The Golden Age of the 'City of Peace' (Madinat al-Salam): Baghdad as Cosmopolis

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard
December 22, 2011

The “For the Record Project” is conceived of as an independent exploration on the topic of objectivity in the arts in relation to war and global conflict. Pieces in the corollary exhibition (held at Montserrat College of Art) dealing with Iraq, namely Benjamin Lowy’s “Iraq/Perspectives” (2007, archival pigment prints), James O’Neill’s “Tigris River” (2011, charcoal on paper) and, Rob Roy’s works “Witness #36” (2009, monotype, chine colle, acrylic on paper) and “Witness #41” (2011, monotype, chine colle, acrylic on paper) particularly intrigued me, especially as I am concurrently teaching “Survey of Islamic Arts,” a course covering the entire historical arc of Islamic arts.  In light of this, I think it is important to bring up the cosmopolitan, progressive nature of thinking from the mid-Eighth to mid-Thirteenth centuries in Abbasid Islam--if only to inform those who are unaware of this grand tradition. What follows is a reflection on the medieval history of Baghdad, and how works from the “For the Record” Exhibition might be viewed through that lens as a spur of conversation and contemplation in the Twenty-first Century.

The Abbasid caliphs (Islamic leaders regarded as successors of Muhammad) took their dynastic name from their relation to the prophet, through his uncle, Abbas.  At the outset, their power derived from factions (mostly Shi'ite), who were unhappy with the ruling Sunni Umayyad dynasty; these were Muslims who thought that the Umayyad caliphate had usurped power from the Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali and his descendants.  The Abbasids systematically made alliances with the disenfranchised, toppled the Umayyad, and then centralized power—a ruthless campaign often resulting in the assassination of their former allies.
Following in the footsteps of their Umayyad predecessors, the Abbasid rulers of the mid-Eighth century retained control of the heart of the Islamic lands that—in the one short century since the Prophet Mohammed’s first revelations—formed an empire that stretched from the Bosphorus to Central Asia, from North Africa to Afghanistan.  As their land-base increased, and their cultural-political aspirations turned from Byzantium eastward toward Persia, the Abbasid rulers moved the imperial capital from Damascus, Syria to Baghdad, Iraq in order to tangibly reorient the center, or heart, of the Muslim world. 

Perhaps in defiance of the Umayyads, the Abbasids were more Persian in their style of rule, resultantly leaving the common folk on the outside of their courtly rituals and pomp.  This was a change from the original concept of Islam as an egalitarian community of worshipers. Furthermore, the Abbasids also tended to leave the role of caliph out of the workings of the congregational mosque (building for public worship) and communal worship—leaving it to governors and appointees---in this manner, too, they were unlike the Umayyads whose caliphs often served as imams (prayer leaders), leading communal  weekly worship on Fridays in the Congregational Mosque.

Eventually, due to internal bickering, military unrest and exorbitant spending, the Abbasids were unable to maintain control of the entire empire and various provinces split off. Rule of the Islamic world thus became politically fragmented, as it would remain until the present time. Before that schismatic time however, Madinat al-Salam, the city of peace, was built by the Abbasids about 20 miles (32 km) northwest of the former Sassanian, Persian capital at Ctesiphon.

The Sassanian dynasty of Iran ruled an area from the Euphrates River to Bactria from the third century A.D. until the Islamic conquest in the seventh century, controlling for much of that time the Silk Road from Byzantium to China. Ctesiphon’s magnificent ruins stood as stunning reminders of the glorious past—the “high, pre-Islamic imperial life” as the renowned scholar Oleg Grabar termed it.[1] Ctesiphon persists in later literature, serving as the inspiration for the city of Isbanir in the One Thousand and One Nights, for example.  Thus, this area had commercial advantages, but also symbolic associations of ancient rule of Iraq and Iran.

