Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Baghdad’s Urban Fabric Transformation: A Historical Analysis

Baghdad’s urban fabric reflects its architectural and cultural heritage as well as the deep rooted effects of the conflicts it faced.

Baghdad’s urban fabric
A street in Baghdad’s historic district on 13 December 2013. Once the heart of the Islamic world and the capital of an empire, 1,250 years later, the Iraqi city has been damaged by years of wars and conflicts.

Dina M. Abdulrazzaq

The 2003 invasion of Iraq has drastically altered the country’s urban realities, and the post-war context has influenced various urban choices. As part of Fanack’s ongoing analysis of the MENA region, this article will provide a summary of Baghdad’s historical background and its effects on the urban fabric.


The inherited historical urban and architectural characteristics of the city of Baghdad have seen various transformations since the city’s foundation over a thousand years ago. Since al-Mansur, the Caliph of the Abbasid Empire, chose Baghdad as the location of the empire’s capital in 762 AD, Baghdad has served as a hub for political and economic activity.

The Ottomans (1638–1917), the British (1917–1922), and the Americans (2003), to name a few, have had an impact on the city in varying degrees. The city has been sacked, rebuilt and occupied by numerous groups up until the 21st century.

Baghdad has a rich cultural and architectural heritage. Its architectural characteristics and urban structure not only reflect the history of the city but also stand as evidence of the most important junctures in Iraq’s history. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to demonstrate the impact of each period on Baghdad’s urban fabric and architectural features throughout its history.


Throughout history, wars and conflicts have caused fundamental political, economic and social shifts across the world, influencing the spread of urban sprawl. This is most visible in places with a unique identity and rich historical background, such as Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. Today, the city has become widely dispersed, with a weak and failing central structure, with urban issues and ills on the rise year after year.

Baghdad, located on the Tigris River and once the centre of the Islamic world and the capital of a powerful empire for over 500 years, has experienced enormous physical, environmental and cultural changes as the result of decades of wars and political crises.

The city has a rich history, and some of its most significant historical elements originate from the numerous eras it has passed through. The transition from the initial Round City to one with an organic growth pattern reflects the socioeconomic and physical characteristics of the area.

Baghdad has lost significant portions of its priceless and historic fabric due to social and political chaos and wars, which prevented successive regimes from putting preservation plans into action.

Although this article will focus on the older parts of Baghdad, the modern era and the city’s subsequent expansion are as important. Today, the city continues to experience urban deterioration and segregation as a result of unchecked planning policies, and it has started to lose its beautiful heritage architecture and urban identity. This is especially true after more than three wars in the past half a century.

Several sources were used to compile this article’s data. The analysis was primarily carried out via research, analysis and comparison of information from books, scientific journals, newspapers and government publications, as well as research from organisations with ties to the subject matter. The analysis is secondarily based on publicly accessible data regarding the present state of affairs in Iraq and firsthand queries from its residents.

The city of Baghdad from a historical view

Caliph al-Mansur established the Round City of Baghdad, which took four years to build (762-766 AD). The city had three walls, four gates and symmetrical roads that were bordered by geometric residential buildings.

As Baghdad grew, it started attracting people from neighbouring cities and nations. As a result, the city’s history was marked not only by recurrent conflict but also by the multiplicity of cultures it attracted, making it a diverse melting pot.

The old city had no entertainment venues or open public spaces. The Royal palace and the mosque with its market, which made up the city’s centre, were its most notable structures. As the city grew, its walled circular structure meant limited space to accommodate the growing population or build additional services.

As a result of a significant inflow of immigrants, the city’s limits were pushed outside its walls. Under the new Abbasid Empire, Baghdad moved to the east bank of the Tigris River to serve as the country’s new capital.

Just four decades after it was founded, Baghdad became the centre of Islamic political and economic power and was unrivalled in its artistic, scientific and cultural accomplishments. It had grown to a city of 300,000 people and was the capital of an empire stretching from today’s Algeria to Pakistan.

