This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
Mahdi and his wife Rita hurried down to the locked, underground storeroom in a palace in central Baghdad. They didn’t know exactly what they would find behind the door that had remained barred to the outside world for all these years, but they were expecting great treasures of one kind or another: prodigious stores of gold and silver, precious stones and priceless artefacts. They were in for a shock.
As the door opened, they were confronted not with piles of riches, but by an altogether less welcome sight. The vast chamber was filled with corpses. Row after row of bodies stretched before them. Boys and girls, old men and women, all ages and both sexes. All were Shia Muslims. In a macabre twist, there was a tag in the ear of every corpse, detailing the name and genealogy of the victim.
It might have been Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad in 1985, but it was in fact 12 centuries earlier. The ruler who had ordered these executions was the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur, founder of Baghdad, ironically dubbed the ‘City of Peace’, which would go on to become the great centre of the Islamic world for the next 500 years. And the man who had stumbled across the corpses in AD 775 was his son and heir.
Mansur was part of the Abbasid dynasty, a powerful Arab family living in what was then the Umayyad caliphate. In 750, Abbasid forces had defeated a much larger Umayyad army on the banks of the Great Zab river, a tributary of the Tigris in northern Iraq. Damascus fell in the same year and the Abbasid caliphate was born, inheriting an empire that stretched from the shores of the Atlantic in the west to the mountains of central Asia in the east.
If Saddam’s relentless persecution of the Shia – not to mention the Kurds, Jews and anyone of any stripe who opposed his regime in any way – earned him the ‘Butcher of Baghdad’ moniker in the 20th century, there is no better candidate than Mansur for the title in the eighth century.
The corpse-filled storeroom, which Mansur had ordered sealed until his death, was chilling evidence of the deliberate policy he, as a Sunni, had pursued against the Shia descendants of Ali and his wife Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Mansur’s methodical persecution of the Shia was an early indication of the destructive tensions between Sunni and Shia in Baghdad and beyond.
During the next 13 centuries this sectarian division would periodically boil over into violence and see blood flow in Baghdad’s streets. The rampaging carnage witnessed across Iraq today – 2013 was the deadliest year since 2008, with an estimated 8,955 killed, an average of almost 25 a day – can be traced to the earliest days of Mansur’s Baghdad. Strife and instability on a grand scale are inseparable from the history of the city. Baghdad is the capital of a country that is the fulcrum of the Sunni-Shia divide. In fact, it was just 60 miles south-west of the city – at the battle of Karbala in AD 680 – that the seeds of the sectarian split within Islam were sown when an Umayyad army crushed forces led by the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein.
From what we are told of him in the histories, the caliph Mansur shared many of the qualities that came to be associated with the city he founded. There was, on the one hand, extreme refinement, undoubted vision, generosity of spirit, organisational genius, commercial acumen and religious piety. On the other hand he possessed a capacity for explosive violence and extreme cruelty, a murderous temper and a deep vein of religious intolerance. In the manifest strengths and failings of Mansur’s character there lay a microcosm of Baghdad’s future path.
Good Islamic lives
Tall and slim with a wispy beard, Mansur was a pious Muslim and a fine orator who preached in his own mosque at Friday prayers, urging the faithful to lead good Islamic lives. Unlike some of his more high-spirited successors, he did not drink wine and disapproved vigorously of music. Once, we are told, having heard music somewhere in his palace, he discovered a eunuch playing the tunbur, or mandolin. He immediately ordered the instrument to be broken over the eunuch’s head, after which the miscreant was sent to be sold in the slave-market.
Hard-working, prone to long periods of reflection, and relentlessly driven, Mansur began his day well before sunrise with private and then household prayers, after which he would adjourn to his iwan (arched audience chamber) to attend to affairs of state. After a siesta, he would spend afternoons relaxing with his family, before evening prayers, correspondence and government business took him to bed at 10 o’clock.
War and killing were in Mansur’s blood, as they had been for his predecessor, the first Abbasid caliph, Al Saffa, ‘The Shedder of Blood’. Much of Mansur’s 21-year reign was taken up with consolidating the power of the new dynasty and suppressing rebellions, two of which erupted and were quickly put down during the building of Baghdad.
In the magisterial history of the Abbasids by the ninth-century historian Muhammad ibn Jarir al Tabari, the section on Mansur is a whirlwind of summary executions. “‘Cut off his head!’ cried [Mansur], and he was taken and decapitated,” reads a typical line. “[Mansur] gave the order and his head was cut off,” goes another.
When it came to killing sworn enemies or his most unswervingly loyal supporters, like the general Abu Muslim, who had helped bring the Abbasids to power, there was nothing remotely sentimental or squeamish about Mansur. The caliph’s executions were so numerous, in fact, that there are instances when the historian wonders how he found the time to attend to other affairs of state.
