City of Basra and its intellectual pearls

Middle East Contributor
city of Basra
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636 to 2021 CE is a long period of time for any city, a little less than one and a half millennia. If you imagine how much this world has changed over these 1400 years, you could well understand how much the Iraqi city of Basra has seen. Situated on the river named Shatt al-Arab this city has had its roots in Islamic civilization right from its foundation. Basra was founded as a camp for a section of the army of Caliph Umar (R), one of the senior companions of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) himself, in 636, i.e. within just four years of the prophet’s passing away. The city derives its name also from this military purpose. Basrah in Arabic means “the over watching”, indicating that opponent troop movement was visible from this camp.

The city of Basra as a military base

Caliph Umar (R) turned the camp into a proper city. With five districts, in 639 CE, and appointed Abu Musa al-Asha’ri as its first governor. Over time the military importance of this city led to massive economic activity in the city. Resulting in significant infrastructural development. The encamped military men were well paid by the government. They spent it heartily in the city which galvanized Basra’s business into organized entrepreneurship. This catapulted Basra into becoming one of the largest cities in the world in a short while.

Intellectual center

The golden age of the city started about a century down the line, when it became a major city of the Abbasid Caliphate. The first Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate, Abul Abbas as-Saffah captured the city in 740 CE. Over the next 500 years, Basra grew as a major intellectual center of the whole world. Such luminaries as the great Sufi mystic Al-Qaysiyya (C 714 – 801 CE), Arabic literature’s one of the early giants al-Jahiz (776 CE – 868 CE), and mathematician, astronomer, and physicist Hasan Ibn al-Haytham (C 965 – C 1040 CE) were all born in Basra during this period. One of Basra’s finest monuments the Great Jumma Mosque was built in Basra in the 12th century. Over the next several centuries the Mongols, the Ottomans, and the British ruled over this historical city.

The city of Basra as ‘Pearl harbor’

Particularly in modern times, Basra has played the role of a major port in Iraq. Besides petrochemical, shipping is the most important industry in this city. It has the advantage of being located only 55 Km upstream from the Persian Gulf, which is accessible to ships through the Shatt al-Arab. The city is also known the world over for its high-valued pearls cultivated from the nearby Persian Gulf. Basra pearls are much lighter than other pearl varieties and have a unique light-reflecting quality. For centuries pearls from Basra have been traded in cities around the world.

Basra is largely a Shi’ite city. In addition to Arabs, Basra is home to a large number of people of the Afro-Iraqi community known as Zanj. People of the Zanj community came to Iraq way back around 900 CE, as slaves from the area that is known as Kenya today. At present Basra is considered to be the economic capital of the nation.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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