Barbarism Dies Hard: Mongol and US Destruction of Baghdad

“The most reliable and most widely accepted view of the etymology of the name “Baghdad” is that it is a Middle Persian compound of Bag “god” + dād “given,” translating to “god-given” or “God’s gift,” whence Modern Persian Baɣdād. The name is pre-Islamic and the origins are unclear.”

Johnny Wink, a former colleague alongside whom I taught for 42 years,  possesses  one of the most fertile minds I’ve ever had the privilege of engaging. His legendary intellectual prowess is expansive. In addition to mastering all matters of metrics, grammar, linguistics, writing, literary criticism, current events, world history, geography, and composing poems and essays on myriad subjects, he speaks and reads Greek, French, Spanish, German, Russian, and Latin, one of the most popular classes he teaches. And he’s dabbled in Arabic and Hebrew.

Johnny’s known for sending almost daily emails to former/current students and colleagues and friends across the planet. His missives include original poems, quotations, critiques of texts covering a range of grammatical, syntactical, and revelatory interpretive and argumentative fine points on  composition,  language and its idiosyncrasies,  its cadence, its beauty, and its uses as well as its abuses.

Last week Duderino (one of Wink’s many appellations) sent the following original, a Dude Winkian Shakespearean sonnet:

The Etymology of Bagdad
I tell my pupils that it means Dad’s garden,
but they are skeptical, especially
Ramona, who guffaws, says, “Beg your pardon,
Ole Duderino, you have got to be
putting us on.”  “Perish the thought, O pale
Ramona,” I reply.  “I will admit
it sounds just like some cockamamie tale
I might invent.  But Gibbon will acquit
Ole Duderino of the charge.  He’ll tell
about a Christian hermit name o’ Dad,
who, back before Baghdad, lived in a cell.
Guess where?  I’ll bet you’ll say ‘Egad!’
when I have filled you in.  Or maybe ‘Gag
me with a spoon.’  Persian for garden’s bag.

To which I responded thusly:

Habibi Hanna (le nom Arabe baptisé),

[Deliberate, exaggerated misspelling to emphasize the Arabic Ghayn, one of the five deeply formed and richly expressive guttural sounds that are formed as far back in the throat as possible]  Baggghhhdaad  was obliterated twice. The first destruction occurred when the Mongols descended on the Abbasid Caliphate’s capital in 1258 AD, killing hundreds of thousands of Baghdadis, burning tens of thousands of manuscripts, looting, and destroying over 500 years of cultural achievements that were the apex of Arab civilization in the Levant. The second time was in 2003 when the deranged, malapropic Bush the Idiot and his poodle, Tony Blair (two modern day barbarians), reduced Baghdad to rubble. Their malevolent orgy of destruction is no different from Putin’s orgy of Ukraine’s destruction.

Your poema has prompted me delve into Iraq and Baghdad’s two most destructive epochs.


Prior to 1991, Iraq was the most technologically advanced and industrial country of the Near East, boasting advanced achievements in scientific, engineering, agricultural, medicinal and health care.  And women were very well-represented in the aforementioned. Daddy Bush’s 1991 onslaught brought Iraq to its knees, and Clinton’s 10-year crippling sanctions during which half a million children died of malnutrition, lack of medicines, and cancer-causing depleted uranium  – compliments of US armaments, decapitated Iraq.  Madeline Albright took pride in supporting this crime against humanity. The 2003 rape and pulverization of Iraq back to the stone age by the West (the same NATO that is standing up for Ukraine)  and its local Arab quislings is a 21st century Crusade not unlike the Christian Crusades of yore.

NATO’s selective indignation at what is unfolding in Ukraine is abhorrent. The malevolently brutal, barbaric, and heinous slaughter and displacement of millions of Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, Libyans, Afghanis, and Palestinians, 95% of whom were/are civilians, has been, and continues to be, glossed over by the west’s bigoted pundits, the media, and politicians.

Are the aforementioned human beings the offspring of a Lessor God?

And in all instances greed and xenophobia, laced with deep-seated hypocritical, racial, and sectarian religious undertones were employed to drum up support for the west’s wanton destruction of three Arab countries. Ironically, unlike most theocratic Arab states, Iraq, Syria, and Libya were secular. And this time around Arab/Muslim collaboration with the west is a new low in the internecine, tribal rivalry and hunger for billions of dollars, dinars, shekels, and dirhams streamed into the coffers of the greedy and corrupt nations of the region – all the way from Washington to the Gulf.

