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The House of Wisdom

The House of Wisdom
Baghdad-900 CE

The Middle East was a crossroads linking Asia, Africa, and Europe. Merchant caravans loaded with spices, gold, perfumes, Persian carpets, sugar, silk, glass, & salt had to cross through the Middle East on their way to and from the markets of Asia. The best markets were, not surprisingly, found in the great cities like Baghdad, Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, Mecca, and Cordoba.

The Caliphs used the wealth from taxing the caravans, by building hospitals, schools, universities, public baths, libraries, gardens, astronomical observatories, and grand palaces- making the cities of the Muslim world some of the largest and grandest of the medieval world.

In 762, Baghdad was built to be the cultural, economic, and political heart of the Islamic Abbasid Empire. Built along the banks of the Tigris River the city of Baghdad (called the Round City because of the shape of its walls) boasted of a million people by the 900s, the largest city on earth at the time. Protecting the city were 3 large walls laid out in rings.

The inner-most ring surrounded the palace of the Caliph and his family. Travelers told tales of the palaces and mosques domed with gold and lapis lazuli (a blue gemstone). The suqs (pronounced sooks) were packed with merchants and buyers haggling for goods from around the world. The gardens, fountains, and public bathhouse created an oasis of green in an otherwise brown landscape.

The Abbasid's built the city of Baghdad nicknamed "The Round City" that remained the center of learning...
until it was sacked by the Mongols​

Abbasid scholars translated the works of thinkers from around the world. Among the books were the works of the Greek heavy weights Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. The Arabs built upon the logic and reason of the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Indians, and Chinese to work out complex problems such as the size of the earth and the cause of disease. 

So, why did this burst of knowledge come from the Middle East?

There were two reasons.

One, the Middle East was the middle man for traders traveling along the Silk Road. This provided wealth for the empire which was spent on public works projects to let everyone know how great the new Islamic Empire really was. Second, the religion of Islam encourages followers to be able to read and write Arabic- the language of the Quran. Boys and girls alike were expected to be literate.

Meanwhile in Europe, constant warfare, Viking raids, and the belief by the Catholic Church that knowledge that contradicted the Church was dangerous, kept learning out of the hands of the common person. Only a very few people in Medieval Europe could read or write. It wouldn't be until the 1300s & 1400s when the Renaissance brought back this knowledge to Europe in the form of Crusaders and merchants.

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The Sack of Baghdad



It was in the year 1257 when a small group of Mongol horseman made its way to the city of Baghdad with a message from the Great Khan himself. Mongke Khan sent his brother Hugalu with a message for the Caliph of Baghdad; submit to Mongol authority or die.  The Mongols saw the Islamic empire as a threat to their own which stretched from China to Russia. Unwisely, the Caliph chose to listen to his trusted Vizier and rejected the Great Khan’s demand. Instead he sent tribute but he refused to swear his loyalty. The beginning of the end of the Islamic Golden Age had begun. The Caliph replied that no army had ever been able to get past the cities towering walls. Plus, all of the Islamic world would surely rise up to defend the very heart of the empire.



But the Caliph was arrogant and unwise. He ignored the fact that the great center of the Islamic world had been in decay for centuries. The bustling markets that once awed visitors had become deserted as merchants made their way to other cities. The walls had been neglected and fallen into disrepair. Even the army which once had over a hundred thousand troops now only had  dropped to 60,000.


But most damaging of all was that the Caliph didn’t realize that his trusted vizier had other plans. (if only he had watched the Disney version of Aladdin he would have known how untrustworthy Viziers can be) Secretly he schemed with the Mongols to take the Caliphate for himself. The armies of Egypt and Syria did not come. They were too busy fighting the Crusaders who had invaded the Holy Land.

Who Are You calling a Mongke?


