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Golden Age Glory
Medieval Baghdad was a place where scholarship flourished and ideas were welcomed. Artist Neshaat Al Shammari wants to revive this legacy through art
At first, it’s hard to recognize modern-day Baghdad in the paintings of Iraqi artist Neshaat Al Shammari. The grand structures swathed in light, with their palm-shaded courtyards and turreted facades suggest a fabled realm, where domed towers and ornate minarets rise serenely over a colour-soaked city. But amid the blaring throng of Baghdad’s busy streets, some of these sites still stand, rising out of the concrete as reminders of another era, when a great empire emerged and Baghdad became the center of the civilized world.
This period, from 790 till 1258, is known as the Islamic Golden Age, when the Arab world presided over the most progressive period of scholarship since ancient Greece, pioneering major advances in science, maths, astronomy, medicine and many other fields. It was a time when Christian students learned Arabic so they could study in Islamic Cordoba and access the works of famous scholars, like ninth-century mathematician Muhammad ibn Mūsa al-Khwārizmi, who laid the foundations for modern algebra, and Ibn Sīna, (Avicenna), whose eleventh century Canon of Medicine was still required reading in Renaissance Italy centuries later.
The Abbasid caliphs who ushered in this era sought to unite the knowledge of the old world, and had texts in ancient Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian and Syriac translated into Arabic, which became the international language of science for the next 700 years. Old ideas mingled with new as translators and scholars added their own thoughts, including the famed Arabic philosopher and mathematician Al-Kindi, who introduced the writings of Aristotle to the Arabic-speaking world, reshaping the debate around rationalism and religion.
It was a period of great scientific and cultural endeavor, yet there is little recognition of this illustrious heritage today. In a country riven by sectarian division, some even recoil from reminders of this era and dismiss the Abbasids as Sunni usurpers who enforced their illegitimate rule on the Islamic community. “They bring up their children to hate the memory of the Abbasids and it’s sad because this was our golden age,” says Al Shammari, who lives between London and Baghdad.
His mission is simple - to celebrate the successes of the era and remind Iraqis of a cultural legacy that risks being erased by the conflict and destruction that has consumed the country in recent decades. Drawing on Iraq’s rich heritage, he is using art to challenge international perceptions of his homeland by evoking the memory of the period, when scholarship was seen as the summit of ambition.
“These people amassed a huge amount of knowledge; it’s important to tell their stories,” he says. Supported by an Innovation Hub grant from Ideas Beyond Borders, Al Shammari is creating the Baghdad Design Toolkit, a digital resource featuring designs based on the art and architecture of the era alongside accounts and anecdotes that tell its stories. “It’s about bringing it alive and making it relevant for people,” he explains.
A Cosmopolitan Capital
When the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 790, they inherited one of the largest empires in the world. At its height in 850, their caliphate stretched from the North African coast to Afghanistan, covering the Middle East, parts of Asia minor and the tip of southern Europe. Only the T’ang dynasty in China rivalled their power. A year into their rule, Arab armies defeated the T’ang at the Battle of Talas River, marking a significant victory. From their Chinese prisoners, they learnt the secrets of paper making, providing a cheaper, swifter way to document the knowledge they gathered and distribute their influence across the region.
To cement their authority, the Abbasid rulers built a new capital and invited the brightest minds to engage in the pursuit of knowledge and ideas that characterized the first few centuries of their rule. The early caliphs had learnt from the failures of their Umayyad predecessors, whose discriminatory policies weakened their grip on power. Instead, they welcomed people all faiths and cultures to their Madinat al-Salam, ‘city of peace’, adopting a spirit of openness that fuelled the intellectual achievements of the golden age.
Scholars, philosophers and astronomers flocked to Baghdad, drawn by the opportunities of this new academic age. Alongside them came merchants and tradesmen, eager to participate in the commercial boom that transformed the Abbasid capital into one of the wealthiest cities of the day.
The city’s prestige grew rapidly, particularly under the teenage prince Abū Ja'far al-Ma'mūn, whose made it his mission to own a copy of every work ever published. During his reign from 813 to 833, he would send emissaries abroad to source rare volumes from foreign libraries and often insisted that defeated rulers pay him in books rather than gold. The vast collection he amassed filled libraries around the new city, among them the famed House of Wisdom, where he launched his grand translation project to make the knowledge of the ancient world available in Arabic.