After standing as a beacon of light for nearly 500 years, the Mongol invasion reached the city. Fires, pillaging and destruction turned Baghdad from the capital of a major kingdom into a ruinous metropolis in 1258. In the 1930s, archaeologists worked to preserve the last remnants of its artistic and urban elegance.

The most significant among these include the al-Mustansiriya School, the Abbasid Palace, one of Baghdad’s original gates, several minarets and mosques and the Zumurud Khatun memorial. Ever since, the city has never recovered to its full glory, repeatedly suffering occupation by various groups up until the 21st century.

Baghdad's urban fabric
Mustansiriya school, 2018. One of the world’s oldest colleges, Baghdad, Iraq.

The subsequent invasions left their mark on the city’s urban identity, which is still evident today. A number of still-standing structures from five different occupations, including the Mongol Hulagu, Jalayirid, Persian Safavids, Ottoman and the British invasion, can be found in Baghdad’s historical areas.

The Persian Safavid era made a substantial impact on the city’s architecture owing to their excellent craftsmanship and remarkable monuments, such as the Golden Mosque of Kadhimain (1508–1638). The Golden Mosque was the first building to be built north of the historic city. Its surrounding area later grew to become the most well-known district outside of Baghdad’s original settlement.

The Golden Mosque of Kadhimain, 2010. The mosque was constructed in 1515 during the Persian Safavid era.

During the Ottoman period, Baghdad was ruled by a foreign power for a significant period of time (1638–1917). As a result of neglect, the city’s urban setting and historical landmarks lost some of their grandeur.

The construction of a new road named al-Rasheed Street, which cuts through the city from north to south, was the only major development of this period. In contrast, the city’s neighbourhoods and the layout of its streets did not see any fundamental changes.

Al-Rashid Street in the heart of old Baghdad on 21 January 2019.

Baghdad in the 20th Century

That period of stagnation was followed by a period of rapid changes following the end of World War I and the defeat of the Ottomans. The British mandate and the 1950 founding of the Higher Council for Reconstruction, which established the city’s contemporary planning concept, gave Baghdad’s urban planning an extensive makeover.

Driven by the British, the architectural design of buildings saw a significant change. The British also added new features to Baghdad’s urban planning. Religious, governmental, residential and commercial land uses were all present at the turn of the 20th century.

Given the primary characteristics of Middle Eastern cities, zones were not separated according to land use but accommodated multiple uses. The new neighbourhoods outside Baghdad’s old city centre were planned and constructed using the new criteria and did, therefore, not look like the historic parts of the city.

The primary development movement at this point was a change from inward to outward design, not just in terms of the city’s layout but also the style of conventional home types. As a result, specific new structures impacted Baghdad’s fundamental Middle Eastern identity.

There was, however, an effort to make the new structures fit into the surrounding environment by using local materials and symbols from the area’s history and culture.

The concept of family privacy began to erode when open street plans and balconied detached homes, surrounded by walled-off gardens and located on the corners of plots, became the new norm. This Western design first appeared outside the ancient city, at which point the conventional housing model was abandoned.

Additionally, during the British era, a new method for numbering the city through Mahallas was implemented in Iraq. Each property was assigned a number representing an accurate and clear location. Another significant change was the complete demolition of the city wall.

Later, due to the political instability that started in 1990, ambitious architectural and urban development efforts were put on hold. Instead of implementary, the city’s role became advisory.

Changes following the 2003 US invasion

The history of violent conflict undoubtedly has had a widespread impact on the city’s welfare throughout the decades and centuries. This happened directly through the loss of life and livelihoods and people’s displacement and indirectly through the destruction of infrastructure and markets.

It also restricted access to reliable and quality healthcare, education and basic services, negatively affecting the rule of law and governance and severely restricting economic activity.

The ancient city centre of Baghdad served as a battlefield for military operations and terrorist attacks following the US invasion in 2003. It significantly changed how the area is organised, accessible and functional.

Concrete came to separate the city centre from the nearby sprawling urban zones, complicating people’s access to the main public spaces. Consequently, two separate and distinct cities evolved, connected by a few roads and checkpoints. All automobile traffic on al-Rasheed Street was prohibited.