When Mongke Khan heard this he ordered Hugalu to level the city to the ground. The Mongol conscripted one out of every ten men to serve in the Mongol attack on Baghdad. The 150,000 man army was the largest ever assembled by any Mongol ruler. The Mongols set up a siege around the city and set up trebuchets to hurl stones from demolished houses in the suburbs. He then ordered the on the Tigris River be demolished unleashing a torrent of water on the defenders camp. The Caliph sent out 20,000 cavalry to break the siege but they were driven back, most of them drowned in the Tigris River trying to escape.


The Mongols, having broken through the walls, went through the city on an orgy of violence. Palaces were looted and the grand House of Wisdom was burned to the ground. Its tens of thousands of books were dumped into the Tigris to make a bridge for the Mongol army. No is sure how many people died in those weeks following the Mongol sack of Baghdad, some say 100,000 some say the number is closer to a million. What is certain is that the Mongols brought to an end the reign of the Abbasids and an era known as the Golden Age of Islam. The Mongols didn’t stay long. A few decades later a new Islamic empire–The Ottomans– would begin its rise to the north in Turkey. As for the Vizier, he never did get his Caliphate.

Mongols 1: Everyone Else: Dead

Islamic Spain

Cordoba: The Light of the World


Before the Moors (another name for North African Muslims) took control, Spain was a sparsely populated land in the middle of the Dark Ages – one of the greatest economic depressions the world has ever known. Most of Spain’s five million people lived as peasant farmers who rarely traveled far from their village, seldom bathed, couldn’t read a book, and died at the ripe old age of 40.


The city of Cordoba in Spain was just another medieval backwater town as ancient as the Romans until 711 when the Umayyads came pouring across the Strait of Gibraltar, turning most of Christian Spain into the Islamic kingdom of Al-Andalus. At the center of Al-Andalus was Cordoba that grew into one of the greatest cities on earth. Connected to Egypt, India, and Constantinople through vast trade routes, Cordoba was a part of a cultural empire united by Islamic values and Arab culture.


In the 900s, Cordoba was already under Moorish rule for two hundred years and had grown into the largest city in Europe. With 500,000 people, the capital of Al Andalus was far larger than even Paris which topped out at 350,000. But unlike Paris or London, Cordoba had brick streets lined with lemon and orange trees and lit by oil streetlights at night. Numerous gardens with elaborate fountains dotted courtyards of public parks and the homes of wealthy residents. The markets were thriving with exotic goods like cotton and sugar which were imported from India.


Welcome to Cordoba:


Spread throughout the city were grand public buildings meant to impress. The city boasted of 60,300 palaces, 600 mosques, and 700 bath houses. Most impressive of all were the libraries, some with 10,000 manuscripts about everything from science to Greek Philosophy to the history of the Romans. At a time when books had to be handmade (that’s what manuscript means) using animal skins or paper, this was no easy (or cheap) feat.


Most impressive of all was the Great Cathedral-Mosque that was the heart of Cordoba. The history of the Great Mosque is a like a history of Spain itself. Originally on the site, there once stood a pagan temple to Roman gods. Then when the Visigoths converted to Christianity, the place was razed to the ground and the church of St. Vincent stood in its place. Then along came the Moors who bought the church out and turned it into a Mosque.


The Mosque was given some extra fancy touches such as an enormous prayer hall supported by 856 arched columns made of jasper, onyx, and marble left over from the original Roman ruins.  In 1236, the Spanish Christian kings of the north captured Cordoba and the Great Mosque became a Cathedral once again. The Islamic minarets were converted into bell towers which called Christians to prayer for the first time in 400 years. Today, the Great Mosque is still a cathedral, but it is also a World Heritage Site that draws in thousands of tourists each year.


However, all good things must come to an end, and by the 1000s the Golden Age of Cordoba was coming to a close.

One visiting Saxon nun called Cordoba “the light of the world.” Many visitors over the centuries said similar things.
The city of Cordoba is like a mirror into a lost world, a time we call the Golden Age of Islamic civilization. When the city was under good management, the people prospered. And when it fell under corrupt rulers, chaos and religious strife took over.

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