Cities of Literature: Baghdad


Scholars in a library in Baghdad, illustration from a 13th-century manuscript. (Image Source)

With the Literary Map of Peterborough still very much under construction (it goes, if slowly, with dots added here and there at a relaxed sort of pace, which is the only pace the computer is allowing me these days), it is time to turn our attention further afield, and look at another of the UNESCO Cities of Literature.  Today, we cast an eye over the city of Baghdad, capital of Iraq, so read on for a tale of two libraries…

Baghdad (current population 7.7 million) has been a city for a long time (it was founded in A.D. 762), and it has been a place of scholarship, study, and indeed literature almost since its beginning.  At the centre of that phenomenon in the city’s early days was the Bayt al-Hikma — the “House of Wisdom” — a library and academy and general place of scholarship.  Its date of founding, and indeed its location in the city, are the subject of a great deal of debate, but a general consensus seems to be that it began as a collection of manuscripts during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid (reigned 786-809) and was expanded — in size, holdings, and use — under his son Al-Ma’mun (reigned 813-833).

So what did the House of Wisdom contain in its collection?  The answer, by all accounts, is “practically everything.”  The institution was the origin point and epicentre of the Islamic Golden Age’s Translation Movement, which saw works on just about any topic you could name, and in nearly as many languages, imported to Baghdad for translation into Arabic.  Scholars working at the House of Wisdom also produced a vast body of original work, particularly in areas such as theology, philosophy, astronomy, geography, engineering, and medicine.  And, to over-simply a long, complicated, and interesting history, many of those translated and original works eventually made their way westward and contributed heavily to the beginning of the European Renaissance.

In fact, it is probably unfair to refer to the House of Wisdom as a library, in the modern sense, or at least as only a library.  While it certainly fulfilled that function, it also served as a place for scholarly debate and discussion, and as a centre for advanced scientific research.  One description of it (from this article here) notes the number and types of activities that took place there:

“In the House of Wisdom, translators, scientists, scribes, authors, men of letters, writers, authors, copyists and others used to meet every day for translation, reading, writing, scribing, discourse, dialogue and discussion.”

The House of Wisdom was as much a university, in the modern sense, as it was “just” a library.

All good things must come to an end.  The House of Wisdom faded away somewhat, as a centre for scholarship, during the reigns of later, less scholastically liberal, Abbasid Caliphs.  But it remained an impressive institution up until its destruction, during the Mongol siege of Baghdad in 1258.  Although 400,000 manuscripts were saved, enough were destroyed — by being thrown into the Tigris River — that witnesses reported that the water ran black with ink.


It was not water, but fire, that destroyed (or nearly destroyed) the modern-day Iraq National Library and Archive.  Between April 10th and 13th, 2003, the library in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Bab Al-Moatham was looted and burned in the chaos that followed the capture of the city by American forces.  Per the library’s Wikipedia article, “an estimated 60 percent of its total archival materials, 25 percent of its books, newspapers, rare books, and most of its historical photographs and maps were destroyed.”  U.S. troops, stationed across the street at the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, declined to intervene in the destruction.  Fortunately, a steel door, and the subsequent evacuation of many materials to safe-keeping in a mosque, protected the rest of the collection, and the library has resumed operation.

The Iraq National Library and Archive began as the Baghdad Peace Library under British colonial rule in 1920.  By the early 1950s, it was the Baghdad Public Library, and located at its current site in Bab Al-Moatham.  After the July 14th Revolution of 1958, which overthrew the Iraqi monarchy, it took on its current role as the national library and archives.  At the time of the 2003 looting, the Iraq National Library’s collection included: “417,000 books, 2,618 periodicals dating from the late Ottoman era to modern times, and a collection of 4,412 rare books and manuscripts.”

As mentioned, the Iraq National Library and Archive is operating again, and has been since 2007.  Apart from its role as a publicly-accessible collection of books and documents, the library has recently (in the past couple of weeks, in fact), hosted seminars and workshops on rebuilding the country, as well as on the preservation and archiving of library materials.   The library has also been taking steps to digitize its collection, in case it once again falls victim to war.  And that is not an idle fear, either; in early 2015, ISIL militants burned down the public library in Mosul, 400 km. north of Baghdad, destroying 8000 rare books and other works.

Mideast Iraq Digitizing History

A reading room at the Iraq National Library and Archive in 2015. (Image Source)

Longtime library director Saad Eskander’s diary of the restoration and re-opening of the Iraq Nation Library and Archives in 2006 and 2007 is available to be read online here — it’s harrowing, but worthwhile to take a look.  Eskander also spoke, in a 2012 interview, about the role of the library in Iraq’s still-ongoing recovery from the war:

“Policymakers still think that they will win the war against terrorism by the mere use of force, not through spreading humanistic and tolerant cultural values. Our experience proves that progressive culture is vital to the winning of the war against terrorism. Libraries, archives, and museums have a role to play in the formation of true national identity; an identity transcends religious, regional, and ethnic boundaries. A clear-cut and inclusive national identity is what Iraq has been lacking since the British left their mark on the country after World War I.”

And that is a quote we will come back to again at some future date.


To return for a moment, to the earlier Baghdad library, the House of Wisdom: if you would like to read more about it, I can recommend a couple of fairly recent books on it.  The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, by Jim Al-Khalili (2011), and The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, by Jonathan Lyons (2009), are both worthwhile reads.  Both incidentally, are also available at our very own Peterborough Public Library — and by happy coincidence, that is where we will be going in our next post here, on Friday.

Thank you for reading!


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1 Response to Cities of Literature: Baghdad

  1. Pingback: The Peterborough Mechanics’ Institute: Part 1 | Peterboriana

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