soldiers to the Abbasid safe house, where Abu al Abbas was found. In the autumn of 749, although the Umayyads had yet to be finally defeated, he was declared caliph, the Amir al Muminin, or Commander of the Faithful.

In January 750 the Umayyad army of Marwan II met Abbasid forces on the banks of the Great Zab River, a tributary of the Tigris in northern Iraq. With an army of 300,000, the Umayyads were said by the tenth-century Byzantine monk and chronicler Theophanes the Confessor to have outnumbered the Abbasids massively. Borrowing a battle tactic they had observed Umayyad forces use, the Abbasids formed a spear wall, crouching down on one knee with lances pointed directly at their enemy. Marwan’s cavalry charged confidently, but the wall held and countless cavalrymen were impaled on Abbasid lances. Of those who were left, many deserted and more took flight. ‘One man was seen pursuing a thousand, and two making ten thousand run,’ wrote Theophanes.4 Marwan had the pontoon bridge across the river cut adrift to prevent his soldiers fleeing the battlefield, a decision that condemned huge numbers of them to death by drowning in the waters of the Zab. The rout was soon complete.

Marwan fled across Iraq, then into Syria, finally into Egypt. Damascus fell in April 750, and the fugitive Umayyad caliph was finally hunted down to the Egyptian town of Busir in August. His head was sent back to Abu al Abbas, whose caliphal epithet or throne title was Al Saffa, Shedder of Blood. According to the ninth-century historian Mohammed ibn Jarir al Tabari, the fall of the Umayyad Dynasty was announced on the steps of the mosque in Kufa. The words were those of Daud, the brother of Abu al Abbas:

Praise be to God, with gratitude, gratitude and yet more gratitude! Praise to him who has caused our enemies to perish and brought to us our inheritance from Mohammed our Prophet, God’s blessing and peace be upon him! O ye people, now are the dark nights of the world put to flight, its covering lifted, now light breaks in the earth and the heavens, and the sun rises from the springs of day while the moon ascends from its appointed place . . . God has let you behold what you were awaiting and looking forward to. He has made manifest among you a caliph of the clan of Hashim, brightening thereby your faces and making you to prevail over the army of Syria, and transferring the sovereignty and the glory of Islam to you.5

In another version of a speech whose authenticity is difficult to establish, the fever-racked caliph struggles through his opening address after receiving the oath of allegiance and concludes with the warning, ‘Hold yourselves ready, for I am the pitiless blood-shedder and the destroying avenger.’6

The once-mighty Umayyad caliphate, which had pushed the frontiers of the Muslim Empire to the shores of the Atlantic in the west and the mountains of Afghanistan in the east, had been completely extinguished, and the Islamic world had a new leader.

Saffa lived up to his name admirably. He devoted most of his brief caliphate to hunting down and butchering the surviving male members of the Umayyad family with a dedication that was never less than obsessive. Only one managed to escape the slaughter and sloped off west to found the Umayyad amirate of Cordoba in the Iberian peninsula, a tiny sliver of the Muslim world. Al Makrizi, the fifteenth-century Egyptian historian, provides some grim detail of this vengeful campaign. Saffa ordered Umayyad tombs to be dug up and destroyed; exhumed corpses were ‘scourged with whips and then crucified’; skulls were used as target practice until smashed into pieces before the remaining Umayyad family body parts were gathered together and burnt to ashes.7

In 754, within four years of his triumph and still in his early thirties, the Shedder of Blood succumbed to smallpox. On his death, his brother Abu Jafar, who took the throne title of Al Mansur (The Victorious), was proclaimed caliph. The brevity of Saffa’s intensely violent reign belied his exceptionally long and glorious legacy, which lasted more than 500 years. The world-changing Abbasid Dynasty, whose extraordinary achievements are celebrated in the tatty volumes of Mutanabbi Street’s grumpy bookseller, had been born.

* The word Iraq is thought to trace its earliest origins to the Sumerian city of Uruk, dating back to around 4000 BC, via the Aramaic Erech and possibly Persian Eragh (‘The name al-Iraq, for all its Arabic appearance, is derived from Middle Persian eragh “lowlands”,’ states The Cambridge History of Iran). Lower Mesopotamia, as the Ancient Greeks referred to the Land between the Rivers, has been called Iraq – from the Arabic for vein or root – since ancient times. During the medieval period the terms Iraq Arabi (Arabian Iraq) and Iraq Ajemi (Iranian Iraq) denoted Lower Mesopotamia and central and western Iran respectively. In 1921 the three Ottoman vilayets, or provinces, of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul were united to form the modern state of Iraq.


The Caliph and His Capital: Mansur and the Foundation of Baghdad (750–75)

               Baghdad, in the heart of Islam, is the city of well-being; in it are the talents of which men speak, and elegance and courtesy. Its winds are balmy and its science penetrating. In it are to be found the best of everything and all that is beautiful. From it comes everything worthy of consideration, and every elegance is drawn towards it. All hearts belong to it, all wars are against it and every hand is raised to defend it. It is too renowned to need description, more glorious than we could possibly portray it, and is indeed beyond praise.1

Mukaddasi, The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions (tenth century)

The caliph needed a capital – a new city to become the permanent home of the Abbasid Empire and the headquarters of the Dar al Islam, the Muslim world, a dominion of more than five million square miles stretching from Morocco and the Iberian peninsula to Central Asia.

