1902 Encyclopedia > Baghdad


BAGHDAD, a city of Asia, formerly the capital of the empire of the caliph, and long renowned for its commerce and its wealth, is situated on an extensive and desert plain, which has scarcely a tree or village throughout its whole extent; and though it is intersected by the Tigris, it stands mostly on its eastern bank, close to the water’s edge. Old Baghdad on the W. is now considered as merely a suburb to the larger and more modern city on the eastern shore, the former containing an area of only 146 acres, while the latter extends over 591. it has, however, numerous and extensive streets, well furnished with shops, and is protected strong walls, with three gates opening towards Hillah on the Euphrates and Kazimeen. Beyond these modern bulwarks vestiges of ancient buildings, spreading in various directions, are visible in the plain, which is strewed with fragments of brick, tiles, and rubbish. A burying-ground has extended itself over a large tract of land formerly occupied by the streets of the city; and here is the tomb of Zobeide, the favorite wife of Haroun el Raschid, built of brick, of a high octagonal shape, and surmounted by a lofty superstructure in the form of a cone. It was originally built in 827 A.D., but has been frequently restored. The two towns of Old and New Baghdad are connected by a bridge of thirty pontoons. The form of the new city is that on an irregular oblong, about 1500 paces in length by 800 in breadth; and a brick wall, about five miles in circuit, encloses the town on both sides of the river. This wall, which is built of brick, has been constructed and repaired at different periods; and, as in most other works of the same nature in Mahometan countries, the oldest portion is the best, and the more modern the worst part of the fabric. At the principal angles are large round towers, with smaller towers intervening at short distances; and on these large towers batteries are planted, with brass cannon of different caliber, badly mounted. Of two of these angular towers Mr. Buckingham remarked that the workmanship is equal to any ancient masonry that he had ever seen. The wall has three gates-one on the S.E., one on the N.E., and a third on the N.W., of the city; and it is surrounded by a dry ditch of considerable depth. A fourth gate on the northern side, which has been closed since the capture of the city by Sultan Amurath IV. in 1638, is a good specimen of Saracenic brick-work. It was formerly called " the white Gate," but is now known as the "Bab-el-Tiulism," or "Talismanic Gates," from a fine Arabic inscription in relief on a scroll border round the tower, which bears the date of 618 A.H. (1220 A.D.) The town has been built without the slighted regard to regularity. The streets are even more intricate and winding than those in most other Eastern towns; and, with the exception of the bazaars and some open squares, the interior is little else than a labyrinth of alleys and passages. The streets are unpaved, and in many places so narrow that two horsemen can scarcely pass each other; and as it is seldom that the houses have windows facing the great public thoroughfares, and the doors and small and mean, they present on both sides the gloomy appearance of dead walls. All the buildings, both public and private, are constructed of furnace-burnt bricks, of a yellowish-red color, taken chiefly from the ruins of other edifices, as their rounded angles evidently show. A house is generally laid out in ranges of apartments opening into a square interior court, and furnished with subterranean rooms called serdaubs, into which the inhabitants retreat during the day for shelter from the intense heats of summer; and with terraced roofs, on which they take their evening meal, and sleep in the open air. occasionally in the months of June, July, and August, when the Sherki or south wind is blowing, the thermometer at break of day is known to stand at 112° Fahr.; while at noon it rises to 119° , and a little before two o’clock to 122°, standing at sunset at 117°, and at midnight at 114°. But this scale of temperature is exceptional. During the summer months the wind is usually in the north-west, and the air, though hot, is fresh and exhilarating, the thermometer ranging from about 75° at sunrise to 107° at the hottest time of the day. The interiors of the houses of the rich are splendidly furnished, and ornamented in the ceilings with a sort of chequered work, which has a handsome appearance. A great portion of the ground within the walls of the town is unoccupied by buildings, especially in the north-eastern quarter; and even in the more populous parts of the city near the river, a considerable space between the houses is occupied by gardens, where pome-granates, grapes, figs, olives, and dates grow in great abundance, so that they city when seen from a distance has the appearance of rising out of the midst of trees.

