The Future of Megaprojects

Ancient Megaprojects:
The Round City of Baghdad

Research from the University of Oxford reveals that only 2.8% of megaprojects are on time and on budget. This is not a modern problem. In this two-part blog, we are delving deep into history to take stock of megaprojects from the medieval and ancient worlds. These projects show us that the challenges project teams face today are not all that different from those faced by our ancestors. Perhaps even more revealing is how strikingly similar the approaches taken to tackle these challenges are both today and thousands of years ago.

Over the next two weeks, we will explore two era-defining historical megaprojects: the Round City of Baghdad and the Great Pyramid of Giza. While we associate these projects with a distant past, each teaches us just how deeply rooted the problems we face in constructing megaprojects are.

The Origins of the Round City

Rome was, famously, not built in a day. In fact, the development of a city often takes generations. However, in the the eighth century, the construction of the round city of Baghdad posed a challenge to the conventional wisdom around city building.

When the Abbasid Caliph, al-Mansur came upon the site of what was to become Baghdad in 758 AD, few could have expected him to oversee the construction of an ancient “architectural marvel”. Yet within eight years an intricate city had bloomed out of nothing. From construction getting underway in 762 AD through to its completion in 766 AD, all evidence points to a megaproject of incredible scale being undertaken much in the same way we build today.

The Process

Caliph al-Mansur populated his project teams strategically. He trusted planning to Khalid ibn Barmak who was renowned for his innovations in record-keeping, as well as his responsibility as an administrator of financial matters. Barmak got the job because he was trusted to be meticulous, enthusiastic and highly capable.

In terms of the construction itself, al-Mansur gathered skilled craftsmen and manual laborers from across the empire to get the job done. He refused to allow construction to begin until 100,000 skilled workers were present at the site (for reference, 18,000 workers constructed Brazil’s 2016 Olympic village). In order to ensure that craftsmen worked with maximum efficiency, al-Mansur appointed a commander for each quarter of the city. These commanders acted much in the same ways that Project Directors do today.

Obviously, al-Mansur’s project teams did not have the technology we enjoy in the 21st century. However, his reaction to the first completed plan of the city is revealing. It shows us how builders could visualise the city without modern tech. Once the master plan was completed, al-Mansur walked through the foundational ditches of the city walls, methodically examining the layout before he approved the design. Once commanders (his Project Managers) had his approval, he ordered that oiled cottonseeds be placed around the outline and set alight. The fire provided him with a 3-D picture of the city’s dimensions. While it is not quite BIM, the initiative serves a similar purpose – teams could visualise the proportions of the project before they started to build.

The Result

On Flyvbjerg and Ansar’s definition, the historic city of Baghdad was a hugely significant megaproject. When translated into modern GBP, the entire cost of the project would be at least £1bn. This investment produced a city with three concentric walls, the innermost of which served to separate imperial residences and gardens from government offices. The middle wall, measuring 90ft in height, with foundations 105ft across worked as a defense in case of military attack. The outermost wall held battlements of 113 bastions every 60 yards. Each of these walls required 452,000 bricks, each of which weighed over 200kg. In the context of such measurements, the four mile circumference of the outer wall reflects just how significant this project was.

The city became “the largest urban centre of the Medieval World”, and the central hub for the Abbasid Golden Age. Four hundred years after its initial construction, the city was described as follows: “In the entire world, there has not been a city that could compare with Baghdad in size and splendor…Consider the numerous roads, markets, lanes, mosques, bathhouses and shops. All these distinguish the city from all others”. Indeed, while the city failed to stand the test of time after its sun-dried mud bricks turned back into soil (a lesson in prioritizing material durability can be taken from the failure to use more durable fire-backed bricks), it stands as a testament to how to deliver a megaproject in a timely, organised way.

Next week the Future of Megaprojects will be looking even further into history, at the Great Pyramid of Giza. We will take stock of how ancient Egyptians integrated lessons learned through generations of pyramid construction and built agility into their schedules to create the only ancient wonder of the world still standing thousands of years later.

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Madeleine Jones Casey

Madeleine Jones-Casey

Content Lead at Foresight Works

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