As payoff for Persian support, the Abbasid rulers agreed to relocate the administrative capital to Persian territory, instead of Damascus. The old capital of Ctesiphon may have been starting to fall apart, but in any case, they decided to build a brand-new city. It was to rise not far from Ctesiphon, permitting the more powerful Persian families to use their old habits and networks. The name would be “Baghdad,” which is disputed in meaning but most likely means in Persian, “gift of God.” (I hope some IEists out there recognize “da” for “gift.” It’s in Greek, guys, you can see it right? Russian has it too—and I suppose “bagh” is probably where the Russians borrowed their word for god, “bog.”)
The city was designed to be a visual representation of the Koran’s idea of Paradise. By the time it was founded, the Empire was at its peak size and vast sums of tribute flowed into the Caliph’s coffers, so money was no object. Work began in July, 764.
Architects and artists planned the city in detail. The very center was a mosque, near the Palace, which included a tall green dome. The houses of top bureaucrats and nobles were near the Palace (an honor, but also a control feature); so were the administrative buildings, guard headquarters, etc. To make the inner city as like Paradise as possible, it was planned with boulevards, parks, gardens, and walks. The inner city had a high wall, perfectly round; it had four gates. Each gate door was made of iron. The gates were named for the distant cities they faced: Kufa, Khorasan, Damascus and Basra. (Kufa and Basra had been built fresh under the Umayyads and both served as administrative and shipping centers.)
All bricks would be the same size: massive cubes of 18 inches. Where possible, marble blocks would be used. They built a canal from the Tigris to help deliver building materials. 100,000 construction workers came from around the Empire to build Baghdad, and they completed the task in just four years. After the inner city, the planned Paradise, was complete, a new city ring began just outside its wall. It wasn’t planned as carefully, but it still had the advantage of ample funding, so it was also splendid.
Baghdad very soon challenged Constantinople for the title of largest city in the world. It had over 1 million inhabitants at its peak. It was the keystone of the Empire’s arch, standing at the middle between West and East. Most of the transfer of knowledge between East and West went through Baghdad. It had a House of Wisdom, not quite a university but definitely a state-funded scholarly community. That’s where so much translation work went on. More on that later.
Baghdad is best known as the setting of the Arabian Nights stories. The most famous (and third) Abbasid Caliph, Harun (Aaron) al-Rashid, was the legendary ruler in these stories. In the stories, he roamed the city at night in disguise, trying to learn about his people (and probably thwart plots). The stories talk about Bengal and China, suggesting that ambassadors and royalty from the far East came to stay in Baghdad. In addition to a teeming underclass of thieves, legendary Baghdad has many minor palaces for officials and merchants. Pearls and gold seem to roll out of every closet and box.