From the world’s earliest scientific and cultural institution to a neglected building concealed by dust and surrounded by commercial chaos, one building’s historical narrative tells a long tale.
Written by Deema Al-Yahya
It is quite a rare experience to encounter millennial Iraqis who were born outside of Iraq. However, large numbers of Iraqi nationals immigrated out of the country during the 1970s and 80s, and reared families in foreign countries. Accordingly, being born and raised in Amman, Jordan, I was amongst that minority, yet I always yearned to visit the birthplace of my forefathers. That opportunity was at last presented in early 2019.
Arriving in my hometown in Baghdad, the Round City of the Islamic Golden Age, for the first time was particularly enriched by my passion for architecture. Like the other cities I previously visited, such as Dubai, Mumbai, Bangkok, Istanbul and others, I decided to visit the Iraqi capital’s downtown area as per many recommendations. I started with the historic Al-Rasheed Street, one of the oldest and most vibrant streets in Al-Rusafa (the eastern bank of the Tigris River). Along the way, I spotted several historical buildings, such as Al-Haydar Khana Mosque, the finest surviving mosque from the Ottoman Empire in Baghdad; Rifat Chadirji’s iconic Abood building; as well as many dilapidated art nouveau commercial buildings.
Later, I found myself on Al-Mutanabbi Street, where I explored the countless book stores and outdoor bookstalls that have long contributed to this street’s reputation as the centre of Baghdad’s cultural and intellectual community. The centuries-old book market was named after the Abbasid Arab poet Abu al-Tayyib Al-Mutanabbi in 1932. As the famous pedestrian street came to an end, I stumbled upon Souq Al-Saray, a unique double-height market that dates back to the 1660s. Its name came from its functionality as a service provider to staff members and government departments. Nowadays, the market thrives during the school months, as it is famous for stationery. Hours pass by as quickly as minutes in the offshoots of the market’s narrow allies.
As I roamed around, I came across a monumental gate standing nearly 16 metres high, and featuring three conical archways, star-shaped and polygon figures, and topped by the 10-line foundation inscription describing the building’s patron, Al-Mustansir.
The huge locked metal door – which I found to be an imposing addition to the historical site – threw me off guard, but I could not miss the opportunity to explore further and decided to take my chances. After a brief conversation with the security guard, who was kind enough to allow me in, I managed to enter the premises and experience firsthand the historic Al-Mustansiriya, a medieval Abbasid-era gem in the heart of Baghdad.
Upon walking in, visitors will find themselves in a central courtyard surrounded by brick walls and pointed arches and arcades. This space faces what seems to be a renewed fountain of the water-powered alarm clock from 1235 that once announced the times of prayer, as well as the time of day. It is considered a reflection of the advancement of knowledge amongst Arabs during the period of its construction.
Apart from a group of graduates doing a photoshoot there, which I assumed got in the same way I did, the building was empty and quiet, but that was not the case a few centuries ago. Taking it back to 1227, the 37th Abbasid Caliph al-Mustansir Billah (r. 1226-1242) commissioned the construction of one of the world’s earliest centres of learning, which was to provide a universal system of higher education to the entire region. Students journeyed from various Iraqi cities and Islamic regions, such as Andalusia, Egypt, the Levant, Isfahan and Khorasan to be taught at Al-Madrasah Al-Mustansiriya by the world’s finest educators in theology, literature, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, jurisprudence, grammar and, most prominently, Islamic law. The academic period for students at Al-Mustansiriya extended up to 10 years, after which graduates obtained a graduation document that qualified them to work in the state’s office.
Ibn Inabah highlighted Al-Mustansir’s passion for sciences and knowledge in his book Umdat Al-Talib Fi Ansab Al ‘Abi Talib (1424), in which he mentioned that the Abbasid Caliphate allocated 80,000 precious volumes of various sciences to Al Madrasah’s library, which was a reference for students at the time. The collection was said to have later grown to 400,000 rare books and valuable volumes. The library was also visited by many scholars and jurists, who benefited from its scientific and literary treasures for nearly two centuries. Unfortunately, the library was ravaged during the Mongol raid and occupation of Baghdad.
In addition to the school, Al-Mustansir honoured people of knowledge and religion, established mosques, schools and hospitals, and worked to gather armies to defend the Islamic state, all of which crowned Baghdad to be the most prominent and high-ranking regional centre of culture and education.
Located perfectly on a site that overlooks the Tigris River, the school’s construction lasted six years (1227-1233). Spanning an area of 4836 square metres, the plan was arranged around a large rectangular courtyard and featured four iwans that stretch across two stories.