I shall never forget Lester Holt’s advertising the 2003 war weeks in advance; it was as though Holt was advertising the Super Bowl.  For weeks at a time, he would launch the evening news with the following teaser, a drum roll call to: “The Countdown to the war in Iraq.” 


Between 661 and 750 the Arab Umayyad Dynasty, with Damascus as its capital, expanded its borders to India, Nubia, Egypt, and Spain. The conquest of Alexandria proved to be most rewarding, for in capturing the city, the Arabs laid their hands on the extant ancient manuscripts from the library of the Ptolemies, a rich treasure trove of Greek scientific and philosophical manuscripts.

And in 750 the Abbasid Dynasty supplanted that Umayyad Dynasty and established Baghdad as its capital, a city that was strategically located on the Tigris River.


In 105 AD the Chinese invented paper, a secret onto which they held for over 500 years.  Towards the end of the Umayyad period, a Chinese prisoner introduced papermaking into the empire. Immediately following this discovery, papermaking became immensely popular and prevalent. As a result, books were written by Arab and Persian scholars and collected in libraries From Persia to the East, and as far as Sardinia and Spain to the west, when, in 1151 AD, the Arabs introduced paper into Valencia from whence it spread throughout the Iberian Peninsula.

The Abbasids capitalized on this invention and built libraries adjacent to mosques, with students living in areas around the mosques, each having a small cell on the grounds of the mosque. According to Ibn Battuta, the great fourteenth century historian, “the teacher takes his place under a small wooden canopy, in a chair covered with rugs.” The teacher was the leader of a seminar and had “two assistants to his right and left, who repeat everything he dictates.” This tradition became extremely popular and was caried with the Arabs wherever they went. This seminar-like style of teaching was later initiated by the Italians at the University of Padua, Europe’s first center of learning, and became the norm in Europe’s Medieval monasteries and sprouting universities. Thomas Jefferson conceived his brainchild, the University of Virginia mall, around the similar notion that constant intellectual exchange between teachers and students is a cornerstone of intellectual growth.

Jean Sauvaget states that paper, “therefore, was of prime importance in ninth century [Baghdad] … well-stocked bookshops were often set up around the main mosque. In addition to the public libraries open to everyone … reading rooms where everyone, after paying a fee, could consult the work of his choice” was welcomed.


In 786 AD Harun al Rashid (Rightly Guided and The Upright) ascended to the Abbasid throne. His reign initiated the Golden Age of Arab/Muslim civilization. Under his son al-Ma’moun, Baghdad became the center of the then-known world. As a humanist, al Ma’moun “looked for knowledge where it was evident. … and thanks to his conception and power of his intelligence … scholars held high rank, and the caliph surrounded himself with learned men, legal experts, theologians, lexicographers, analysts, metricians, and genealogists.”  Gaston Weit further states that  “people of the west should publicly express gratitude to the scholars of the Abbasid period, who were known and appreciated in Europe during the Middle Ages.”  Further, “Caliph Mamun [Sic.] was responsible for the translations of Greek works in Arabic. He founded the Bagdad Academy of wisdom … scholars of all races and religions were invited to work there. They were concerned with preserving a universal heritage.”

The Caliph al-Ma’moun is also responsible for making Baghdad a unique city and the center of commerce and trade; the sight of Chinese ships was familiar in the harbors of Baghdad and Basra. In fact, there were Chinese and European markets, each trading its specific merchandise. The city had a plethora of castles, public baths, centers of learning and leisure.  Sometime before his death in 1071 AD, Khatib Baghdadi authored his magnum opus, a biographical dictionary chronicling the lives of over 7,800 Baghdadis, stated that “There is no city in the world equal to Baghdad in the abundance of its riches, the importance of its [mercantilism], [and] the number of its scholars and important people.” And in 1299 the geographer/bibliographer Yaqut called the city “the mother of the world, the mistress of countries. And a Christian historian later affirmed that Baghdad had swallowed the whole world like an insatiable leach.”

