Constructed between 1227 and 1234 by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustansir (1226-1242), the Madrasa al-Mustansiriyya is regarded as one of the oldest centers of learning in history. Students journeyed from all over the Islamic world to come and study theology, literature, medicine, mathematics, jurisprudence, and the Quran, as it was the first effort at one site to unify the four orthodox Sunni law schools, Hanbali, Shafii, Maliki, and Hanifi; each school occupied a corner of the madrasa.
Situated on the Tigris River, this brick, two-story, rectangular madrasa measures 106 by 48 meters and is organized around a central courtyard. Three iwans open onto the court while the fourth side leads down a long corridor off of which are three open spaces that functioned as an oratory. Other hallways and rooms extend from the court through pointed-arched entrances creating a complex that served student needs, including a kitchen, prayer hall, living quarters, and baths. Both the iwans and the arched doorways were framed with plain brick vertical and horizontal strips. The madrasa could be entered through a triple-door opening on one of its long sides while directly across from it another triple-doorway led from the courtyard into the musalla, or prayer hall. These entrances exhibited arabesque-sculpted terracotta and geometric patterned masonry work, featuring vegetal themes that recall earlier Abbasid and even Umayyad motifs.
The brick façade of the Madrasa al-Mustansiriyya features rosette decorated square plugs designed in a geometric pattern. In addition, an inscribed band that speaks to an 1865 Ottoman restoration by Sultan 'Abd al-'Aziz stretches the length of the river façade, replacing the original.
After the fifteenth century, the building was neglected and was subsequently used as a khan, a hospital and eventually army barracks. By 1945, the Iraqi Directorate of Antiquities had initiated a campaign to restore this historic monument. Today, the immediate commercial district around the madrasa has been demolished to return the site to its original borders.
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Madrasa al-Mustansiriya (Alternate transliteration)