Iraq Afghanistan Egypt (Bright Star) United States Department of Defense

Home Major Focus Areas Protecting Cultural Property Iraq Laws, Treaties & Enforcement Test Your Knowledge
History & Culture
Dawn of Civilization
he Rise of Sumer and the Akkadian Empire
Assyria, Neo-Babylonia, Collapse
Achaemenid Rule
In the Wake of Alexander
Parthian & Sassanian Rule
The Rise of Islam
Rediscovering the Past
Significant Sites
Iraq Cultural Property Law, 2002
The Impact of War on Iraq's Cultural Heritage

The Islamic conquest has shaped the subsequent development of Mesopotamia, and from an early point in its development, set the foundation for the enduring Sunni/Shiite rivalry within Islam that still defines the political landscape of Iraq and the modern Middle East. 

The first Muslin caliph, or successor of Muhammad, took over Mesopotamia in a series of battles pitting Arab warriors mounted on camels and horses against the remaining Sassanian forces, which were several times larger in number and employed the Bradley Fighting Vehicle of its day, the war elephant. Basra and Kufa were founded as camps for these Arab warriors, who were organized into tribes; thus Kufa was divided into 15 main sections, each one allocated to one of the tribes. 

The fourth caliph, Ali, was both cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, married to his only child Fatima. This selection caused a split between those Muslims who thought the caliph should be a member of Muhammad’s family—the Shi’ites, and those who thought it should not be hereditary, the Sunnis.

Ali, considered both the embodiment of an ideal warrior and a pious, even saintly man, made Kufa his capital, and fought his rivals before being murdered by a member of a fundamentalist sect. His tomb is in Najaf. The next caliph was Mu’awiya, an opponent of Ali, who made Damascus his capital, and founded the Umayyad Caliphate, AD 661-750.

In 680, Ali’s son Husain (also spelled as Hussein) took up the Shi’ite cause, leading a small band of family members and followers into Iraq where they were crushed, massacred, on the plain of Karbala by an Umayyad army on the tenth day of the month of Muharram, known as Ashura. His martyrdom is seen as a means of redemption for Shi’ites, who today commemorate this occasion with mourning and even self-inflicted wounds.  Shi’ite sympathies in Iraq, claiming that only true descendants of the Prophet should lead Muslims, remained troublesome for the Umayyad caliphs, who were predominantly Sunni.

In 750, the Abbasid family, claiming descent from one of the Prophet’s uncles, raised an army to challenge the Ummayids. They appealed to the Shi’ites for support by agreeing with them that the caliphate should be filled by members of Muhammad’s family, and decisively defeated the Umayyads in Northern Mesopotamia near the Greater Zab river. In 762, they continued the tradition of successful conquerors of Mesopotamia and established their new capital, Baghdad, in the area where the two rivers almost meet, the capital district. By this time, Muslim lands stretched from Morocco to Central Asia.
 Another century would 
pass before Abbasids could consolidate, population and rule this vast disparate region.

       Return to top


Art, Architecture and Learning: The Rise of Baghdad.
The Abbasid period (750-1258) is considered the golden age of Muslim rule, a brilliant and tolerant civilization that encouraged scientific learning and the translation and updating of classics from other cultures. By 900 AD, the population of Mesopotamia numbered about 20 million, only slightly less than is the case for Iraq today. Baghdad, designed as a round city and known as Madinat al Salam (the City of Peace), housed the caliph’s palace, residences for elite guards and administrators inside the circle, with two major avenues connecting four gates, and a huge mosque in the center. 

Outside were residential areas, markets, and manufacturing sectors for leather, textiles and metalwork. The population was large and diverse, with different religious and ethnic groups tending to live in separate quarters and managing their own internal affairs with a fair degree of autonomy. By the year 900, the population of Baghdad was 1.5 million, larger than any European city and surpassed only by the great Chinese urban centers Beijing and Shanghai.
While no city matched Baghdad, Samarra was also significant. Founded originally as a military camp on the site of an ancient prehistoric village, the city was known for its famous mosque, with a distinctive spiral minaret, still evident today.  Western travelers were familiar with it, and it appears as the Tower of Babel in Western paintings.

