Baghdad: City of Wonders
This description of Baghdad is by an unknown Persian nobleman (perhaps a student at the university in Baghdad) in a letter to his
father, written during the reign of Haroun al-Rashid (786-809). The nobleman is describing the city only fifty years after it was built
to be the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. The city was built as a walled fortress town with the caliphate's residence in the center of
town behind its own ninety foot wall and moat. As can be seen by this description, it quickly became a prosperous town at the center
of Islamic trade, with a population close to one million (this is less than the number cited in the document, but numbers tend to be
exaggerated in such documents).
Why does the writer of this document take such pride in Baghdad's magnificence?
In what ways does he compare it with other cities, and why does he do so?
THE BAGHDAD OF HAROUN AL-RASHID
When I wandered about in the city after a long absence, I found it in an expansion of prosperity that I had not observed before this
time. The resplendent buildings that rose in the city.
.. were not sufficient for its wealthy people until they extended to the houses in
this eastern quarter known as Rusafa. They built high castles and ornamented houses in this quarter, and set up markets, mosques,
and public baths. The attention of al-Rashid.
.. was directed toward adorning it with public buildings, until the old Baghdad became
like an ancient town whose beauties were assembled in a section of the city which was created near by it.
I admired the arrival of buildings in Baghdad because of the over crowdedness of the people I had seen in its sections. Their
billowing is like the sea in its expanses; their number is said to exceed 1,500,000, and no other city in the world has such a sum or
even half its amount.
It is difficult for me, with this pen which is of limited substance, to describe the glorious qualities of the city which are but a small
part of the honor it achieves, such that it prides itself in the splendor of power.
... The people of wealth walk with slave boys and
retinue whose number the listener will fancy to be far from the truth. I witnessed at Attabiyya station a prince who was riding with a
hundred horsemen and was surrounded by slave boys, even filling the road and blocking the path of the people until they passed.
Nor was any Caliph ever known to be more generous than he (Haroun al-Rashid) in the handing out of wealth. It is said that he
spends ten thousand dirhams (a silver coin) every day for his food, and perhaps the cooks would prepare for him thirty kinds of food.
Abu Yusuf informed me that when the Caliph consummated his marriage to Zubaida, the daughter of Ja'far the Barmakid, he gave a
banquet unprecedented in Islam. He gave away unlimited presents at this banquet, even giving containers of gold filled with silver,
containers of silver filled with gold, bags of musk, and pieces of ambergris. The total expenditure on this banquet reached