Mansur’s meanness was legendary. He was nicknamed Abul Dawanik, the Father of Pennies, a reference to his relentless scrimping and saving. The 10th-century historian Masudi recorded some telling anecdotes about Mansur in his wonderful book The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, an engaging history of the world from Adam and Eve to the Abbasid caliphate. “Mansur’s prudence, the rectitude of his judgment and the excellence of his policies are beyond all description,” he acknowledged. “He did not avoid the most extravagant generosity when there was something to be had in exchange, but he would refuse the smallest favour if granting it entailed loss.”
At the time of his death, Masudi wrote, Mansur left 14m dinars and 600m dirhams in the treasury (a single gold dinar was worth around 20 silver dirhams and each dirham weighed around 3 grams). Nevertheless, “this great fortune did not prevent him from being miserly, nor did it prevent him from going into details which even a commoner ignores. Thus, he contracted with his cook that the latter should keep the heads, feet and skins in exchange for providing the firewood and seasonings.” Such a hands-on and niggardly approach to accounting had its advantages, not least for his son, Mahdi.
The first of Mansur’s two greatest legacies – though it has all-too rarely managed to live up to its name as the City of Peace – was Baghdad. By the time of Mansur’s death during his hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca in 775, Baghdad was, in the words of the ninth-century Arab geographer and historian Yakubi, “the crossroads of the universe”, a capital unequalled either in the east or west, a city that attracted superlatives as easily as the cool waters of the Tigris flowed through it.
Its design was startlingly innovative. “They say that no other round city is known in all the regions of the world,” wrote Al Khatib al Baghdadi, the 11th-century author of the History of Baghdad, a mine of information on its construction. Within the massive round walls, at the heart of the city was a great circular space, some 6,500 feet in diameter, in the centre of which stood the Great Mosque and the caliph’s Golden Gate Palace, a classically Islamic expression of the union between temporal and spiritual authority.
Palaces, mosques, markets, shrines, colleges and grand houses sprang up as, within just a few years, the new city became the cultural zenith of the Islamic world and the intellectual capital of the planet.
A golden age
Mansur’s second legacy was the Abbasid caliphate, which endured to 1258, when Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, descended on the city with his Mongol hordes and sacked it. For much of its 500 years, the dynasty presided over some of the most extraordinary scientific, artistic and cultural achievements on Earth. Poets and writers, scientists and mathematicians, musicians and physicians, historians, legalists and lexicographers, theologians, philosophers and astronomers, even cookery writers, together made this a golden age.
“Arab Muslims now studied astronomy, alchemy, medicine and mathematics with such success that, during the 9th and 10th centuries, more scientific discoveries had been achieved in the Abbasid empire than in any previous period of history,” wrote Karen Armstrong in A History of God. As Richard Coke observed in his 1927 study of the city: “Baghdad was born at an auspicious moment, which predestined the city to become not merely the administrative capital of a mighty empire, not merely the greatest trading centre of the early Middle Ages, but a focus of world culture and refinement, the goal of every man of talent from central Asia to the Atlantic.”
Though his name has been largely eclipsed by that of his grandson Harun al-Rashid, the street-prowling doyen of The Arabian Nights, Mansur was probably the most visionary and talented of the 37 Abbasid caliphs who ruled from Baghdad. The greatest tribute to his reign was the story of what followed it. Mansur bequeathed a dynasty that would endure for five centuries in the capital he had built, and a treasury that would sustain it. He set the stage for one of the most extraordinary periods in the history of civilisation.
A tale of two autocrats
How does Saddam Hussein’s legacy compare with Mansur’s?
The parallels between Mansur and Saddam, Butchers of Baghdad separated by 1,200 years, are irresistible. To begin with, both based their rule on a vicious suppression of the Shia population.
Both were autocratic rulers who cowed their subjects into submission. However, the sheer ghastly inventiveness of the punishments inflicted on Iraqis by Saddam’s Baathist regime suggests a perversion unique even in Iraqi history.
Posterity is likely to judge Saddam much less favourably than Mansur. The Abbasid caliph founded a great city and presided over a caliphate whose fabulous riches provided the perfect setting for one of the most extraordinary periods of civilisation the world had ever witnessed. Saddam inherited and squandered vast oil wealth, led his country into three ruinous wars and turned Iraq into a giant prison and failed state.
Mansur proved a more enlightened ruler by far. Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted more or less harmoniously during his reign. Even before he came to power, Saddam had the Jews of Iraq in his sights. As vice-president in 1969, he paraded nine Jewish corpses on scaffolds in Baghdad’s Liberation Square. It was, wrote the eyewitness Max Sawdayee, a “perfect, masterly, cold-blooded, wicked, diabolic” display… “It shakes even one’s faith in humanity.”
The Jews of Iraq were subsequently hounded into virtual extinction. As for the Christian community that once numbered 1.5 million, it was decimated to around 100,000 in the wake of the 2003 invasion that was Saddam’s final footnote in the history of Baghdad.
Justin Marozzi’s latest book, Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood, is out now.