Pre-dating the Florentine rediscovery of its Greek and Roman roots in what is known as the Rinascimento, Damascus, and especially Baghdad, launched an unparalleled Arab/Muslim golden age.  Badhdad became the melting pot and cosmopolitan crucible bridging ancient Greco-Roman thought with the ancient Chinese, Indian, and Persian lore, and ultimately transmitting this richly  amalgamated flowering of Abbasid culture to Europe through Andalusia, Sicily, and Sardinia.


During the Abbasid period four centers of learning were established: Bayt al Hikma (House of Wisdom) and the Nizamiyah (theological institute) in Baghdad, Dar al Kutub (house of Books) in Basra, Dar al al-Ilm (house of Learning) in Cairo, also called the al-Azhar Mosque Library; and several other libraries and centers of learning were established in Sicily’s Palermo, and during Andalusia’s Golden Age in Granada, Toledo, Cordova, and Seville.

With Baghdad serving as the Arab/Muslim center from whence this explosion of fervor for learning emanated, thousands of books were translated into Arabic from Farsi, Sanskrit, Chinese, Greek and Latin. It is said that al-Ma’moun’s feverish thirst for knowledge prompted him to reward translators with gold and diamonds equal to the weight of the translated books.

All this to state the following: thousands of scientific treatises were initially copied and served as the basis for the production of voluminous Arab/Abbasid  books and manuscripts numbering in the tens of thousands. At its apex, the Abbasid fervor for writing resulted in original works the topics of which included jurisprudence, astronomy, optics, anatomy (fully illustrated), botany (including illustrations for botanical and medicinal gardens), navigational instruments (astrolabe), cartography, biographies, historiographies, and metallurgy. Fully illustrated poetry, prose, travel literature, biographies, musicological manuscripts, many with illustrated diagrams and drawings (including miniature art works) were executed in unique manuscripts and books.  The Abbasids excelled in the field of architecture and fiber arts. And finally, in the field of graphic design, Arabic calligraphy, rich in gestural strokes, was not restricted to paper. Rather, elegant calligraphy was inscribed on the interior and exterior in architecture dturtures; glazed tiles and intricate multi-hued mosaic scripts were blended on interior and exterior surfaces in a tantalizing richness. Calligraphy was also  interwoven into the fiber arts, and inscribed on metal, glass,  ceramic, bronze, glass, or porcelain vases and other ornamental and functional vessels, including wall and table decorative objects, furnishings and wares. I would be remiss if I did not mention the exquisite Damascene art of mother of pearl inlay in furnishings and household items and décor. Marquetry, the art of laying varying pieces of different colored pre-cut pieces of wood into large designs rendered on furniture and the like, was later copied by artisans from the west.


Of the tens of thousands of books and manuscripts in 993 AD Baghdad, many were eaten by worms some forty years later. Further, between the years 1000 AD and 1174 AD, several floods and fifteen major fires destroyed a sizable amount of  these priceless books and manuscripts.

The worst destruction, however, occurred in 1258 AD when Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and brother of the Tennyson-invented Kublai Khan, ransacked the city and reduced it, much as the two Bushes and NATO have done, to mere rubble.  After butchering hundreds of thousands (some estimates go up to one million) Baghdadis, the once-center of the then-known world’s learning and cultural attainments and triumphs, Baghdad was depopulated and fell on morbidly bad times that lasted until the early 20th century.

All of Baghdad’s libraries were burned down, the mosques were turned in stables for the invading barbarians, and thousands of books were thrown into the Tigris. Chroniclers of the time stated that the number of corpses and manuscripts strewn into the river was so large that whenever they jammed at the bridges, they became thick enough for people to cross over. Witnesses also recorded that the waters of the river turned black because of the decomposition of the ink – and remained so for weeks. A diarist of the times stated that “the works of the colleges of Baghdad were swallowed up by the river, and their pile formed a bridge over which horsemen and foot-soldiers passed, and the water became completely black after having absorbed the ink of its manuscripts.” (Wiet, 122-124)

Just as the Greeks and the Romans dominated the era prior to the birth of Christ, so did the Arabs dominate the four centuries prior to and during the Middle Ages. Bernard Lewis states that “… by the eleventh century” Arabic had become “not only the chief idiom of everyday use from Persia to the Pyrenees, but also the chief instrument of culture, superseding old culture languages like Coptic, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin.”  Suffice it to say that in his Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s physician, the most educated pilgrim, is steeped in the scientific and medicinal teachings of “the olde [Greek] Esculapius./ And De{“y}scorides, and eek Rufus,/ Old Ypocras, [the Arab] Haly, / Serapion, Razis, and Avycen, Averrois, and Damascien.”