Until 762, rather like the original Arab tribes that had surged out of Arabia during the great conquests of the seventh century, the Abbasids had shifted from base to base like desert nomads. In the short time since they had displaced the Umayyads as leaders of the Islamic world in 750, they had already made use of four capitals. After a brief and unsatisfactory residence at Kasr ibn Hubayra on the Euphrates, halfway between Kufa and Baghdad, Mansur’s predecessor Saffa had built himself a hashimiya, or palace headquarters, next to the old Persian town of Anbar on the eastern side of the Euphrates, in what is today western Iraq. The local population there had not taken kindly to the name hashimiya, a reference to the Abbasid family’s ancestors, and defiantly had continued to refer to the place by its old name, Ibn Hubayra, taken from Yazid ibn Umar ibn Hubayra, the last Umayyad governor of Iraq. Saffa promptly moved to a new site opposite the castle.

Mansur the Victorious had built Madinat al Mansur, the City of Mansur, at Madinat ibn Hubayra, close – too close, in fact – to the rebellious and extremist Shia stronghold of Kufa. A bloody riot within his palace in 758, triggered by Persian fanatics who insisted on worshipping him as their god and then rose up against him when he dismissed them as heretics, must have gone a long way towards persuading him that the quest to find a more suitable base must continue.

To the west, the powerful residual loyalty of Damascus to the displaced Umayyad Dynasty made it out of the question as a potential capital. It was, besides, too far from Persia, which provided the bulwark of Abbasid military power, and too close to the Greek frontier, as the Byzantine incursions that had challenged Umayyad power during its final years had repeatedly demonstrated. After the heyday of Arab expansion in the seventh and eighth centuries, largely although not exclusively in the west, future Islamic conquests were more likely in the east, as was the assimilation of lands already won beyond the Oxus River, so it was in more central Mesopotamia, the Land between the Rivers, that the second Abbasid caliph directed his search. To preserve its independence, the new capital needed to be sufficiently removed from both Basra and Kufa, the two Arab cities that had been founded in Mesopotamia as garrisons for troops during the first century of the Arab conquests.

Mansur was not a man to delegate such an important task to his officials. He led the reconnaissance for his new capital himself, sailing up and down the Tigris from Jarjarya to Mosul, scouting for the most suitable site with his characteristic attention to detail. In itself there was nothing very original in such a search: settlement along this river, which together with the Euphrates once watered ancient Mesopotamia, had taken place from the earliest times. Mesopotamia was able to sustain empires thanks only to its prodigious fertility, remarked on wonderingly in the fifth century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus, who also noted the network of irrigation canals on which it depended.* This extensive and highly sophisticated system of water channels required regular maintenance.

In fact, though Mansur founded the city, settlement at Baghdad long pre-dated the Abbasid caliph. There are a number of hints and suggestions that a community existed here in ancient times, as one would expect of such a favourable location on the Tigris amid productive land. The mighty Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I, an Old Testament, slash-and-burn conqueror mentioned in the Book of Kings and the Book of Chronicles (he styled himself ‘powerful king, king of hosts, who has no rival, king of the four quarters (of the world)’), certainly campaigned in this area sometime around 1100 BC, and his son is reported to have captured a place called Baghdad, then of little consequence.2 A name very similar to Baghdad also appears in the geographical catalogues of the legendary Assyrian king Sardanapalus around the seventh century BC. In 1848 the distinguished orientalist Sir Henry Rawlinson, the then British political agent in Ottoman Arabia and later president of the Royal Geographical Society, discovered Babylonian bricks lining the western bank of the Tigris at Baghdad: these bore the royal stamp of another Old Testament anti-hero, Nebuchadnezzar, the Jew-slaying, temple-smashing, gold-loving despot of the sixth century BC. It is not clear, however, whether these had been moved to Baghdad after the Babylonian king’s reign, perhaps even by Mansur.

Twenty miles to the south of the future site of Baghdad (and close enough to appeal as a source of building materials for Mansur’s new city) lay the evocative ruins of Ctesiphon, the once magnificent imperial capital of the Parthian and later Sassanid Empires, an important city since the first century BC, whose ancient Persian kings had large royal parks and gardens a short sail to the north in the area that became Baghdad. Ctesiphon was built across the river from more ancient Seleucia, founded in the late fourth century BC, which had been one of the great cities of the world in Hellenistic and Roman times. The Arabs referred to the conurbation of Seleucia–Ctesiphon as Al Madain (The Cities). The almost unbroken string of towns and villages along the Tigris gave rise, many centuries later, to the Baghdadi expression that ‘A cock could hop from house to house, all the way to Basra.’3

A millennium after Nebuchadnezzar, there were communities of Nestorian monks living here, who appear in a number of the foundation legends of Baghdad.* During the seventh century, under the late Sassanid Empire, it was a thriving Iranian settlement with a monthly market, entering the annals of Arab history ingloriously in 634 when an army of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, swooped on Souk Baghdad (Baghdad Market), as it was then known, plundered every piece of gold and silver they could find before galloping off into the desert and leaving the devastated community to sink back into obscurity, until Mansur’s epoch-making arrival in 762. It was the first recorded instance of the violence, bloodshed and slaughter that would become tragically dominant features of the city’s life in the centuries to follow.