Baghdad map

Ground Plan of the Enceinte of Baghdad

Reduced from Survey made by Commander F. Jones and Mr W. Collingwood of the Indian Navy, 1853-54

The principal public buildings in Baghdad are the mosques, the khans or caravanserais, and the serai or palace of the pasha. The palace, which is situated in the north-western quarter of the town, not far from the Tigris, is distinguished rather for extent than grandeur. It is a comparatively modern structure, built at different periods, and forming a large and confused pile, without proportion, beauty, or strength. There are no remains of the ancient palace of the caliphs.

In all Mahometan cities the mosques are conspicuous objects. The number in Baghdadis above 100; but of these not more than thirty are distinguished by the characteristic minarets or steeples, the rest being merely chapels and venerated places of prayer. The most ancient of these mosques was erected in the year of the Hegira 633, or 1235 of the Christian era, by the Caliph Mustansir. All that remains of the original building is the minaret, and a small portion of the outer walls; the former a short, heavy erection, of the most ungraceful proportions, built of bricks of various colors, diagonally crossed. The jamah or mosque of Merjaneeah, not far distant from the former, though the body of it is modern, has some remains of old and very rich arabesque work on its surface, dating from the 14th century. The door is formed by a lofty arch of the Pointed form, bordered on both sides by rich bands exquisitely sculptured, and having numerous inscriptions. The mosque of Khaseki, supposed to have been an old Christian church, is chiefly distinguished by the niche for prayer, which, instead of a simple and unadorned recess, is crowned by a Roman arch, with square pedestals, spirally fluted shafts, a rich capital of flowers, and a fine fan or shell-top in the Roman style. Around the arch is a sculptured frieze; and down the center , at the back of the niche, is a broad band, richly sculptured with vases, flowers, &c., in the very best style of workmanship, - the whole executed on a white marble ground. The building in its present state bears the date of 1682 A.D., but the sculpture which it contains belong probably to the time of the early caliphs. The mosque of the vizier, near the Tigris, has a fine dome and lofty minaret; and the great mosque in the square of El Meidan is also a noble building. The others do not merit any particular notice. The domes of Baghdad are mostly high, and disproportionately narrow. They are richly ornamented with glazed tiles and painting, the colors chiefly green and white, being reflected from a polished surface, impart more liveliness than magnificence to the aspects of these buildings. In the opinion of Mr Buckingham, they are not to be compared to the rich and stately domes of Egypt, as the minerats, although they have the same bright assemblage of colors, are far from being equal "to the plain and grave dignity of some of the Turkish towers at Diarbekir, Aleppo, and Damascus, or to the lighter elegance of many of those in the larger towns on the banks of the Nile."

There are about thirty khans or caravanserais in Baghdad, all of inferior construction to those in the other large towns of Turkey. The only remarkable building of this class is called Khan-el Aourtmeh, and adjoins the Merjaneeah mosque, to which it formerly belonged. The vaulted roof of this building is a fine specimen of Saracenic brick-work, and like the adjoining mosque, bears the date of 1356 A.D. It is said, however, to occupy the site of an ancient Christian church. The bazaars, which are numerous, are mostly formed of long, straight, and tolerably wide avenues. The one most recently built is the largest and the best; still it has an air of meanness about it that is not common in the bazaars of large Turkish cities. It is long, wide, and lofty, and well filled with dealers and wares of all sorts. Several of these bazaars are vaulted over with brick-work; but the greater number are merely covered with flat beams which support a roof of straw, dried leaves, or branches of trees and grass. There are about fifty baths in Baghdad, which are also very inferior in their accommodations to those in the other large towns of Mesopotamia. The only other Mahometan remains which it is necessary to mention are – 1. The Tekiyeh, or shrine of the Bektash dervishes, on the western bank of the river. The shrine is in ruins, but it contains a fine Cufic inscription now mutilated, which bears the date of 333 A.H. (or 944 A.D.) 2. The tomb of the famous maaruf-el-Kerkhi, in the immediate vicinity, dating from 1215 A.D. 3. In Eastern or New Baghdad the college of Mustansir, near the bridge, now in ruins, but bearing a fine inscription dated 630 A.H. (or 1233 A.D.) 4. The shrine of the famous Saint Abdul Kadir, which is visited by pilgrims from all parts of the Mahometan world. The original tomb was erected about 1252 A.D., but the noble dome which now canopies the grace dates from about two centuries later. An aqueduct, the only one in the city, conveys water from the river to this shrine. None of the other mosques or tombs require particular notice.

