Madinat as-Salam: The history of Baghdad’s first urban plan

About the Author
Rima Alsammarae
Rima Alsammarae is an architecture and culture journalist based in Dubai, UAE. She is the co-founder of Round City, as well as a project manager for Tamayouz Excellence Award.
About Red Envelope
Red Envelope is a series of journals published by LWK + PARTNERS and is a collaborative project between the practice and Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae.

Conceived in 762, Al-Mansur’s ‘Round City’ was an incredible example of early urban design, setting the stage for the Islamic Empire’s golden era. While today, Baghdad has undoubtedly grown beyond the double-ring masterplan, its original layout was then the region’s largest construction project, providing a throne from which the Abbasid dynasty reigned.

As the story goes, Al-Mansur “The Victorious” carried the burden of establishing the Abbasid caliphate, despite being the second caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. Following his brothers’ successive deaths and the official collapse of the Umayyads, the keen military strategist immediately sought to establish a capital, and surveyed the lands himself. Al-Mansur pursued a site that was distant enough from the Greek frontier and close enough to Persia, which provided much of his military power, where he and his heirs could reign over the growing Islamic world. Sailing along the Tigris River, from Jarjarya to Mosul, he arrived at what would become Baghdad in 762.

Although there are multiple suggestions that indicate communities existed here well before Al-Mansur’s exploration, his founding and planning of Baghdad is considered, along with his military victories, among his greatest achievements and an early example of urban planning. Upon arriving, he had the plans for his Round City drawn out. There are various theories as to why Al-Mansur chose a circular plan, but many agree it was a tribute to the geometric teachings of Euclid, whom Al-Mansur had studied and respected. The original plans had been traced out on the ground in lines of cinders, and once Al-Mansur approved the Round City’s design, balls of cotton were lit on fire, permanently marking the position of the outer walls.

Round City had a circumference of four miles and featured four gates that marked the outer walls, and from each, a straight road led to the centre of the city. The southern gates – all four were named after the cities which they pointed towards – were integral to a network of waterways that channeled the waters of the Euphrates into the Tigris, while the northern gates were directed towards Syria and Khorasan (greater Iran). Round City’s four main roads that ran towards the centre were lined with vaulted arcades, which housed shops and spaces for street vendors, and small off-shoots led to public squares, houses and commercial buildings. According to illustrations, homes and commercial buildings were constructed closely to one another, likely benefiting from shade cast by neighbouring structures, and wind currents drafted through the small alleyways.

Drawing nearer to the centre, an inner wall (estimated to be 6,500 feet in diameter) and a second set of gates contained the central zone. Here were the palaces of the caliph’s children, homes for royal staff, barracks, armoury, and a department for land tax, while at the very core sat the Great Mosque (Baghdad’s first mosque) and the caliph’s Golden Gate Palace. As Justin Marozzi notes in his book Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood, Round City, therefore, contained a layout that was easily navigable, and which operated via a hierarchy of districts.

Each wall boasted 162,000 bricks for the first third of its height, 150,000 for the second third, and 140,000 for the final third. According to the writings of Al Khatib al-Baghdadi, a Muslim scholar from the 11th century, the outer wall reached a height of 24 metres, and was topped off with battlements and flanked by bastions. Surrounding the city limits, a moat was constructed to serve as further protection from resistance movements and uprisings.

Al-Mansur wanted Baghdad to be the perfect city, wrote Marozzi; thus, the design and construction of Round City involved thousands of architects, engineers, surveyors, carpenters, blacksmiths and more than a hundred thousand labourers from across the Abbasid empire. Because of the utter workforce involved, it is said to be the largest construction project of the Islamic world.

After consulting with royal astrologers, Al-Mansur laid the first brick on 30 July, 762. Round City was completed four years later in 766, after an estimated four million silver dirham pay-out.

Al-Mansur’s leadership, as well as that of his descendants, is further defined by a period of cultural investment and enlightenment – he bolstered the translation movement, a large, well-funded effort to translate a significant number of secular Greek, Sanskrit, Syriac and Pahlavi texts into Arabic. While Greek to Arabic translations were common during the Umayyad period, the translation of Greek scientific texts, until the mid-eighth century, was rare. Influenced by the Sassanian ideology (which itself was influenced by Greek thought), Round City was inherently receptive to and actively sought the knowledge prevalent in Greek writing. Thus, as the brick walls rose from the banks of the Tigris River, public consciousness awakened and expanded.

Named Madinat as-Salam, or City of Peace, by Al-Mansour, Round City drew a diverse mix of religious scholars, astronomers, poets, architects, mathematicians, musicians, philosophers and historians, which eventually lent to its far-reaching reputation as a multicultural centre and caused incredible numbers of people to move here from Khorasan, Yemen, Hijaz, Wasit, Kufa and the rest of the Muslim world.

Within 12 years of Round City’s completion, the population of Baghdad burst. Al-Mansur had already established his son’s throne across the river in Al Rusafa to accommodate Baghdad’s growth and fortify Al-Mahdi’s inheritance of the Abbasid dynasty. Between the two, mosques, palaces, gardens, public baths and bridges multiplied and spread.

While Baghdad did not stay the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate (as it was transferred to Samarra for a short time in 836), Round City laid the foundation for the birth of a regional nexus of innovation, enlightenment and cultural awakening. Its well-chosen location allowed it to benefit from both the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, while its urban plan allowed for security and protection from resistance movements. And though its spatial restraint exposed itself within a year, Al-Mansur acted swiftly, accommodating population growths with measured construction booms.

Remnants of the original Round City no longer remain. While the city that Al-Mansur built continued to be inhabited for the centuries that followed, Baghdad fell and rose time and time again. After passing through the hands of the Mongols and the Mamluks, the city’s final traces were razed by Midhat Pasha, a reformist Ottoman governor in the 1870s. Regardless, Round City defined Baghdad, and was its original plan. While organic growth informed the city’s expansion, Al-Mansur’s dream set the precedent for the future of the capital of Iraq, which has repeatedly displayed its ability to thrive at different points in history.

Read more from Red Envelope.

This article was originally published in the Red Envelope series, as part of the first journal themed ‘Urban Planning & Regeneration’. The Red Envelope journals are published by LWK + PARTNERS, and edited by Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae. They aim to provide knowledge and insight on global urban design for readers interested in architecture, design, development and the built environment.

Volume I, journal I is available to read in digital format here.