Here are comments on two excerpts (both cited) from the Tarikh Baghdad aw Madinat as-Salam, a history of Baghdad written in the eleventh century by the Arab intellectual al-Khatib al-Baghdadi; this is an original translation from the Arabic. “Histories” of that age often included a variety of genres such as poetry, philosophy, and hadiths. Original descriptive history constituted only a small part of al-Baghdadi’s work. The first excerpt is a transmitted poem, and the second is Baghdadi’s original comment.
There was a legend, told by augurs and astrologers, that none of the Abbasid caliphs would ever die in the city of Baghdad. It was prophecized that every one of them would end their lives in some foreign country, or else outside of the city walls:
Have you seen in the length and width of the earth another land
like Baghdad? She is heaven on earth.
Life in Baghdad is serene and all its branches burst with green.
Life away from Baghdad is vague and dull.
The Lord has ordained that no caliph will die
in Baghdad; God decides the judgment of the fate of his creatures.
The foreigner slumbers in Baghdad, but you will not see
a foreigner anywhere in the land of Syria even able to doze.*
According to al-Baghdadi, historians debated over whether the legend was true; there was disagreement over whether a particular caliph died outside of the city walls.
Baghdad, once the capital of an Islamic state that stretched from the Loire Valley to the edges of modern Pakistan, began to decline dramatically in the eleventh century. Famine and plagues ravaged Iraq; dams and roads went decades without maintenance; law schools and public markets were demolished by sectarian rioters: Sunnis raging against Shi’ites, Sunnis raging against Sunnis. But al-Baghdadi loved his city, which he referred to as “the navel of the world,” and his people:
So the people of Iraq blended, even to the colors of their bodies, and they were free from the blondeness of the Romans and the Slavs, from the blackness of the Ethiopians and other foreigners of Sudan, from the harshness of the Turks, from the cold dryness of the mountain people and the Khurasanians, from the ugliness of the Chinese and those who like them; the Iraqis are free from all of them.*
The political dissolution of classical Islamic civilization was sealed by the capture and destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258. According to a story repeated by Marco Polo, the conquerors were so astonished by the amount of treasure in the city that they locked the last Abbasid caliph in a tower of gold and starved him to death. Perhaps al-Baghdadi’s sources would argue that this caliph did not technically die in the city, since he had expired within its walls.
Henry Stratakis-Allen, College of William & Mary ’23
*The text is translated from On the Withdrawal of Caliphs from Baghdad, Ummara bin Aqil bin Bilal in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (p. 377, vol. 1), and al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (p. 320, vol.1), from the edition published by the Dar al-Gharb al-Islami, edited by B. ‘A. Ma’ruf (Beirut, 1422/2001).