Baghdad about 500 miles from the mouth of the Tigris (following its course), and about 400 from Bussorah; and with the latter place it carries on a constant communication by means of boats of from twenty to fifty burden, though the river is navigable for larger vessels. With a northerly wind these boats will make the passage to Bussorah in seven or eight days; in calms, when they have merely the aid of the current, the passage occupies from ten to fifteen days. Sir R.K. Porter mentions that the stream of the Tigris runs at the rate of seven knots an hour. This, however, is probably during floods, since, with such a powerful current, a boat could not occupy the or fifteen days on its passage from Baghdad to Bussorah. In coming up the stream, thirty or forty days are required to reach Baghdad. Of late years, however, steam communication has almost entirely superseded the use of the native craft between Baghdad and Bussorah. British steamers were first placed upon the Tigris and Euphrates by Colonel Chesney in 1836, and, with the sanction of the Turkish Government, they have ever since been maintained there, one small vessel of the Indian naval service being attached to the British Residency, and two commercial steamers belonging to an English company being employed in navigating the Tigris for trade purposes. The Turks have also endeavored to establish a line of mercantile steamers of their own between Baghdad and Bussorah, but they have not hitherto been very successful. The smaller craft, used for bringing supplies of provisions and fruit to the city, are circular boats of basket-work, covered with skins, the same that have been employed from the remotest antiquity. The Euphrates and the Tigris are liable to springs floods; and the streams of both rivers being sometimes joined, inundate the desert plain on which Baghdad stands, when the city appears like an island in the midst of the sea. The inhabitants are supplied with water from the Tigris, which is brought to their houses in goats’ skins, the convenience of water-works, cisterns, and pipes being entirely unknown.

Baghdad has much declined from its ancient importance. It was formerly a great emporium of eastern commerce; and it still receives, by way of Bussorah, from Bengal the manufactures and produce of India, which are distributed over Arabia, Syria, Kurdistan, Armenia, and Asia Minor. At the same time the inland trade from Persia and the East has fallen off. The productions and manufactures of Persia, which were intended for the Syriah, Armenian, and Turksih markets, and were sent to Baghdad as a central depot, now reach Constantinople by the more direct route of Erzeroum and Tocat. Wealth, indeed, appears to be deficient among all classes, and Baghdad has many symptoms of a decayed city. It must however, be noted that a very considerable trade has sprung up of late years between the European markets and Baghdad, several English houses being established in the city, who import goods direct from London and Liverpool, via the Suez Canal and Bussorah, and French, German, Swiss, and Greek merchants being also engaged in the traffic. The staple articles of export mare dates, wool, and grain, to which may be added cloth of various kinds drugs, dye-stuffs, and miscellaneous productions. A very considerable trade in horses is also carried on. The total value of the exports in 1870-71 reached about £46,900, while the imports for the same year were stated at upwards of £285,000. There is considerable manufacture of red and yellow leather, which is made into shoes, and finds a ready sale.

The population is a mixture of nations from various quarters of the East. The chief officers of Government, whether civil or military, are of the families of Constantinopolitan Turks, though they are mostly natives of the city; the merchants and traders are almost all of Persian or Arabian descent; while the lower classes consist of Turks, Arabs, Persians, and Indians. There are some Jews and Christians, who still remain distinct from the other classes; while the strangers in the town are Kurds, Persians, and desert Arabs in considerable numbers. The dress of the Baghdad Turks is not nearly so gay or splendid as that of their northern countrymen; and the costume of the residents is, upon the whole, unusually plain in comparison with that of other Asiatics. As every nation retains its own peculiar dress, it may be easily conceived what an amusing variety of costume must be seen in the streets of Baghdad. The dress of the females is as mean as that used in the poorest villages of Mesopotamia; women of all classes being enveloped in a blue checked cloth, such as is worn by the lowest orders in Egypt, and having their faces covered by hideous veils of black horse-hair.