To deter and protect from future attacks, planners implemented an isolationist strategy in many Baghdadi neighbourhoods, surrounding several with concrete walls. As a result, the city’s urban growth was restrained, and neighbourhoods were overflowing with locals and immigrants, whether newcomers seeking safety from other Baghdadi neighbourhoods or refugees from less secure governorates.

Ongoing conflicts and fights restricted development and reconstruction. Along with Baghdad’s expanding population, this drove people to illegal activities, such as building on agricultural land and subdividing residential land into smaller units. Slums popped up on acquired public lands. As a result, it became harder to distinguish between formal and informal neighbourhoods.

Concrete walls

Security needs, particularly during the period of conflicts and instability between 2003 and 2018, resulted in numerous urban changes. Concrete walls and barriers were used to segregate and reduce violence and crime in the city.

These concrete barriers first appeared in 2005, when they served as protective walls surrounding major public and commercial buildings, important roadways and residential areas to reduce the impact of explosions and terrorist activities.

Over time they spread around the city and negatively affected spacial configurations, distorting the city’s general appearance and causing traffic congestion. They served as covers for building violations and urban sprawl as they obscured what was happening behind them.

The removal of these concrete walls in 2018 helped alleviate many of these issues. It also brought to light the problem of informality and building violations that were previously hidden.

Baghdad, Iraq, concrete T-wall, on April 21, 2009.

Informal settlements

A 2021 report by the Iraqi Ministry of Planning estimates that 3.3 million Iraqis live in slums, with 522,000 dwellings located in the Baghdad governorate, followed by the far-second Basra governorate with 700 houses.

It is important to keep in mind that, before 2003, slums were a much rarer sight in Iraq. Due to rapid population growth and rising internal migration for both economic and security reasons, the presence of slums spiralled out of control. Wars and numerous conflicts prevented balanced urban growth in Baghdad, negatively impacting the city’s expansion process and the residential sector.

The matter requires immediate attention as it has become a significant issue for Iraq’s capital. The lack of regulations and legal protection drove many contractors to construct houses and residential zones on state and agricultural land without the required building permits.

This trend began to unravel the urban fabric of the city. It led to the emergence of new communities lacking the character of Iraqi cities, environmental and health problems, economic concerns and social and security risks.


The beings are the foundation of a society, state and civilisation. Citizens must therefore be given the legal right to decent housing, reliable healthcare, education and living conditions that support the development of a better sense of national identity and mental health. Collectively, these elements would produce a strong country. Iraqi governments could accomplish this by initially focusing on a number of challenges.

It must play a genuine and successful role in developing the country, preserving its gains and protecting its security and identity. It is impossible to improve reality on the ground without prioritising the human being.

It should establish itself in a way that restores trust in the state by combating corruption, upholding accountability, punishing corrupt officials through a robust and competent judiciary, and establishing security services whose primary aim is to protect the country and its citizens.

In addition to providing the unemployed with employment opportunities, the government should also support people starting their own private businesses. Media outlets should be encouraged to promote environmental and health education to raise societal awareness. They should be encouraged to inform people about Iraqi law and their responsibilities and rights as guaranteed by that law.

Key references

AL-HASANI, M. 2012. Urban Space Transformation in Old City of Baghdad–Integration, and Management. Yıldız Technical University, Faculty of Architecture.

Al-Saaidy, H. J. , 2020. Lessons from Baghdad City Conformation and Essence. The University of Technology. 10.5772/intechopen.88599.

Repeva, A. 2021. Informal settlements in Baghdad city. EDP Sciences. E3S Web of Conferences 263, 05001 (2021).

Iraq – The unfulfilled promise of oil and growth: Poverty, inclusion, and welfare in Iraq, 2007-2012: Full report (English). Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.


Sabah Nahi, 2020. What is left of Abbasid Baghdad?

Baghdad as first place in slums, in 2021.

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Kawthar Metwalli
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