The round plan of the city of Madinat al-Salam relates to Persian types, a residential area with houses and stores (divided into quadrants) encircled the central governing area.  The center contained the palace, a mosque, residences for the princes, government offices, and a kitchen. The circular city was seen as the omphalos, navel of the world, and its axis mundi: the center from which the rest of the world radiates. Interestingly, rather than placing the main mosque of Baghdad at its precise center, it was the imperial palace—and hence, the Abbasid caliph—who was the ideological center. Abbasid palaces more likely to be urban, rather than in country (Romanate ‘villa rusticas’) as with their Umayyad predecessors.
A Green Dome featuring the figure of a rider holding a spear was situated at the highest point of the palace in the exact center of the city. It was hailed as “The crown of Baghdad.”[2]  When one understands the spear as the emblem of Mohammed, often depicted within a niche (mihrab) on early coinage to represent Mohammed aniconically, or symbolically, or likened to later free-standing minarets (towers) in their shape and with Koranic inscriptions hailing the might of Islam, one might see the rotating spear as a representation of the spread of Islam in all four cardinal directions, radiating out from al Mansur’s omphalos.
Notwithstanding that the caliph and his polity were at the center of his own personal cosmic worldview, the caliph remained conscious of the central role that learning and applied sciences could make to his empire.  Because of his dedication to collecting texts and centralizing classical knowledge, scholars and philosophers from around the known world gravitated to Baghdad, to what became known as “the House of Wisdom.” With the knowledge that the city was a great repository of ancient texts and aegis to wide-ranging debate, Baghdad became the hub of a cosmopolitan, ravenously curious group of professionals. In part, a world empire required systems of infrastructure that needed inventing, so science and mathematics were prized. But, so too were medicine and philosophy. Without persecution, Christian, Jew, Muslim and others gathered together to solve perennial and pressing questions.
Thus, it is a well-known trope among those in the know that--after a seemingly inauspicious, bloody start—Madinat al-Salam (“the City of Peace”) was the Islamic Rome—the birthplace of a renaissance five hundred years before that in Europe.  The practical Abbasids were great patrons of arts, sciences, letters. Above all, Greek science was revived, many classical works translated into Arabic—something that saved them from oblivion in the West.  As such, Baghdad should be considered a “cosmopolis” -- a city inhabited by people of many different nations; a city of international importance, from the Greek cosmo- (orderly or harmonious system—the opposite of chaos)+ polis (city).  This concept is favored by the scholar Charles Wendell who back in 1971 wrote an article about Baghdad as “Imago Mundi,”[3] which outlines the various Eastern as well as Indo-European constructs of the imperial city and its world-king as forces imposing order on a natural world of disorder.
More recently, the concept of “cosmopolis” was also explored by the scholar Stephen Toulmin, albeit in a more pointed, polemical way: arguing against what he sees as the overriding Cartesian “Hidden Agenda of Modernity,” handed down to us by our Enlightenment forebears.  To find consonance between the ideal city of international harmony of yore, together with the post-modern deconstruction of certainty in science and philosophy is an admirable goal that I could not possibly tease out in this brief essay, but am content to at least start a dialogue upon the thought.
In looking at the photographs in Benjamin Lowy’s series, “Iraq/Perspectives” (2007, archival pigment prints), it is at once hard and easy to believe that the various views of Iraqi life are connected. Formally, they share a frame-within-a-frame of the Humvee window through which they were snapped. Beyond these frames, however, lies an astounding plethora of visions of neighborhoods—some ruined, some with shops, women in full dress, or a young man in Western sporting clothes with a gun in hand.  One senses historic continuity of Islamic custom, of the bazaars of the marketplace or caravanserai that would have been familiar in Abbasid Baghdad.  But, jarringly juxtaposed are the burning oil rigs and the machine guns of Middle Eastern post-modernism.
Relatedly, in James O’Neill’s “Tigris River” (2011, charcoal on paper), we are confronted by the focused, timeless image of a dead horse floating in the Tigris.  Importantly, we are given no sense of the when or where of this image within its framing borders—it therefore has a dream-like (or perhaps nightmarish) quality to it, tapping into Jungian collective memories of the unbridled passion and liberation that a galloping horse embodies, now festering in stagnant water. The dense charcoal of its facture is almost Dickensian or industrial in its ability to take our breath away. It is an innate fantasy quashed, a riderless, lifeless horse in a suffocating atmosphere. 
Without knowledge of imperial Persian or ensuing Islamic palace imagery, one may not be aware of the longstanding tradition of scenes of animals under attack in this culture. Such imagery goes back to ancient Mesopotamia, to the hunting scenes decorating the walls of Ashurnasirpal’s palace, updated on princely Sassanian metalwares, later used for decoration in Islamic textiles such as the Islamic-made coronation cloak of the Holy Roman Emperors (where lions attack camels). One might also cite the mosaic of gazelles attacked by a lion in audience room of bath house, palace at Khirbat al-Mafjar, the Umayyad Winter Palace.  To purpose, many theories abound as the apparent symbolism of these aggressive images.  Though at their basest they inform us about the king’s power over nature, as with al Mansur’s cosmopolis plan, it has also been postulated that they might as readily be images of love—the gazelle a common metaphor of the beautiful beloved in Persian poetry.  Perhaps the gentle h[e]art peacefully captured by Islam? Images of war transformed by a thought into the conquering of the soul by peace.
That these are not simply Eastern metaphors without Western impact or corollary, Rob Roy’s “Witness #36” (2009, monotype, chine colle, acrylic on paper) and “Witness #41” (2011, monotype, chine colle, acrylic on paper) make reference to the overlap between the two in a globalized culture. In “Witness #36,” two Christian church plans are distinctly visible. We would assume that the apses should face the East, pointed toward Jerusalem as tradition dictates, but they in fact point in two separate directions; causing us to wonder what they are oriented upon.  Superimposed over these are images of military, and oil tanker. Are these the new religions? War and energy?  In the slightly later “Witness #41,” we find a camel caravan upon a low horizon line, chicken, moose at top, spiraling tower on its side, a bit like the massive (unrealized) Russian tower of Vladimir Tatlin, but then again, perhaps an allusion to the great minaret of Samarra—the spiraling tower bombed by Muslims on April 1, 2005, to incite Sunni-Shi'ite violence and further destabilize a fragmented Iraq. The microphone to the left of it seems to insist on a public announcement, a call—but, to what? To prayer? To jihad? To press conference?  In the Western mind, therefore, the imagery of the church and/or religion can become metaphors of greed and war, displacing the medieval Islamic impetus to appropriate the language of war and conquest for religious peace.
Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Professor and Author. Her writing has appeared both online, and in traditional academic books, reviews, and articles. Click here to send her email.

[1] Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art (Yale, 1973), p. 27.
[2] Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, Islamic Arts (London, Phaidon, 1997), p. 51.
[3] Charles Wendell, “Baghdad: Imago Mundi, and Other Foundation Lore,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 2, no. 2 (April 1971), pp. 99-128.

© 2011  Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard