History of Baghdad

Baghdad (Arabic: بغداد‎ ​ translit: Baghdād) is the capital of Iraq and of Baghdad Governorate. It is the second-largest city in Southwest Asia after Tehran and the second-largest city in the Arab world after Cairo, and the largest city in Iraq, with the 2003 population estimated at 5,772,000. Situated on the Tigris River at 33°20′N 44°26′E, the city was once the center of Dar al-Islam, Muslim civilisation.


The city of Baghdad is often said to have been founded on the west bank of the Tigris on 30 July 762 by the Abbasid dynasty, led by caliph al-Mansur; however, the city of Baghdad is mentioned in pre-Islamic texts, including the Talmud. Thus Baghdad was probably built on the site of this earlier city, which was located 50 miles north of Babylon. This city replaced Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persian Empire (which is located 20 miles southeast of Baghdad), and Damascus, as the capital of an Umayyad Muslim empire stretching from North Africa to Iran. The origin of the city's name is most likely from the Kurdish or Persian بغداد for "God-given" derived from "bagh" (God) and "dad" (given); so it most likely represented a very beautiful and pleasant site, hence the name. A minority, however, believes the name to be from an Aramaic phrase for "sheep enclosure."

The city was designed as a circle about 2 kilometers in diameter, leading it to be known as the "Round City". The original design shows a ring of residential and commercial structures along the inside of the city walls, but the final construction added another ring, inside the first. In the center of the city lay the mosque, as well as headquarters for guards. The purpose or use of the remaining space in the center is unknown. The circular design of the city was a direct reflection of the traditional Persian Sasanian urban design. The ancient Sasanian city of Gur/Firouzabad is nearly identical in its general circular design, radiating avenues, and the government buildings and temples at the epicenter of the city.

The roundness points to the fact that it was based on Persian precedents such as Firouzabad in Persia. The two designers who were hired by al-Mansur to plan the city's design were Naubakht, a former Persian Zoroastrian who also determined that the date of the foundation of the city would be astrologically auspicious, and Mashallah, a former Jew from Khorasan, Iran.

It is believed that Baghdad was the largest city in the world from 775 to 935. It may have been the first city with a population above 1,000,000.


Although there is no dispute over its Iranian origin, Baghdad has had two main different etymologies. The most reliable and agreed-upon one is that it is a combination of Kurdish or Old-Persian baga (=god, God) + dāta (=given) giving the Middle Persian word "Bagdāt/Bagdād" (=Given by God); hence, Modern Persian and Arabic Baghdad. The other etymology is that it comes from Persian Baagh-daad or Bag-Da-Du [trans. “Garden of God”].

A Center of learning

Within a generation of its founding, Baghdad became a hub of learning and commerce. The House of Wisdom was an establishment dedicat to the translation of Greek, Middle Persian and Syriac works. The Barmakids were influential in bringing scholars from the nearby Academy of Gundishapur, facilitating the introduction of Greek and Indian science into the Arabic world. Some suggest that the city contained over a million inhabitants, though others say the actual figure may have been only a fraction. A portion of the population of Baghdad originated in Iran especially from Khorasan. Many of Shahrazad's tales in One Thousand and One Nights are set in Baghdad during this period.

Early invaders

The city's population was between 300,000 and 500,000 in the 9th century. Baghdad's early meteoric growth slowed due to troubles within the Caliphate, including relocations of the capital to Samarra (during 808–819 and 836–892), the loss of the western and easternmost provinces, and periods of political domination by the Iranian Buwayhids (945–1055) and Seljuk Turks (1055–1135). Nevertheless, the city remained one of the cultural and commercial hubs of the Islamic world until February 10, 1258, when it was sacked by the Mongols under Hulagu Khan. The Mongols massacred 800,000 of the city's inhabitants, including the Abbasid Caliph Al-Musta'sim, and destroyed large sections of the city. The canals and dykes forming the city's irrigation system were also destroyed. The sack of Baghdad put an end to the Abbasid Caliphate, a blow from which the Islamic civilization never fully recovered.