In choosing the Tigris over the Euphrates, Mansur proved himself a shrewd student of geography. First, the Euphrates was the westernmost limit of this spectacularly fertile land. Unlike the Tigris, which was surrounded by productive, irrigated land, the barren sands of Arabia swept right up to its western edge. It was the waters of the Euphrates, through a network of canals, some of which dated to Sumerian times from around 4000 BC, that irrigated the agricultural land between the two great rivers, leaving the waters of the Tigris to be used for the country to its east, along the length of modern Iraq from the Arabian desert and the gates of the Persian Gulf in the south to the snowy peaks of Kurdistan in the north. There was a further disadvantage to the Euphrates that would have impressed itself firmly on the Abbasid caliph’s mind: like the Tigris, its course has changed over the centuries, and at this time it disgorged into the murky shallows known as the Great Swamp a little north of Babylon; subsequently, it was impossible to navigate as far as the Persian Gulf (though today the confluence of the two rivers at Kurna, north-west of Basra, forms the Shatt al Arab, which empties into the Gulf). Though the Tigris also discharged its waters into the same swamp, it was nevertheless navigable to the southern coast via a series of channels. The benefits to commerce and communications were self-evident.

The ninth-century Arab geographer and historian Yakubi, who compiled The Book of Countries, emphasized Baghdad’s links to the outside world in suitably portentous comments attributed to Mansur:

Assuredly, this island [of land between the rivers], bounded on the east by the Tigris and on the west by the Euphrates, will prove to be the crossroads of the universe. Ships on the Tigris, coming from Wasit, Basra, Obolla, Ahwaz, Fars, Oman, Yamama, Bahrain and neighbouring countries, will land and drop anchor there. It is there that merchandise will arrive by way of the Tigris from Mosul, Azerbaijan and Armenia; that too will be the destination of products transported by ship on the Euphrates from Rakka, Syria, the borderlands of Asia Minor, Egypt and the Maghreb. This city will also be on the route of the peoples of Jebel, Isfahan and the provinces of Khorasan. By God I will build this capital and live in it all my life. It will be the residence of my descendants. It will certainly be the most prosperous city in the world.4

Mukaddasi, the tenth-century Arab geographer and author of the charmingly titled The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions, provided another retrospective endorsement of the site, reporting a whole hearted recommendation offered by one of the district notables to Mansur:

We consider it advisable that you settle [here] . . . Thus you will be surrounded by palms and be close to water. If, then, one of the districts should suffer from drought, or its cultivation be delayed, another would relieve the situation. Moreover, you are on the banks of al Sarat [a famous canal dating back to Persian times, part of the system of waterways linking the two great rivers], so that supplies can come to you by the vessels plying the Euphrates; the caravans from Egypt and Syria will come across the desert, goods of all different kinds from China will reach you by sea, and from the Byzantines and al Mosul by the Tigris. Again, you are in a place between rivers so that the enemy cannot reach you except by ship, or by bridge, by way of the Tigris or the Euphrates.5

The Nestorian monks are supposed to have confirmed to Mansur that the area also enjoyed a favourable climate. Unlike much of the region, its summers were both comparatively cool (something difficult to imagine today, as the mercury inches towards a head-roasting 50 degrees in August) and dry, sparing the district the fatal ravages of fever and mosquito-borne malaria that were so common in Basra and along the Euphrates. Nights were pleasant. The Baghdadi tradition of families taking to the roof to sleep beneath the stars during the hot summer months, which continues to this day, is as old as the city itself.


The name Baghdad is probably Persian in origin. Yakut, the thirteenth-century Syrian author of the Geographical Dictionary and perhaps the greatest geographer of the Middle Ages, speculated that it derived from bagh, meaning garden, and dad, the name of the man who owned the garden. Alternatively, Bagh might have been the name of an idol, and dad a gift, so that the name referred to ‘The Gift of the Idol Bagh’. Writing in 1900, the orientalist Guy Le Strange, author of a painstaking study of Abbasid Baghdad, laid the matter to rest. ‘The true etymology . . . of the name would appear to be from the two ancient Persian words Bagh, “God”, and Dadh, meaning “founded” or “foundation” – whence Baghdad would have signified the city “Founded by God”.’6


On Sale
Nov 4, 2014
Page Count
536 pages
Da Capo Press

Justin Marozzi

About the Author

Justin Marozzi is a former Financial Times and Economist foreign correspondent. He has spent much of the past decade living and working in Iraq. His previous books include the highly acclaimed Tamerlane and The Way of Herodotus. He lives in London.

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