When Baghdad was centre of the scientific world:Islamic science had its heyday in the ninth century, thanks to Abū Ja’far al-Ma’mūn’s House of Wisdom, says Jim al-Khalili

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The Observer, Sunday 26 September 2010
Bab al-Sharqi district of Baghdad
The Bab al-Sharqi district of Baghdad as it is today. Photograph: Wikipedia

The Bab al-Sharji district in the centre of Baghdad derives its name, which means east gate, from the medieval fortifications of the city. These walls were probably built around the first half of the 10th century. During the brief British stay at the end of the first world war, its gatehouse was used as a garrison church. Nothing of those medieval walls, or the east gate, remains today; I remember Bab al-Sharji as a sprawling, noisy and bustling square, with its food stalls and secondhand record shops scattered around the busy bus depot and taxi ranks. But its name is a reminder of the expansion and transformation of this proud city over the years since its foundation in AD762 as the new seat of power of the mighty Abbasid empire. Indeed, no other city on Earth has had to put up with the levels of death and destruction that Baghdad has endured over the centuries. And yet, as the capital of one of the world’s great empires, this was the richest, proudest, most supercilious city on the planet for half a millennium.

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