Academic journal article Social Education

The Baghdad That Was: Using Primary Sources to Teach World History

Academic journal article Social Education

The Baghdad That Was: Using Primary Sources to Teach World History

Article excerpt

That primary source documents have the power to bring the past alive is no news to social studies teachers. What is new in the last 10 years is the number of digitized documents available online that teachers can download and use in their classrooms. Because of the leadership of organizations like the National Archives and the Library of Congress, and the ease with which even local historical associations and universities throughout the United States can digitize their collections, most of these resources relate to American history. Documents for teaching world history, which for the main part have been translated from another language into English, are also available--though it may take more persistence to find them. Encouraging teachers to utilize this ever-increasing treasure trove of resources was the goal of Syd Golston when she organized the NCSS conference session "It's the Real Thing: Primary Source Activities for World History" for which I prepared the following the lesson plan. (1)

My purpose was to find documents on the web that would bring to life some aspect of Muslim history. After surveying the field of digitized Arabic-to-English documents, I narrowed my focus to primary sources about Baghdad for two compelling reasons: first is the important role Baghdad played in world history; (2) second has been the inescapable presence of war-torn images of Baghdad on our TV screens. With encouraging signs about a renewed future of this capital city, I considered ways that primary source documents could help students imagine Baghdad at its height--as a great hub of civilization under the Abbasid Empire (749 CE to 1258 CE). By learning about Baghdad's role in history, my students would become better informed about the past. They would also gain insight and empathy about Baghdad's current status and what it means to many people around the world today, especially Muslims.

The city was founded in 762 CE by Caliph al-Mansur. With the end of Ummyad rule centered in Damascus, al-Mansur was seeking a new capital for what would become the Abbasid dynasty. He traveled along the Tigris River where he found a small town well situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. His plans for an expanded city included fortifying it within circular walls. Four gates functioned like spokes in the wheel of the city's walls. To the southeast lay the Basra Gate that led to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The Damascus Gate to the northwest opened the city's doors to Syria and the Mediterranean. The Khurasan Gate to the northeast led to Persia, Central Asia and the Silk Roads while the Kufah Gate, with access to the southwest, led to Medina and Mecca. Situated between important overland trade routes that linked the city to both the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, Baghdad quickly became a major world metropolis at a time when London and Paris were in their infancy. It was the Caliphs who encouraged scholars--including Muslims, Jews; and Christians--to translate ancient Greek texts into Arabic, and to build upon what the Greeks discovered with new scientific and technological advances of their own. Thus Baghdad and its famed library, the Bayt al Hikmah, became a center of learning.

We cannot see that city now--unlike other great historic cities such as Constantinople or Rome--little physical evidence of Baghdad's glory remains. Its geographical setting explains some of the reasons why. The alluvial plain in which the metropolis is situated did not have quarries for building with stone, but was perfect for producing mud bricks, which were either baked in the sun or fired. This is a convenient building material, but not one that endures the centuries. In addition, the alluvial plain provided no natural defenses, leaving the city prey to attacks over the centuries. After its sacking by the Mongols in 1258 CE, Timur, also known as Tamerlane, further destroyed Baghdad in 1393 CE such that little architecture of its golden age survives. …

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