There was once a time when no other city in the world conjured up such an exotic vision of the Islamic world as Baghdad. Dominating the heart of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley at the crossroads of Arabia, Persia, the Holy Land and Turkish Asia, Baghdad was the most magnificent city in the world during its golden age in the 9th and 10th centuries. Baghdad has also always stood at the crossroads of the Sunni and Shiite worlds, a fact which has contributed both to its cultural identity as well as its violent history. No where is this more true than at the Masjid Kadhimain, where the tombs of Musa ibn Jafar and Muhammad ibn Ali, the 7th and 9th Shia imams respectively, are buried. With the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime, this mosque has once again become both a magnet for pilgrims. Baghdad is the third of the four major shrine cities in the Shi’ite corridor that runs from Najaf in the south to Samarra in the north.
The city of Baghdad is an ancient site that has dominated the center of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley since the Middle Ages. Officially founded in the 8th century by the Abbasids, it was previously a small metropolis of the Persian Empire. There are a number of reasons that the Abbasids relocated the Islamic capital here. First and foremost was to reduce the influence of Damascus, the stronghold of their former Umayyad rivals. Second, Baghdad was closer to the Mesopotamian heartland, with easier access to Mecca and Medina. And third, it represented an effort to reconcile with the Shi’ites in the east. Within a century, Baghdad was a thriving metropolis of half a million people, and was an important religious center for both Sunnis and Shiites. There were even periods during the Abbasid rule when both the Sunni Caliph and the Shi’ite Imam simultaneously inhabited the city.
In the end, the relationship between the city’s factions was a rocky and unstable one. Throughout the Abbasid reign, the Imams were frequently arrested and their followers constantly harrased. According to Shi’ite tradition, most if not all of the Imams from the sixth to the eleventh were assassinated in and around Baghdad. After the death of the 6th Imam, his heirs generally relocated to the east for safety. But his son Musa Ibn Jafar, the 7th Imam, was arrested and imprisoned in Baghdad, where he was killed in 799 AD. His grandson, Muhammad ibn Ali, was the 9th and last truly effective Imam, despite inheriting his position at the age of eight. He willingly lived in Baghdad for almost a decade, but after a visit to his family in Medina, the Caliph had Muhammad ibn Ali assasinated.
The death of the 9th Imam represented the end of the last real attempt to reconcile the Abbasids with the Shi’ites. However, the Abbasid efforts to exterminate the Imams backfired. The tombs of Musa ibn Jafar and Muhammad ibn Ali became a major shrine for the Shi’ites, and their religious fervor was partially responsible for the relocation of the Caliph’s court to nearby Samarra. The Abbasids did eventually return the capital to Baghdad, but by that time the city had a huge and devout Shi’ite population. Baghdad has been a mixed Sunni-Shi’ite city ever since, a situated that has resonated down through the centuries to the present day.
By the time the Ottomans arrived centuries later, Baghdad had been sacked on several occasions and was eclipsed by a number of other Islamic cities, notably Cairo and Istanbul. Only in the 20th century did Baghdad begin to reclaim its former glory first as colonial capital and then as the national capital of Iraq. However, years of conflict in Iraq has left Baghdad a devastated city, a shell of its former self. Wars and violence have left scars on many of the city’s holy sites, including the Masjid Kadhimain, which is the target of much anger and frustration and, unfortunately, violence. Although Baghdad is one of Iraq’s big four Shi’ite cities, its shrine is, for the time being, the most dangerous and the least visited. There is a chance that this situation could continue into the foreseeable future.
The Masjid Kadhimain shares much in common with the other great Imam shrines of Iraq and Iran. While smaller than its counterpart in Najaf, the large enclosed square still dominates the surrounding neighborhood. Its somewhat less fancy appearance compared to the shrines of Najaf and Karbala can be forgiven in light of Baghdad’s long, turbulent history on the Sunni-Shi’ite border region. Nevertheless the exterior does have one unique feature: a superb golden double-dome. Four graceful minarets frame the main building of the mosque.
The mosque interior has recently undergone a major renovation, most of which was completed in 2008. The two Imams, Musa Ibn Jafar and Muhammad ibn Ali, are entombed within, one beneath each of the freshly redone domes. A few other prominent Muslims are buried on the grounds of the mosque, including the prominent medieval scholars Mufid and Nasir Ad-Din Tusi.
The Masjid Kadhimain is located in the northern Baghdad suburb of Kadhimiya, about three miles north of downtown. Visiting the mosque nowadays is difficult at best, outright dangerous at worst, as there has been at least seven bombings of the site in the last few years. As of this writing, no other visitor information was available. Presumably access to the site is heavily restricted, and completely off-limits to non-Muslims. Web: www.tourism-iraq.com (official tourism website of Iraq).
Virtually nothing in Baghdad survived the Mongol sack in 1258 AD, and centuries of wars, infighting and violence have laid waste to virtually everything that remained standing from the earliest periods. However, a few interesting sites of the late Abbasid and early Turkish periods are still around. Among these is the 14th century Masjid Marjan, the oldest mosque in the city and once Baghdad’s most important Islamic school; and parts of the old Abbasid Palace. Not too far outside of Baghdad, in what was once the city of Ctesiphon, is the Tomb of Salman the Persian, one of the most famous companions of the Prophet Muhammad.