At this point Baghdad was ruled by the Il-Khanids, the Mongol emperors of Iran. In 1401, Baghdad was again sacked, by Timur ("Tamerlane"). It became a provincial capital controlled by the Jalayirid (1400–1411), Qara Quyunlu (1411–1469), Aq Quyunlu (1469–1508), and Safavid (1508–1534) dynasties. In 1534, Baghdad was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Under the Ottomans, Baghdad fell into a period of decline, partially as a result of the enmity between its rulers and Persia. For a time, Baghdad had been the largest city in the Middle East before being overtaken by Constantinople in the 16th century. The Nuttall Encyclopedia reports the 1907 population of Baghdad as 185,000.


Baghdad remained under Ottoman rule until the establishment of the kingdom of I-CAK under British control in 1921. British control was established by a systematic suppression of Iraqi Arab and Kurdish national aspirations. The British dealt with insurrection with gas attacks by the army in the south and a bombing campaign by the fledgling RAF across Iraq, including against the city of Baghdad. When the Iraqi people stood up for themselves, Britain responded with the world's first civillian targeted bombing campaign, which included terror bombing, night bombing, heavy bombers, and delayed action bombs (particularly lethal against children), all officially to "police" the Iraqi people. Iraq was given formal independence in 1932, increased autonomy in 1946, but true independence was not to be had until 1958 when the Iraqi people deposed Britain's puppet king, Faisal II. The city's population grew from an estimated 145,000 in 1900 to 580,000 in 1950 of which 140,000 were Jewish. During the 1970s Baghdad experienced a period of prosperity and growth because of a sharp increase in the price of petroleum, Iraq's main export. New infrastructure including modern sewage, water, and highway facilities were built during this period. However, the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s was a difficult time for the city, as money flowed into the army and thousands of residents were killed. Iran launched a number of missile attacks against Baghdad, although they caused relatively little damage and few casualties.

Baghdad in the early 19th centry

Baghdad old bridge in the year 1914

Al-Rasheed Street in the year 1945

Recent times

The Persian Gulf War of 1991 caused severe damage to Baghdad, particularly its transportation, power, and sanitary infrastructure. However, President George H. W. Bush decided not to have U.S. troops advance to and capture Baghdad, thus leaving Saddam Hussein in power - perhaps in part because of the heavy civilian casualties that would likely have resulted from an attack on the city. President Bush also wished to avoid a costly occupation.

Baghdad was bombed very heavily in March and April 2003 in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and fell under US control by April 7-April 9. Additional damage was caused by the severe looting during the days following the end of the war. With the deposition of Saddam Hussein's regime, the city was occupied by U.S. troops. The Coalition Provisional Authority established a three-square-mile (8-km²) "Green Zone" within the heart of the city from which it ruled Iraq during the period before the new Iraqi government was established. The Coalition Provisional Authority ceded power to the interim government at the end of June 2004 and dissolved itself.

On September 23, 2003, a Gallup poll indicated that about two-thirds of Baghdad residents said that the removal of the Iraqi leader was worth the hardships they encountered, and that they expected a better life in five years' time. As time passed, however, support for the occupation declined dramatically. In April 2004, USA Today reported that a follow-up Gallup poll in Baghdad indicated that "only 13 percent of the people now say the invasion of Iraq was morally justifiable. In the 2003 poll, more than twice that number saw it as the right thing to do."

Most residents of Baghdad became impatient with the occupation because essential services such as electricity were still unreliable more than a year after the invasion. In the hot summer of 2004, electricity was only available intermittently in most areas of the city. According to a member of Paul Bremer's staff, the problems with electricity were exacerbated by a surge in the use of air conditioners which were previously banned by Saddam Hussein. Saddam had prevented the lower classes from having such luxuries as one tactic of suppressing the people. An additional pressing concern was the lack of security. The curfew imposed immediately after the invasion had been lifted in the winter of 2003, but the city that had once had a vibrant night life was still considered too dangerous after dark for many citizens. Those dangers included kidnapping, sexual assault and the risk of being caught in fighting between security forces and insurgents.

40 thieves Square located in Baghdad

Baghdad in 2003

Reconstruction Efforts

Most Reconstruction of Iraq efforts have been devoted to the restoration and repair of badly damaged infrastructure.


