First Iranians who planned the City Design of Baghdad

Originally Published Online on May 20, 2005

Baghdad, situated on the Tigris River (in Persian: Rood-e-Dejleh), is the capital of Iraq and the Baghdad Province. It is the second largest city in Southwest Asia after Tehran (the capital city of Iran), with the population estimated at 5,772,000 in 2003. The city of Baghdad was founded on the west bank of the Tigris at some point between 762 and 767 (about 1240 years ago) when Caliph Mansur of the Abbasid dynasty was in power (754-775). This city replaced the glories of Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persian Empire during Sassanids, and Damascus and it rose to become as the capital of the Muslim World. Its commercial position became generally unrivaled and under the caliph Harunolrashid (ruled 786-809), it was the home of a group of eminent scholars, poets, and artists (mostly Iranians, and Egyptians) who enjoyed the city’s wealth and culture. The period of its utmost glory is reflected in the Book of Thousand and One Nights (in Persian: Hezaar-o-Yekshab), in which many of the tales are set in Baghdad. After the death of Harunolrashid in 809, the seat of the caliph was moved to Samarra (in Persian: Saamereh). It should be also noted that a French physician living in Baghdad in 1870 claimed that the founding of Baghdad dates back to a very ancient time and he referred to a Babylonian town called Bak-da-du in 12th Century BC. There has not been, however, any evidence to support the find of the French physician.

Though the origin of the city’s name is uncertain, some believe Baghdad is from the Persian for “God Given” derived from God (in Persian: bagh) and Given (in Persian: daadeh), while others believe it is from the Persian for “Garden of Justice” derived from Garden (in Persian: baagh) and Justice (in Persian: daad). When Baghdad was first founded, a circular wall was built around it, and Baghdad became known as the “Round City”. The roundness of course points to the fact that it was based on Persian precedents such as Firouzabad (in the province of Fars in presen-day Iran). In fact, it is now known that the two designers who were hired by Mansur to plan the city’s design were two Iranians named Naubakht-e-Parsi, a former Persian Zoroastrian, and Mashallah-e-Assiri, a former Jew from Khorassan (a northeastern province in present-day Iran). The life story of Naubakht is convoluted and opaque, often to the point of total obscurity. It is only documented that he worked together with Mashallal to make the measurements necessary for the building of Baghdad. The evidences also indicate that Naubakht’s son, Fadl (spelled also as Fazl), wrote astrological treatises and translations from the Persian into Arabic. Mashallah was an 8th century Iranian astronomer. His real name was probably Manasseh, and Latin translators named him Messahala (with many variants, as Macellama, Macelarma and also Mashallah Athari or Assiri). His birth-date is unknown, but his death is reported in 815. He translated many scientific books from Persian to Arabic. Of his 19 works, few remained. Only one of his writings is extant, and is in Arabic, but there are many Medieval Latin and Hebrew translations. His most popular book in the Middle Ages was the De Scientia Motus Orbis, translated by Gherardo Cremonese. This book is probably the treatise called in Arabic “the twenty-seventh”; printed in Nuremberg in 1501 and 1549. Authored by Mashallah, an Irish translation of an astronomical book also exists based in part on a mediaeval Latin version.

As already noted Naubakht and Mashallah founded Baghdad as a Round City. In adopting this design, the caliph Mansur aimed at making himself as secure and isolated as possible. The city itself had four gates, each named after the historical personalities of the Abbasids. All of these gateways were duplicated both in the middle and inner walls. The gates of the inner wall lead directly to four main streets, into the great central enclosure, a circle perhaps as large as 1800 meters in diameter. The Caliph’s Palace and the Great Mosque occupied the middle of this circle. The palace was named the Golden Gate and was remarkably built. One of its most impressive features was a great green dome, surmounted by a figure of a horseman, which moved as the wind changed direction. Four years after the completion of the Round City of Baghdad, construction work began on the east side of the Tigris.

It appears now that Baghdad is again looking for Iranians to assist her not only in building up the roads and transportation facilities but also to help the country in many other fields!

EPILOGUES (Posted September 2012)
1. Baghdad was designed as a circle about 2 km in diameter, leading it to be known as the “Round City”. Within the city there were many parks, gardens, villas, and promenades as a direct reflection of the traditional Persian Sasanian urban design which contrasted with Ancient Greek and Roman urban planning. The Abbasids considered themselves the inheritors of two traditions: the Arabian-Islamic (bearers of the mantle of Muhammad) and the Persian (successors to the Sassanid monarchs). Naubakht and Mashallah determined that the date of the foundation should be astrologically auspicious and on July 30, 762, the construction was commissioned so the city would be built under the sign of the lion. The city’s growth was helped by its location, which gave it control over strategic and trading routes, along the Tigris. In its early years the city was known as a deliberate reminder of an expression in the Quran, when it refers to Paradise (View here).

2. Within a generation of its founding, Baghdad became a hub of learning and commerce. The Abbasid dynasty had a strong Persian bent and adopted many practices from the Sassanid empire – among those, that of translating foreign works, except that now, works were translated into Arabic. For this purpose, al-Mansur founded a palace library, modeled after the Sassanid Imperial Library named the House of Wisdom. The House of Wisdom was originally established to translate and preserve Persian works, then Syrian and eventually Greek and Sanskrit. Works on mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and philosophy were thus translated. This was the high point of Islamic civilization (View here).

3. The House of Wisdom eventually acquired a reputation as a center of learning, although universities as we know them did not yet exist at this time — transmission of knowledge was done directly from teacher to student, without any institutional surrounding. Schoolsbegan to develop in the city from the 9th century, and in the 11th century the Islamic University of Al-Nizamiyya was founded.Along with all other libraries in Baghdad, the House of Wisdom was destroyed during the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258 (View here).

4. The Plan for Greater Baghdad was a project done by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright for a cultural center, opera house, and university on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq, in 1957-58. The most thoroughly developed aspects of the plan were the opera house, which would have been built on an island in the middle of the Tigris together with museums and a towering gilded statue of Harun al-Rashid, and the university. Due to the 1958 collapse of the Hashemite monarchy, development of the project stopped, and it was never built (View here).

Manouchehr Saadat Noury, PhD

Durant, W. (1950): The Age of Faith: A History of Medieval Civilization, ed., New York: Simon and Schuster Publications, USA.
Holden, J. (1996): A History of Horoscopic Astrology, American Federation of Astrologers, ed., Tempe, AZ, USA.
Saadat Noury, M. (2005): Various Articles on Persian History & First Iranians.
Various Sources (2005): Notes and Articles on Baghdad, in English and in Persian.
Wikipedia Encyclopedia (2005): Online Notes on Baghdad and Mashallah.


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