For centuries, Baghdad seemed to stand at the centre of the world. Chosen as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate around the year 762, the city rose from the banks of the Tigris River with circular city walls enfolding lush palaces, becoming a beacon for the world’s great creative, cultural and scientific minds.
One of the first astronomical observatories in the Islamic world was built in the city. Its library — the House of Wisdom — amassed vast collections of texts, enough to rival the Great Library of Alexandria. And its population swelled to over a million, as merchants and pioneers in mathematics, physics and machinery gathered within its gates.
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It was a “golden age” — and it came to a cataclysmic end in 1258, when Mongol forces sacked the city. The violence was so brutal that the waters of the Tigris are said to have run red with blood.
Now, the video game company Ubisoft has promised to bring medieval Baghdad back to life as the setting for Assassin’s Creed: Mirage, the latest in a franchise of action-based stealth games famous for meticulous world-building.
Set in the 9th century, the newest Assassin’s Creed invites gamers to explore the city at the height of its power: a time of ambition and political turmoil. It is set to be released on October 5.
While the game aims to balance authenticity with entertainment, historian Ali Olomi, who consulted with Ubisoft for the game, said that it is also a chance for a wider audience to learn about a city that many in the West only know from contemporary events.
“For several hundred years, the entire Islamic world looks to Baghdad. Baghdad is the intellectual, spiritual, cultural, political capital,” he told Al Jazeera.
In #AssassinsCreed Mirage, when Basim visits 66 historical sites throughout Baghdad, there will be research-driven articles that pop up to players that will reveal information across five topics of Medieval Baghdad:
🙏Beliefs & Daily Life
🎨Art & Science… pic.twitter.com/bI0lZlzeqv
— AC: Landmarks (@ac_landmarks) July 5, 2023
“Scholars would travel from China and Africa, from the Byzantine Empire, the Persianate world, the Arab world, the Kurdish world — all coming to Baghdad.”
But that prestigious history has faded from public view, as modern-day Iraq recovers from a series of conflicts, including with the United States.
“Whenever you see the story of Baghdad in popular culture today, it’s almost always through the lens of the ‘War on Terror’ or the Iraq Invasion,” Olomi explained.
“There’s this idea that Baghdad exists as a backdrop to war; it’s not really a lived place. What’s missing is that vast history. To see that come to life in a video game is really exciting.”
The 13th chapter in the Assassin’s Creed series, Mirage follows the main character Basim Ibn Ishaq along his path to becoming a master assassin with a shadowy group called the Hidden Ones. All the while, a revolt known as the Zanj Rebellion — led by enslaved Africans — begins to take shape, challenging the Abbasid rule.
The game will be the first in the Assassin’s Creed series with original Arabic dubbing: Conversations will unfold in Arabic as the characters walk through the streets and bazaars of Baghdad, with Jordanian actor Eyad Nassar voicing the lead role of Basim.
Iranian American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo also features in the cast as Roshan, one of the game’s main characters and Basim’s mentor. In a phone call with Al Jazeera, Aghdashloo said that she admired Roshan’s qualities as a strong woman who still shows care for others.
“I was so happy to be able to lend my voice to this character,” said Aghdashloo. She also marvelled at the game’s rendition of Baghdad: “It looks like real life. I had seen pictures, I had seen paintings, but never as elaborate.”
The game recreates some of early Baghdad’s most stunning views, particularly the enormous green dome that stood at the centre of the so-called Round City. It was built under Baghdad’s founder, Abbasid caliph al-Mansur, and it capped his most lavish palace.
While Abbasid-era Baghdad was razed by the Mongol forces and almost nothing remains of the original landmarks, the city’s past continues to hold an important place in the cultural and historical memory of the Middle East.
“What makes the city’s memory tangible is its reputation. Its cultural legacy was indisputably one of the great flowerings of human achievement in history,” journalist Anthony Shadid wrote in his book Night Draws Near.
“In the West, the names of the geniuses behind the city’s golden age mean little, but in Baghdad, in the Arab world, the names of those times remain heroic, even fabled.”
‘Attention to detail’
Attempting to recreate a city that continues to hold near-mythical status is, of course, a challenge. Doing so in an entertaining way, even more so.
“Having people that know the city better than us, some who have worked their whole careers researching this through papers, letters, and maps, was very important for us,” said Simon Arseneault, a world and quest director with Ubisoft who helped design Assassin’s Creed: Mirage.
Arseneault explained that learning about Baghdad’s early history left him in awe.
“The city almost looks surreal. The round city concept was eye-opening. Huge gates, huge walls and then the magnificent palace in the middle, this was great to discover and learn about,” he told Al Jazeera.
“They’ve got knowledge from all around the world, they’re positioned on the Silk Road, so there’s people from all cultures, languages, religions, converging on this one city.”
The labyrinthine streets and alleys are also well suited for an Assassin’s Creed game, whose characters often traverse their surroundings by jumping across rooftops and climbing up walls.
Olomi said he came away from his work on the game impressed with the design team’s dedication. In a social media post, one Ubisoft employee explained that even the Arabic calligraphy in the game was tailored to the font and aesthetic of the time period.
“Clearly they were taking on a lot, tackling an incredibly important piece of history. But I was impressed with their attention to detail,” said Olomi. “I had never seen a team dig so deep. They came in with the right questions.”
If you could have seen the tears down my face when the Ubisoft Bordeaux team showed us the properly rendered shot of Baghdad.
— Malek T. (مالك) | Future Class '22 🎮 (@malekawt) June 12, 2023
Olomi also noted that the period in which the game takes place is so full of drama and intrigue that little exaggeration is needed. Real-life characters like Ali Ibn Muhammad, the leader of the Zanj Rebellion, even make appearances in the storyline.
“This is where storytelling, creativity, can become immersive,” said Olomi. “When it draws on history or uses history as inspiration.”
“We can imagine Baghdad, we can see contemporary Baghdad, but medieval Baghdad is gone, it was destroyed. To see it come alive vis-a-vis a video game is really thrilling.”