Baghdad (Importance in Abbasid Period as a Muslim Cultural Center)
The Muslim world is comprised of various ethnic groups, nationalities, customs and traditions, languages and races. Muslims all over the world have a common belief in the Oneness and Supremacy of Allah, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and the Holy Quran. On the contrary, they all have different versions and interpretations of their religion, Islam. Thus, the theological traditions they follow are dissimilar. The Muslim world possesses an extensive political, social, economic, and geographical landscape which signifies a "kaleidoscope of historical and cultural experiences." Despite of the differences, however, the contemporary Muslim world today has inherited a highly triumphant and exultant civilization. Muslims are the heirs of a successful civilization that was larger and more productive than the greatest empires in the history including Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Sassanid (Ahmad 2007).
After the demise of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), his companions and followers started the propagation of Islam. They went through Egypt, North Africa Spain in the western part of the world. Their Islamic teachings also affected the eastern side of the world as far east as Sassanid Persia. The Muslims intermingled with the people of the mentioned areas and this amalgamation brought unique style in the Islamic art and architecture and cultural heritage. Thus, the exceptional style of Islamic artistic heritage has been blended with the Byzantines, the Copts, the Romans, and the Sassanid arts. The Islamic art has a peculiar tendency and great strength "to synthesize native design elements with imported ones" ("Islamic Art and Architecture" 2009).
Top-notch theorists, inventors, scientists, physicians, architects, astronomers, mathematicians and artists have been produced in the golden period of the Muslim civilization. Those renowned individuals are still recognized for their contributions for human improvement, enhancement and enlightenment (Ahmad 2007).
After the martyrdom of the last of the four caliphs of Islam, Hazrat Ali, the system that was set up by Prophet Muhammad's close companions to run the Islamic world ended. A new dynasty, Umayyad, replaced the Khilafat (caliphate). The Islamic capital of Medina was also moved to Damascus in the Umayyad period by its founder, Muawiyyah. Under his rule, the Muslims were able to conquer the Southern Spain in 711. The Umayyad period is especially known due to the fact that it was during this period that Islam expanded. However it was also a period of domestic mutinies, uprisings and maneuverings. The Umayyad period is also known for the foundation of Shi'a branch of Islam. Later in 749, the Abbasids removed the Umayyads from power and Baghdad was made the new capital of the Islamic world (Ahmad 2007).
Abbas was an uncle of the last prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon him). It is from him that the Abbasid family descended from. The caliphate remained under the Abbasids from 749 to1258. Their first caliph was Abu al-Abbas as-Saffah who succeeded the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II. Al-Mansur, the second Abbasid caliph was the ruler who moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad. It was under his governance that the empire came and expanded under a strong Persian influence. Both the mentioned Abbasid caliphs ruled brilliantly. However, the most prominent and renowned Abbasid caliph was the fifth caliph, Harun ar-Rashid, under whose rule Islam and Muslims advanced with true dignity and magnificence. His son Al-Mamun (the seventh Abbasid caliph) followed the footsteps of his father and Muslims gained an intellectual brilliance in his reign ("Abbasid" 2009).
The magnificent phase of Islam began with the rise of the Abbasids in about 750 AD. The Persians from Khurasan were the chief controllers of the Abbasid dynasty. Though the behavior, lifestyle and activities of the rulers were like royal kings, they used the title of khalifa, caliph or apostle of God. The followers of Muhammad (peace be upon him) founded an international system of regulating the Islamic world with its center in Baghdad.
During this period, Baghdad became a metropolitan city (Ahmad 2007).