And the 13th century Dominican priest, Thomas Aquinas, Christianity’s greatest scholastic mind, jurist, theologian and philosopher on whose shoulders later western theologians and philosophers stood, in turn, stood on the shoulders of the Arab/Muslim philosophers such as Al Ghazali, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and al Farabi, to name but a few.


The discerning reader is all too familiar with the 2003 assault on Iraq, the malevolent destruction of everything that signified Iraqi ethos and nationhood: water purification plants, electric grids, airports, highways, factories, residential, public, and private buildings and high rises, bridges, dams, schools, hospitals,  mosques, hotels in which international journalists were embedded, ports, historic/cultural sites. And the wanton killing of hundreds of thousands (we’ll never know the exact numbers), assassinations of civilians exposed by the valiant Assange (for which he is paying very dearly), the raping of teenage girls in front of their families (and then burning  the entire families’ corpses to destroy the evidence), the infamous Abu Ghraib prison and the sordidly sadistic torture, the renditions and the abysmal Guantanamo torture tactics bear witness to American and  NATO underling disregard for human life and the hegemonic designs to control the black gold upon which the industrialized world is addicted, an addiction that is ruining the environment.

The same greed and arrogance fuels the ideologies of America’s darlings. These include Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf theocracies and dictatorship.

And, like all invaders before them, the theft and looting of Iraq’s patrimony is no different from the British, French, German, and Belgian robbery of cultural treasures. Don’t believe me, just take a walk in the British Museum’s Mesopotamian collection and grieve at Britain’s cultural thievery.


Saddam Hussein had the opportunity to make Iraq a great nation, a secular nation that could have reclaimed its Golden Age.  He had the means to do so, he had the brilliant Iraqi minds to do so, he had geography to his advantage, he had the oil wealth to do so, he had the charisma to lead Iraq into the 21st century, and he had the opportunity to turn Iraq into a model, modern Arab state.

Instead, Saddam Hussein succumbed to the megalomaniacal affliction that has seduced many before him, including our own Trump and an assortment of characters far too many to list, demented and ruthless characters who’ve painted (and are continuing to do so) history books with their dark, maniacal bludgeoning of peoples and nations.

For his unprovoked wars on Iran and Kuwait, Saddam got caught in the vise of retribution of the worst kind. Today many like him are living high on the hog of their murderous adventures.

And finally, to the Arab potentates and theocrats from as far as Morocco to the West, to the Persian Gulf in the East, history will not remember your tallest buildings in the world, the ostentatious palaces, wide boulevards, and cities you build, your golden bathroom fixtures, your yachts, Rolls-Royces, your dollars, dinars, dirhams, or shekels you stash in your Swiss banks.

First and foremost: Liberate your women and stop your political repression. Stop wasting your riches on destructive arms. Unshackle the restrictions on your media (and stop imprisoning and sawing journalists). Release your political prisoners.  You have a very rich heritage. Do encourage your young minds to delve into ancient Arab and Muslim literature, philosophy, art, theology, and history. Encourage them to study their rich Arab and Islamic traditions, traditions that served as a conduit and agent of spreading the explosive Damascene, Baghdadi and Andalusian thirst for knowledge to Seville, Padua, Cordova, and Palermo. The Arab/Muslim achievements of yore no doubt bridged East and West and launched  European’s Rinascimento in an outburst of inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge first incubated in Granada, Seville, Toledo, Malaga, in the Iberian Peninsula, as well as Milan, Genoa, Sienna, Padua, Bologna, and Venice in Italy, an incubation that awakened Medieval Europe from the shackles of feudalism, theocratic intolerance, wars, and pandemics of epic proportions.

Arabs and Muslims, this is your time to declare your Rinascimento, a Nahda, Intifada, and Inqilab that will liberate you and bring you into the 21st century.

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.