Baghdad is governed by a pasha, assisted by a council. He was formerly chosen from the ranks of the Georgian Mamelukes, but is now always selected from among the highest officers of the Constantinople court, his term of office being usually for four or five years. He is also governor-general of Irak, and possesses supreme authority from Dairbekir ot Bahrein, though he does not under ordinary circumstance interfere with the subordinate governments of Mosul and Kurdistan.

The East India Company used to maintain a resident in Baghdad with a large establishment, and his post is now replaced by that of a consul-general and political agent. A French consul is also regularly appointed.

Until recently Baghdad was supposed to be entirely a Mahometan city, dating from the time of Al Mansur; but Sir H. Rawlinson discovered in 1848, during an unusually dry season, when the rivers had fallen six feet below the ordinary low-water mark, that the western bank of the Tigris was lined with an embankment of solid brick-work, dating from the time of Nebuchadnezzar, as the bricks were each stamped with his name and titled; and it has been since remarked that in the Assyrian geographical catalogues of the time of Sardanapalus, one of the Babylonian cities bears the name of Bagdad, and may thus very possibly represent the after site of the capital of the caliphs. According to the Arabian writers, however, there were no traced of former habitation when Al Mansur laid the foundation of the new city. It was adorned with many noble and stately edifices by the magnificence of the renowned Haroun el Raschid, who also built on the eastern side of the river, connecting the two quarters of the town by a bridge of boats. Under the auspices of Zobeide, the wife of that prince, and Jaffer the Barmecide, his favorite, the city may be said to have attained its greatest splendor. It continued to flourish and increase, and to be the seat of elegance and learning, until the 656th year of the Hegira (1277 A.D.), when Hulaku the Tatar, the grandson of Genghis Khan, took it by storm, and extinguished the dynasty of the Abbassides. The Tatars retained possession of Baghdad till about the year 1400 of our era, when it was taken by Timur, from whom the Sultan Ahmed Ben Avis fled, and finding refuge with the Greek emperor, contrived afterwards to repossess himself of the city, whence he was finally expelled by Kara Yusef in 1417. In 1477 his descendants were driven out by Usum Cassim, who reigned 39 years in Baghdad, when Shah Ishmael the First, the founder of the royal house of Sefi, made himself master of it. From that time it continued for a long period an object of contention between the Turks and Persians. It was taken by Soliman the Magnificent, and retaken by Shah Abbas the Great; and it was afterwards besieged by Amurah the Fourth, with an army of 300,000 men. After an obstinate resistance, it was forced to surrender 1638 A.D., when, in defiance of the terms of capitulation, most of the inhabitants were massacred. Since that period it has remained under a nominal subjection to the Turks. Achmet, the greatest of the pashas of Baghdad, and the first who rendered the pashalis independent of the Porte, defended the town with such courage against Nadir Shah, that the invader was compelled to raise the siege, after suffering great loss. Baghdad, according to Colonel Chesney, had 110,000 inhabitants previously to the great plague of 1830; but in 1853 Mr Layard estimated its population under 50,000. An estimate made in 1872 on a census taken in 1869 rises as high as 150,000, but this is in all probability an exaggeration (v. Allen’s Indian Mail, 1854). Long. 44° 24’ E., lat. 33° 21’ N.

Buckingham’s Travels in Mesopotamia (1827); Sir R.K. Porter’s Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, and Ancient Babylonia (1821-22); Kinneir’s Geographical Memoir of the Persian Empire (1813); Chesney’s Expedition (1850); Rousseau’s Description du Pachalik de Bagdad (1809); Wellsted’s City of the Caliphs; Grove’s Residence in Baghdad (1830-32); Transactions of Bombay Geog. Soc. (1856). (H. C. R.)

The above article was written by Maj.-General Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810-95), Bart., K.C.B., F.R.S.; reorganised the Persian Army, 1833-39; served in the Afghan War, 1842; added valuable sculptures to the British Museum; author of A Commentary on the Cuneiform Inscriptions of Babylonia and Assyria and England and Russia in the East.

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