The brilliance of the architecture in this establishment goes far beyond function. Each school of orthodox Islamic law was designated to an iwan: the right quarter of the qibla was for the followers of the Shafi’i school of thought, the left was for the followers of the Hanafi school, the quarter to the right of the entrance was for the Hanbalis, and lastly, the quarter on the left was for the Malikis.
In addition, Al-Madrasah Al-Mustansiriya included a variety of buildings, such as a hammam, public hospital, pharmacy, food storage site and kitchen. There was also a space designated for student residences. The madrasah provided food, lodging, clothing and a monthly stipend for its students.
The architecture of the historic Al-Mustansiriya was a significant example of the Islamic architectural development of the Round City.
Al-Mustansiriya’s design incorporated various materials, textures and patterns. The iwans and the arched doorways were framed with plain vertical and horizontal strips of brick. Patterns were used extensively, as were arabesque-sculpted terracotta, concentric mouldings with variations of geometric stars and polygons, masonry work and carved bricks featuring various vegetation themes that recall earlier Abbasid motifs.
The school’s engineer, Muayad Al-Din Abu Talib Muhammad bin Al-Alqami, supervised its architecture, and when the building was completed, its inauguration was celebrated with a great ceremony on a memorable day attended by the Caliph himself.
Inside Al-Mustansiriya: Architecture with Aesthetic Virtues
Walking into the building, it came as a surprise that, in contrast to the exterior, the detailing and motifs were very minimal. The remains of construction tools from recent maintenance work and the torn books and polaroids of the historical building in one of the madrasah’s halls made it obvious that the campus has not seen many visitors for quite some time. Despite that, the architecture of the place was louder than anything else, overshadowing the chaos and negligence of the city beyond the gates.
The skylights in the halls and narrow corridors allowed natural cooling, heating and lighting for the school’s attendees during its heyday, while the double-height ceilings provided better ventilation and additional lighting, along with the enhanced feeling of spaciousness. Bricks were used inside and out, which virtually required no maintenance, saved energy, absorbed exterior noise and provided protection from fire, wind and hail. The ground floor included 40 halls, while the first floor had 36 that featured balconies overlooking the courtyard, providing an extra source of ventilation and natural light.
The structural system used was the wall bearing system, which relied on thick walls implemented with bricks to bear the weight of the ceilings, which were carried out by vaults constructed with bricks as well.
I was in total awe of this place, and I wondered how this interior architecture from 800 years ago could be so simple yet so ahead of its time. The skylights and high ceilings provided such long-lasting sustainability, and in witnessing this, I recalled a quote by the pioneer of modern architecture, Le Corbusier: “Space, light, and order. Those are the things that men need as much as some bread and a place to sleep”.
Unfolding the layers of history
Though Al-Madrasah Al-Mustansiriya did technically survive the Mongol invasion in 1258, the students and educators did not. Damage to the building was later resolved, but its scientific and educational role was suspended during the attack, and eventually ended four centuries later in 1638. In 1534, the Ottoman Turks seized control, and they utilised Al-Mustansiriya for mostly military purposes. Later, in the 18th century, the building was used as a caravanserai for traders passing through Baghdad.
The Ottomans remained in power until the British accession in the early 20th century. The Iraqi Directorate of Antiquities regained ownership of Al-Madrasah Al-Mustansiriya in 1940, when it initiated a campaign to restore the historical monument and clear the surrounding area from informal shops and structures. The complex has been reconstructed several times, and in 1960, the restored madrasah became a museum for Islamic art and culture and was called The Museum of Islamic Art in Baghdad. This was followed by another maintenance campaign in 1973.
Since then the complex has been in a constant state of maintenance. The building was open to visitors in the 1980s and 90s, but declined in prominence after the US-invasion in 2003.
Today, its doors remain closed despite it being amongst the capital’s most vibrant spots, and if the proper support was given, it could once again become a cultural centre for locals and visitors.
Had I not been introduced to it during my college years, I would have failed to notice the presence of such a historic establishment beneath all the commercial chaos that now surrounds it, such as shops and trolleys. Ultimately Al-Madrasah Al-Mustansiriya is considered one of the eternal architectural masterpieces of Baghdad, embodying the Iraqi architectural excellence in the field of Islamic educational buildings.
This article, images and video are by Deema Al-Yahya, an Iraqi architect and photographer based in Amman, Jordan. A Tamayouz Award and JEA Competition winner, she is currently practicing architecture and interior design in Jordan, along with her own photography art work on @studeeio.