The Foundation of Wasit: History and Memory

By Pamela Klasova
Submitted to Session P5438 (Transitions in 7th-9th century Iraq and Syria: Muslims and non-Muslims, 2019 Annual Meeting
7th-13th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Al-Hajjaj (d. 714), the governor of Iraq and the Islamic East, founded his residential city Wasit in a swamp. The air was so hot in this region that birds would fall dead, and people lived shortened lives. Furthermore, the land was heavily populated by the anbat, the peasant Aramaic populations who slowly penetrated the new city despite al-Hajjaj’s attempt to ban them. The governor decided to build Wasit because of internal discord between his Syrian and Iraqi troops and chose its location because it was a central point between Basra and Kufa. Or, because a Christian monk predicted that a prosperous city be built there. These are, in brief, the Muslim accounts of the foundation of Wasit—all generally underwhelmed with its location and ascribing its foundation to internal Arab-Muslim concerns. Although Ibn Khaldun considered Wasit to have been the capital of the empire under al-Hajjaj and although the city prospered for several hundreds of years, it did not become the magnet of Islamic imagination like Baghdad and, perhaps as a consequence, it has not enjoyed much scholarly attention. (Monher Sakly’s article in EI2 remains the most important source.) Reexamining and rectifying its representation in Muslim historiography, this paper presents the foundation of Wasit as a masterful cultural strategy of al-Hajjaj targeted both at Muslims and the non-Muslim populations of Iraq.

The paper argues that that the new city was selected not merely due to its strategic distance from Basra and Kufa, as Muslim sources would have it. Far from an insignificant swamp, Wasit was founded at the site of the ancient city of Kashkar, a major center of Christian learning for centuries, and therefore was imbued with great symbolic significance for the Christian population of Iraq. An examination of the biographical dictionary Tarikh Wasit by Aslam b. Sahl Bahshal (d. 905) will help assess to what extent al-Hajjaj’s (reported) ban against non-Muslims in the city was observed in practice. And finally, non-Muslim sources provide the Christian perspective on the event.

After proposing an alternative historical narrative for the foundation of Wasit than that presented in historiographic accounts, the paper investigates the historiographic accounts themselves. It argues that despite the fact that the memory of Christians was eclipsed from the city’s foundation narrative, certain literary motifs and their persuasive strategies reveal a shared Muslim-Christian audience. The paper therefore offers novel approaches to both the history and historiography of the foundation of Wasit.