The Abbasid caliph, Al-Mansur, founded the city of Baghdad in 762. This Iraqi city located on the west bank of the Tigris was made the Islamic world's capital ("Baghdad" 2009). It was the first ever largest urban city that was developed in the Middle Eastern history. Arabs, Central Asian people, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Syrians composed the diverse population of the city. The dwellers were engaged in trade (domestic and international) and business as their main profession. Papermaking, textile, and leather goods were the major industries. Baghdad as well as the provinces of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, and western Iran were administratively structured and made stronger by the Abbasids. However, the Abbasids did not have a direct rule over the rest of the Muslim world. On the contrary, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and North Africa were affiliated with the Abbasid Empire. The Abbasids managed to establish a vast Islamic empire by the middle of the 10th century. Though a strict political unity did not exist among various Muslim factions during this time period, the Muslim citizens considered Mecca and Baghdad as their religious and cultural centers respectively (Ahmad 2007). Under the caliphate of Harun ar-Rashid, Baghdad rose as one of the best and supreme Islamic cities. The city's wealth, riches and culture were thoroughly enjoyed by many distinguished scholars, artists, and poets ("Baghdad" 2009).
The population in Baghdad outgrew within 50 years since its foundation. People swarmed the city so that they can either become part of the Abbasids' colossal system of government or engage in business. Baghdad served as a linkage between Asia and the Mediterranean for carrying out trade. The political administration had a good realization of the significance of Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. They controlled the flows of the rivers and were able to feed the huge number of inhabitants. The Abbasids were also able to export large quantities of grain via the important rivers. The canals, watercourses, and reservoirs were also reconstructed. The swamps surrounding the city were also drained so that the threat of malarial virus can be minimized (Hitti 1968).
The Importance of Baghdad in the Abbasid Period
Baghdad became the hub of Islamic political and cultural life under the Abbasid caliphate. It was given the name of "Madinat Al-Salam," the Circular City of Peace. Baghdad as well as Sammara (another city founded by Abbasids) functioned as the intellectual and commercial capitals of the Islamic world. They enlightened the Muslim world culturally and artistically. The Islamic art and architecture greatly influenced the Muslim empire during the three centuries of the Abbasid caliphate. The Muslim sphere experienced the emergence and development of unique styles and innovative techniques (Blair 2011).
With Baghdad becoming the colonial metropolitan area of the outlying Abbasid Empire, people and ideas attracted towards it majestically. It not only served as a commercial and political center but also functioned as a kind of clearing house. It welcomed inquisitive and interested people with open arms and made them return to their respective provinces with new ideas and experiences. For instance, the only one of its kind technique of luster decoration was tailored Iraqi potters in the Abbasid period which was later adapted by the Syrians who learnt the technique and went with it to Syria. Egyptians also brought this technique of beautifying their earthenware ceramics to their homeland where it became a whole new skill of decoration (Blair 2011).
The cultural, literary, artistic and civilizing norms in the Abbasid period were also shaped up in Baghdad. Not only the rulers and the subjects were influenced by the new cultural styles but even the rivals became impacted. The best example in this regard is of the Umayyads of Spain. Though the Abbasid's political authenticity was challenged by them but on the contrary, they tried to imitate the art and culture developed by the Abbasids. An expatriate musician Ziryab from Baghdad became the trendsetter of fine taste in Cordoba. There, he introduced the standards for code of behavior, clothing, modus operandi, and etiquette (Blair 2011).
Likewise, the Byzantine rivals who had differences with Abbasid rulers on political and religious grounds tried to copy the Abbasid grace and sophistication. A Byzantine emissary visited Baghdad in 830 and became greatly impressed by the magnificence and grandeur of Abbasid architecture. When he returned to Constantinople, he persuaded Emperor Theophilos to build a palace just as similar as those he had seen in the Islamic capital. Theophilos acted in accordance with the request of his ambassador and built a palace at Bryas (Blair 2011).
Though Baghdad has been rebuilt several times over the centuries, the memories of the Abbasid Baghdad still prevail. Most of the art in Abbasid period was made of temporary materials like cloth, plaster, and wood etc. This is also one of the reasons why those artistic assets have been either ruined or did not survive the devastation of time. The historians and archaeologists have combined the artistic remains of that period with the many textual sources in order to remake a picture of the…