The Horoscope of Baghdad

Part One: The Cosmic City

A schema of the original plan

Medieval Baghdad, a city of phenomenal fortunes, was the new dynastic capital of the Abbasids in the 8th century. Planned as a round city, it was a symbol of the cosmos, mirroring the zodiac circle in the sky. This is one of the Islamic cities whose inaugural was based on astrological considerations. Caliph al-Mansur, the founder of Baghdad, set his court astrologers the task of finding the most auspicious time for launching the city’s foundation. After much deliberation, the chief astrologer, Nawbakht al-Ahwazi proposed the date 4th Jumada al-Awwal in the Islamic year 145 hijri (H). In the solar-based Julian calendar of the time, this corresponded with 31st July 762 AD.

Electional Astrology

When astrologers choose a time to begin a venture, like in this case of starting the construction of the city of Baghdad, they elect a time to draw up a horoscope.  This specialized branch of astrology is, therefore, called electional astrology (Arabic: Ikhtiyārāt). Electional astrology has its own set of strict rules. There is sufficient evidence that tells us that astrology was not an uncommon practice amongst the ruling elite, especially for electing charts to determine the best times to start various activities, be it battles, constructions, or coronations.


The rectangular diagram above represents the horoscope of the city of Baghdad. This horoscope along with some details of the foundation of the city survives in al-Biruni’s Arabic manuscript, al-Athar al-Baqiya an’ al-Qurun al-Khaliya (English: The Chronology of Ancient Nations) completed in 1000 AD (390H).

Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, the famous mathematician-historian was obsessed with the phenomenon of time. In the Chronology, he examines the numerous historical and contemporary calendars used by different cultures and peoples of the world. Since Baghdad held the status not only as the Abbasid dynastic capital but also as the symbolic heart of the vast Islamic empire during al-Biruni’s time, its foundation story marked an important event in the history of Islamic cities. Although, many Islamic rulers used astrology, this document is unique because surviving evidence for horoscopes of cities, is rare in Islamic history.

The inclusion of the astrological chart along with the date and names of the important individuals involved in the city’s foundation, shows al-Biruni’s personal interest in astrology. In fact, we know that this highly empirical scholar-scientist, even dedicated a comprehensive book on the art of astrological practice.

It’s uncertain whether al-Biruni reproduced this diagram from an earlier textual source or used the date and time of Baghdad’s foundation, to draw up the chart himself. Historians mention that the 9th century al-Yacqubi may have been al-Biruni’s reference for this horoscope. We can be sure, nonetheless, that even if al-Biruni copied the horoscope from another source, he would have checked the chart for its accuracy.


Sidereal Astrology

A critical thing to note here is that al-Biruni’s chart for Baghdad’s horoscope uses the sidereal zodiac and not the tropical one. This is most fascinating. It means that the Abbasid court astrologers as early as the 8th century were practicing sidereal astrology, the fixed star constellation-based zodiac still presently used in the astrological system in India.

Pre-Islamic Arabs already had a system of fixed stars — the Anwa, which they used for navigation, weather forecasting and in agriculture. In the sidereal zodiac, the Moon plays the most important role because the different fixed stars are highlighted as the Moon appears to pass through the constellations. Since the Islamic hijri calendar is lunar-based, we find illustrations of the Moon’s transits against the backdrop of the fixed stars in several medieval and pre-modern Islamic manuscripts. The sidereal zodiac in Baghdad’s birth chart suggests that certain fixed stars may have also been an important consideration.

Most of the prominent astrologers in the Abbasid court were Persians who probably brought the sidereal zodiac from Iran. But we also know that scientific, medical and literary texts in Sanskrit were already being translated into Arabic by Abbasid scholars from the earliest times. There is a record of a famous scientist, Kanaka from Sind visiting al-Mansur’s court. So the transmission of the sidereal system may have come directly from such experts, as well as, indirectly through manuscripts from India.