This is the inspiration and namesake behind Bayt Al Hikma, IBB’s flagship translation project, which aims to be a contemporary online version of this renowned academy. “The golden age was a time when freedom of expression flourished in the Arab world,” says Faisal Al Mutar, President of Ideas Beyond Borders. “By making works of science and culture available in Arabic, and supporting ideas through the Innovation Hub, we are drawing on the legacy of this era, when the pursuit of knowledge and enterprise was prized above all else.”
A Center of Learning
Construction of the new capital began in 766 under the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur. Vast resources were poured into the project, with 100,000 workers and craftsmen hired to complete the city in just four years. The results were spectacular, with “numerous suburbs, covered with parks, gardens, villas, and beautiful promenades, and plentifully supplied with rich bazaars, and finely built mosques and baths, (that) stretched for a considerable distance on both sides of the river,” according to accounts from tenth-century historian Yakut al-Hamawi.
He describes the circular layout of the city, which housed over a million people at its peak. “The city of Baghdad formed two vast semi-circles on the right and left banks of the Tigris, twelve miles in diameter.” On one side, were the palaces and mansions of the nobles, with “immense streets, none less than forty cubits wide, (that) traversed the city from one end to the other, dividing it into blocks or quarters, each under the control of an overseer or supervisor, who looked after the cleanliness, sanitation and the comfort of the inhabitants.” And at the centre of it all, a great park “several hours in circumference” surrounding the ruler’s palace.
Though nothing remains from this era, a handful of landmarks from the latter period of Abbasid rule still stand in Baghdad. The Abbasid Palace and the Mustansiriyyah madrasah, built by the caliph al-Mustansir in 1233, have both been restored over the years, showcasing the intricate design that characterized Abbasid architecture. The Sahrāwardī Mosque, which dates back to 1234, has also undergone several renovations while the Wasṭānī Gate, now an Arms Museum, is the only remaining example of four magnificent gates that once connected high walls protecting the medieval city from foreign incursions.
Unfortunately, there is little information at these sites to educate visitors about the age they represent. This has made Al Shammari’s mission more challenging, particularly as much of Iraq’s heritage has been removed from the country. “There is a legacy of looting when it comes to archaeology in Iraq,” says Ashley Barlow, Director of Creative Iraq, a UK-based consultancy that is supporting Al Shammari’s project.
He helped Al Shammari mine through Arabic texts in the British Museum, British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum and other venues around the UK and US to find anecdotes and stories that bring this history to life. They also commissioned photographers to visit surviving sites in Baghdad and document the ornate arches, vaulted ceilings and decorative stucco panelling that adorned Abbasid buildings. The result is a rich compendium of imagery and insights, tracing a path from the glories of the golden age to the legacy of this era in Iraq today.
Collapse of the Caliphate
Art and architecture thrived under the Abbasids, as the whirl of new ideas and creative endeavor infused the design studios of the day. Alongside the geometric and Arabesque forms commonly associated with Islamic art, Abbasid artists and architects drew inspiration from the human, animal and plant kingdoms to enrich their work. Al Shammari has drawn on these traditions in a series of designs that will be freely available online and are intended for wide-ranging use, from jewellery making and clothing to ornaments and poster art. “Many things here are made in China but we have this rich and huge history, so why not use it?” he says.
On the wall behind his desk hangs a painting of the Mustansiriyyah madrasah. It is one of his, an oil on canvas of the university at dusk, with shafts of evening sunlight crossing the courtyards where Baghdad’s brightest students once learnt. It is a building that has witnessed much of the city’s history, from its foundation as a global center of learning to the occupations, wars and corruption that have torn at its soul countless times since.
Only a few decades after it opened, the madrasah witnessed one of the worst catastrophes to befall Baghdad in medieval times, or in the centuries since. On February 13, 1258, Mongol forces entered the gates and laid waste to the city, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of citizens, including the caliph, in the siege of Baghdad. Many buildings were left in ruins, including the House of Wisdom.
This event marked the city’s decline as a global center of culture and learning. That week in 1258, the Tigris river is said to have run black from the ink of books and manuscripts thrown into the water by the Mongols. According to the writings of an eyewitness, "So many books were thrown into the Tigris River that they formed a bridge that would support a man on horseback." Many ancient texts were lost for good.
No physical remains of Baghdad’s central library have survived, but it’s legacy of connecting diverse peoples and empires through learning continues. Libraries and academic institutions bearing its name are found across the Middle East, linking modern education with this age of great learning, when knowledge was sought and celebrated above all else across the Arab world.
This is what Al Shammari captures in his painting of the Mustansiriyyah Madrasah, which he sees as “a symbol that knowledge and science transcends even the worst environment, that hope can be found in our surroundings.”
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This article was written by Olivia Cuthbert.