During this golden age from about 750-900, learning and the arts flourished.  The tolerant Abbasids encouraged the translation of scientific, literary and philosophical subjects from the original sources in Greek, Aramaic, Persian and Sanskrit, especially favoring Greek scholars, whose works influenced Islamic theology and science. This work was done in the House of Wisdom, equipped with a library; the scholarly administrators were often Christians. Islamic scholars began producing their own work, excelling in mathematics, science, medicine and philosophy. The shari’a or Islamic law code was standardized. Arabic grammar was standardized, and the important rationalist school of thought was developed.

Christian, Jewish, Gnostic and Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims all contributed (the Abbasids were actually Sunni, despite having gained power with Shi’ite support). A contemporary scholar described Baghdad as “the greatest city, which has no peer in the east or the west of the world.”


Mongol Conquest.

 As the concentration of wealth increased, urban and rural uprisings led to religious rebellions, especially those led by Shi’ties, who felt perpetually aggrieved. As trade and commerce suffered, rulers depended on military might to keep the country in control. Relying on slave and mercenary forces, especially Turks imported from the east, militia commanders became powerful enough to control the caliphate and the succession process, keeping the caliphs like “birds in a cage”. 

In 1258, Baghdad was conquered by the Mongols under Hulegu Khan, who killed over 100,000 inhabitants, and destroyed and burned much of the city, including mosques, libraries and universities. So many priceless manuscripts were thrown into the Tigris that the water turned black from the ink. Baghdad declined in importance as the ruling Mongol dynasty made their capital Tabriz in Iran.

One consequence of this blow to the caliphate and Islamic (Sunni) orthodoxy was the emergence of the Sufi orders, or brotherhoods, who were mystics who emphasized emotional fulfillment through faith rather than the legalistic, rational approach 

Even greater suffering followed in 1401, when the Turkoman ruler Timur from Samarkand conquered Baghdad. In addition to massacres, looting and destruction comparable to Hulegu, he deported a large number of skilled workers and scholars to Samarkand. The city failed to recover even a small portion of its past importance. After this episode, Iraq fell under the control of rulers from Iran. One of these dynasties, the Safavids, converted their state to Shi’ism.


Ottoman Rule. The Safavids were challenged by the Ottoman Turks, who had conquered the Anatolian peninsula and taken Constantinople in 1453. They saw themselves as the leaders of Sunni Islam, for whom Shi’ism was a heresy that had to be stamped out. Under the Ottoman sultan Selim “the Grim”, the two powers clashed, and Mosul came under Ottoman control. By 1533, Suleiman “the Magnificent” conquered Iraq, and was given the keys to Baghdad by Sunni notables. He showed his goodwill by sparing the city any looting and destruction, but conflicts with Persia continued, adversely affecting Sunni-Shi’ite relations in Iraq.

Under Ottoman administration during the eighteenth century, Iraq was divided into three separate provinces and the consequences persist until today. Mosul and the Kurdish areas were closely integrated, while Baghdad and Basra were more loosely integrated, roughly corresponding to the current distribution of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.

Modern concepts of property rights and land holding laws were introduced by the Ottomans during the nineteenth century, a process designed to modernize the country and reduce the power of the tribal groups, who had previously organized agriculture, as well as leading the rank and file into battle. But tribal allegiances and aspects of the tribal structure persisted past the turn of the century to the start of World War I.

The ailing Ottoman dynasty, known as “the sick man of Europe”, an ally of Germany during World War I, collapsed at the end of the war. The French and British intervened and established their own spheres of influence in the Middle East, discouraging the hopes of the Arabs, who had fought the Turks and briefly established a kingdom in Syria. The formerly expelled King Feisal returned as the titular ruler of modern Iraq after the British created the country by combining the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul.

While Feisel’s brother Abdullah became king of Jordan and the founder of the Hashemite dynasty that rules there to this day. Such was not the case in Iraq, where the monarchy was overthrown in 1958 and the country was ruled by a series of strongmen who set the stage for the Ba’athist Party to seize the country in 1967, elevate Saddam Hussein to power and spawn the wretched series of events that culminated in the 2003 invasion and new beginning that Iraqis are now creating for themselves.

       Return to top