Moon's Nodes

Another influence coming from the east particularly India is the presence of the two nodes of the Moon. These are known as shadow planets because they are in reality two mathematical points on the ecliptic. In Baghdad’s chart, we have both the north node called al-ras (the head) and the south node, al-dhanb (the tail). The nodes are exactly 180o from each other, so they stand directly opposite each other. In astrology, the two shadow planets were the harbingers of fated events, favourable or unfavourable.


Al-Biruni’s horoscope replicates how the sky looked from the earth on 31st July 762 AD.

Modern astrological softwares confirm that al-Biruni’s horoscope correctly places all planets by zodiac sign. The chart’s a remarkable specimen of mathematical precision using observations and the available geometrical tools, even though al-Biruni doesn’t provide us with planetary degrees. One thing that I’ve been unable to find in this section of the Chronology is the precise time for laying the foundation stone of the city.

Whole Sign House System

Abbasid astrologers used the whole sign house system. Using the Arabic terms, the outer rectangular frame in this horoscope contains the twelve signs of the zodiac in an anti-clockwise arrangement: beginning with Sagittarius (al-qaws) and followed by Capricorn (al-jaddi), Aquarius (al-dalu), Pisces (al-hoot), Aries (al-haml), Taurus (al-thawr), Gemini (al-jawza), Cancer (al-sartan), Leo (al-asad), Virgo (al-sunbula), Libra (al-mizan) and Scorpio (al-aqrab). The twelve houses in the horoscope correspond with one zodiac sign and also follow an anti-clockwise setting. These houses are in three shapes: 1 & 7 are rectangular; 4 & 10 are squarish, while the rest are triangular.

The horoscope contains the nine celestial bodies: Sun (al-shams), Moon (al-qamar), Mercury (utarad), Venus (al-zahra), Mars (al-merikh), Jupiter (al-mushtari), Saturn (zuhl), the head of the dragon (al-ras) and the tail of the dragon (al-dhunb). Each one of these falls into one of the twelve houses according to its position in the sky on that particular day in Baghdad. 

Zodiac Sign on the Ascendant

In Arabic, the starting point of the horoscope is called al-tali. At the top centre of al-Biruni’s horoscope we have al-tali al-qaws which means ‘Sagittarius rising’ or ‘Sagittarius in the ascendant’. The ascendant and the first house are the most important clues for interpreting the character and fortunes of this city.

Al-tali or the ascendant is the astronomical degree in the east where the Sun rises every day. Due to the earth’s rotation, during the 24-hour day, each one of the twelve divisions of the sky, marked as zodiac signs, crosses this point on the eastern horizon.

Even though al-Biruni’s Chronology doesn’t provide the exact time for Baghdad’s foundation, we are able to determine a time range on Saturday, 31st July 762 AD for the horoscope as each zodiac sign gets roughly a two hour bracket within the 24-hour day while crossing the ascendant. Since we know that for Baghdad, al-Mansur’s astrologers selected a time of the day during which the zodiac sign Sagittarius was rising in the east, we have a starting point that was sometime between 3:33 PM and 5:46 PM. With a Sagittarius rising, the sign occupied the entire first house.

Planetary Positions with Degrees

Using astrological software, the table below shows the degree of each planet on Saturday, 31st July 762 from the location of Baghdad.

  • Planets                       Degrees
  • SUN                             410′ Leo
  • MOON                         21o 06′ Libra
  • MARS                           017′ Gemini
  • MERCURY Rx              2017 Cancer
  • JUPITER Rx                  2o 09′ Sagittarius
  • VENUS                         2607′ Gemini
  • SATURN                       2449′ Aries
  • NORTH NODE            2127′ Capricorn
  • SOUTH NODE            2127′ Cancer

Jupiter the Greater Benefic

The planet Jupiter is most important in Baghdad’s horoscope. The Arabs called it al-sacd al-akbar, the big star of fortune. The benevolent character of Jupiter was recognized in the astrological traditions of ancient Babylonia, India and China. When the Abbasid astrologers elected the chart with Sagittarius rising, it was actually to put Jupiter in the ascendant. The planet was at an early degree of 209′ Sagittarius. On this basis, it would be logical that the ascendant degree was also close to 209′ Sagittarius because the tighter conjunction of this point would maximize Jupiter’s influence on the city and bring good fortune to Baghdad. Jupiter on the ascendant would also ensure longevity and protection from harm.

