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· Baghdad Encomium ·

Encomium comes from the great tradition of classical rhetoric. Meaning praise, encomium ranks eighth among the fourteen graded assignments called Progymnasmata in classical rhetorical pedagogy, just before its harder opposite, ninth-ranked invective. Since the city of Baghdad has received much invective lately, I thought to share an ancient encomium of the place. It comes from Ahmad al-Ya'qubi, a ninth-century geographer who, having traveled to Baghdad in his youth, fulsomely praised the city in his Kitab al-buldan (published near his death in 897). I've foreshortened this passage from Bernard Lewis's Islam (published in 1974).

I begin with Iraq only because it is the center of this world, the navel of the earth, and I mention Baghdad first because it is the center of Iraq, the greatest city, which has no peer in the east or the west of the world in extent, size, prosperity, abundance of water, or health of climate, and because it is inhabited by all kinds of people, town-dwellers and country-dwellers. To it they come from all countries, far and near, and people from every side have preferred Baghdad to their own homelands. . . .

Its name is famous, and its fame widespread. Iraq is indeed the center of the world, for in accordance with the consensus of the astronomers recorded in the writing of ancient scholars, it is in the fourth climate. . . . Because of the temperate weather and rich soil and sweet water, the character of the inhabitants is good, their faces bright, and their minds untrammeled. The people excel in knowledge, understanding, letters, manners, insight, discernment, skill in commerce and crafts, cleverness in every argument, proficiency in every calling, and mastery of every craft. There is none more learned than their scholars, better informed than their traditionists, more cogent than their theologians, more perspicuous than their grammarians, more accurate than their readers, more skillful than their physicians, more melodious than their singers, more delicate than their craftsmen, more literate than their scribes, more lucid than their logicians, more devoted than their worshippers, more pious than their ascetics, more juridical than their judges, more eloquent than their preachers, more poetic than their poets, and more reckless than their rakes. From  Bernard Lewis, Islam: From the The Prophet Mohammad to the Capture of Constantinople, Vol. 2, New York: Walker & Co., 1974, 69-70.

We are not likely today to heap much praise on Baghdad, but it is good to remember that when any human place suffers much, maybe it was once "the center of this world." Perhaps Baghdad still is.


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