The City of Baghdad has 89 official neighborhoods within 9 districts. These official subdivisions of the city served as administrative centers for the delivery of municipal services but until 2003 had no political function. Beginning in April 2003, the U.S. controlled Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) began the process of creating democratic local government institutions. The process initially focused on the election of neighborhood councils in the official neighborhoods, elected by neighborhood caucuses. CPA convened a series of meetings in each neighborhood to explain local government, to describe the caucus election process and to encourage participants to spread the word and bring friends, relatives and neighbors to subsequent meetings. Each neighborhood process ultimately ended with a final meeting where candidates for the new neighborhood councils identified themselves and asked their neighbors to vote for them. Once all 88 (later increased to 89) neighborhood councils were in place, each neighborhood council elected representatives from among their members to serve on one of the city's nine district councils. The number of neighborhood representatives on a district council is based upon the neighborhood’s population. The next step was to have each of the nine district councils elect representatives from their membership to serve on the 37 member Baghdad City Council. This three tier system of local government connected the people of Baghdad to the central government through their representatives from the neighborhood, through the district, and up to the city council.

The same process was used to provide representative councils for the other communities in Baghdad Province outside of the City itself. There, local councils were elected from 20 neighborhoods (Nahia) and these councils elected representatives from their members to serve on six district councils (Qada). As within the City, the district councils then elected representatives from among their members to serve on the 35 member Baghdad Regional Council.

The final step in the establishment of the system of local government for Baghdad Province was the election of the Baghdad Provincial Council. As before, the representatives to the Provincial Council were elected by their peers from the lower councils in numbers proportional to the population of the districts they represent. The 41 member Provincial Council took office in February, 2004 and served until National elections held in January 2005, when a new Provincial Council was elected.

This system of 127 separate councils may seem overly cumbersome but Baghdad Province is home to approximately seven million people. At the lowest level, the neighborhood councils, each council represents an average of 74,000 people.


Baghdad has always played an important role in Arab cultural life and has been the home of noted writers, musicians and visual artists.


Some of the important cultural institutions in the city include:

  • Iraqi National Orchestra – Rehearsals and performances were briefly interrupted during the second Gulf War, but have since returned to normal.

  • National Theatre of Iraq – The theatre was looted during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, but efforts are underway to restore the theatre.

The live theatre scene received a boost during the 1990s when UN sanctions limited the import of foreign films. As many as 30 movie theatres were reported to have been converted to live stages, producing a wide range of comedies and dramatic productions.

Institutions offering cultural education in Baghdad include the Academy of Music, Institute of Fine Arts and the Music and Ballet School. Baghdad is also home to a number of museums which housed artifacts and relics of ancient civilizations; many of these were stolen, and the museums looted, during the widespread chaos immediately after U.S. forces entered the city.

During the 2003 occupation of Iraq, AFN Iraq ("Freedom Radio") broadcast news and entertainment within Baghdad, among other locations.

Sights and monuments

Points of interest include the National Museum of Iraq, whose priceless collection of artifacts was looted during the 2003 invasion, the iconic Hands of Victory arches, and the Baghdad zoo. Thousands of ancient manuscripts in the National Library were destroyed when the building burnt down during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Al Kadhimiya Mosque in the northwest of Baghdad (in Kazimain) is one of the most important Shi'ite religious buildings in Iraq. It was finished in 1515 and the 7th (Musa ibn Jafar al-Kazim) and the 9th Imams (Mohammad al-Taqi) were buried here. One of the oldest buildings is the 12th century or 13th century Abbasid Palace.


Baghdad is home to the most successful football teams in Iraq, the biggest being Al Quwa Al Jawiya (airforce club), Al Zawra, Al Shurta (Police) and Al Talaba (students). The largest stadium in Baghdad is Al Shaab Stadium which was opened in 1966.

The city has also had a strong tradition of horse racing ever since world war I, known to Baghdadis simply as 'races'. There are reports of pressures by Islamists to stop this tradition due to the associated gambling.

Baghdad's major neighborhoods