With an ascendant at 2o 09’ Sagittarius, we get the precise time of 3:42 PM on 31st July 762 AD for the beginning of Baghdad’s foundation.

From an astrological perspective, this Jupiter was not just strong, it was exceptionally powerful in the sky at that time for three reasons:

  1. It was in its own zodiac sign Sagittarius
  2. It was in the first house where it has directional strength
  3. It was retrograde

Jupiter has ownership over two zodiac signs, Sagittarius and Pisces but it’s happiest in the fiery sign Sagittarius where its benevolence is enhanced by luck, faith and optimism. It brings abundance here. Jupiter’s inherent nature and its powerful placement would protect the city and bring great wealth and prosperity.

Then, in the first house of the horoscope, Jupiter operates well because it sits in the head of the chart. This is where Jupiter brings clarity of thought, purpose and action. It was because of this that Baghdad became the centre of scholarship, a city known for engaging with and preserving ancient wisdom, higher knowledge, philosophy and religion. These are matters that fall under the domain of Jupiter which amongst many things therefore rules philosophers, sages, clerics, scholars, mosques, temples, churches, synagogues and all institutions dealing with higher learning.

Finally, astronomically, since a retrograde planet is closest to the earth, symbolically its influence becomes even stronger especially because it also appears brightest during this time. Because of these three aspects, Jupiter was in strong dignity — meaning that it would have an immensely positive influence over the city.


There is no perfect horoscope. Even Baghdad’s highly auspicious chart was susceptible to severe afflictions. When Abbasid court astrologers elected to place Jupiter in the first house of the horoscope, Mars, by virtue of its position in the sky at that particular moment, went into the opposite seventh house. Mars, by nature, is a harsh planet, but it’s an essential force for survival and preservation. Nonetheless, its fiery gaze on the ascendant, would have caused the astrologers many a sleepless night. They, it seems, placed their bets on the powerful Jupiter to shield the city from harm.

They knew that this position of Mars would give rise to constant arguments, disagreements and internal conflicts. On its own Mars was not as harmful but it does tend to draw blood. The problem was that this Mars was intimately connected to Saturn being its dispositor. Therefore, every time Mars ran its planetary period, it activated the greater malefic planet, Saturn. Similarly, this ill-fated relationship got triggered during Saturn’s planetary periods. Since both planets had little dignity, their time periods proved to be lethal especially when their transits also stoked the fire and there were no other mitigating factors. Such conjunctions brought out the worst events of terror, violence and devastation.

Al-Mansur envisaged the city as a stronghold of Islam where peace and harmony reigned. That’s why on official coinage, Baghdad is called madinat al-salam — the ‘City of Peace’. He had given his astrologers an urgent deadline even though they had advised him to move the inauguration to a later date because certain planetary positions were harmful. But the caliph was adamant. So his astrologers did their best to achieve the caliphal aspiration, hedging their bets on the powerful placements of Jupiter and the Sun, knowing that in the elected horoscope, Saturn and Mars, because of their weakness, became extremely dangerous. They would have foreseen great misfortunes for the city whenever these two malefics became time lords.

However, we have to remember that planets don’t instigate events. They are merely timekeepers. The truth is that planets are actually impartial actors on the celestial stage. It’s through an understanding of their inherent natures and their journeys through space that we can read the past, present and future. But Baghdad’s horoscope, in the end, is a testament that while it may be possible to influence the hour, nobody controls time.


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