Painting of a coast in Baghdad, with a mosque and several boats in the background
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Baghdad's Poetic Legacy

7 February 2023

By Ali Alzuheiri

Since its founding, Baghdad has been a capital of poetry and history. Baghdad: Eye’s Delight, on view at the Museum of Islamic Art until 25 February, sheds light on a number of poems and poets who sang the beauty of this celebrated city.

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Poetry has always been an essential part of the Arab conscience, and a witness to the heritage and history of the Arab and Islamic world. The city of Baghdad sat at the heart of the Islamic Caliphate during the five centuries of Abbasid rule, a time when the sciences, art, music and literature — including poetry — flourished.

The development of the city inspired the imagination of the poets, who were part of a cultural, economic and intellectual centre during the so-called Golden Age. It was the place where reputations of writers and poets were made, and the libraries of the city stood open to aspiring talents.

The physical traces of medieval Baghdad have been lost to time, so the curators of the exhibition Baghdad: Eye's Delight relied heavily on historical texts, especially poetry, to reimagine what that great city was once like. Poetry also inspired the title of the exhibition, which comes from a verse uttered by Amr ibn Abd al-Malik al-Warraq in the early ninth century:

Oh, Baghdad, who afflicted you with an evil eye? Were not you the eye’s delight?

Amr ibn ʿAbd al Malik al-Warraq (d. 815)

Our visions of Baghdad’s landscapes have been shaped by centuries of poets who have written about the city. And despite all its historical tragedies — from the conquest and destruction of the city by the Mongols in 1258 to the many wars the city faced in the 20th century — Baghdad has remained alive in poetry.

With historians and poets as guides, visitors to the exhibition are able to explore Baghdad’s luxurious palaces and majestic gardens, learn about the city as a hub of science and trade, and get to know its cosmopolitan inhabitants. Both the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue feature excerpts from classic poems that celebrate the city.

Umara ibn Aqil (798–853)

There is nothing like Baghdad, worldly-wise and religious,
despite Time’s transitions.
May God bless these high palaces, and the gazelles with beautiful eyes who dwell there.
Souls thrive on the sweet fragrance emanating from her,
protected among basil leaves.
Houses overlook courtyards with open doors, made beautiful with decorations and ornaments.
Palaces are there, with wings that fly visitors to the people who are hosts.

Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Wasiti (d. 919)

Is there any equivalent to the City of Peace?!
A miracle! You will not find for Baghdad any parallel.
A temple for the hearts, spring there everlasting, even in summer.
A city for all noble traits, where the meaning of everything shines like the sun.

Muhammad Mahdi Al-Jawahiri (1899–1997)

The exhibition includes visual works related to poetry, such as a painting by Hassan Massoudy, which presents a verse by the poet Muhammad Mahdi Al-Jawahiri:

Baghdad heart of Iraq, its memory and conscience, may no wind ever trouble you.

Black and blue painting with arabic text

Baghdad heart of Iraq, its memory and conscience, may no wind ever trouble you

Hassan Massoudy (b. 1944)
Quote of Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri (1899-1997)
France, Paris2013
Ink and pigments on paper
Property of the artist
© 1960 Hafidh al-Droubi

Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406)

In addition to the poets, the renowned historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun described Baghdad in great detail:

‘The walls are occasionally also covered with pieces of marble, brick, clay, shells (mother-of-pearl), or jet. (The material) may be divided either into identically shaped or differently shaped pieces. These pieces are arranged in whatever symmetrical figures and arrangements are being utilized by the (various artisans), and set into the quicklime (with which the walls have been covered). Thus, the walls come to look like colorful flower beds.’

Learn More

To learn more about the legendary city full of science, poetry, music and exceptional architecture, visit the exhibition Baghdad: Eye’s Delight, on view at the Museum of Islamic Art until February 25, 2023.

Ali Alzuheiri is a Senior Digital Editorial Specialist at Qatar Museums.