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The House of Wisdom

'Vivid recreations of the past': in 'Assassin's Creed: Mirage'

To find out about how Assassin's Creed: Mirage brought a lost city back to life, Sky HISTORY caught up with Dr. Raphaël Weyland, an expert in Middle Eastern history a

Image: The House of Wisdom - Assassin's Creed: Mirage

Assassin's Creed: Mirage is the latest addition to the award-winning video game series from Ubisoft. This instalment of the popular franchise is set in 9th-century Baghdad, a hub of learning on the Silk Road and follows the adventures of Basim, a cunning street thief who seeks answers and justice.

After an act of deadly retribution, Basim flees Baghdad and joins an ancient organization – The Hidden Ones. As he learns their mysterious rituals and powerful tenets, he will hone his unique abilities, discover his true nature, and come to understand a new Creed – one that will change his fate in ways he never could have imagined. Find out how you can win a copy of the game for yourself.

To find out about how Assassin's Creed: Mirage brought a lost city back to life, Sky HISTORY caught up with Dr. Raphaël Weyland, an expert in Middle Eastern history and one of Ubisoft's in-house historians who worked on the game's development.

What made Baghdad such an important city during this period? 

Its wealth, its size, and its influence. As a key location around the ‘Silk Roads’ and the political and administrative centre of an empire stretching from modern Morocco to Pakistan, Baghdad was the place to be for Indian astronomers looking for patronage, for Ethiopian diplomats negotiating treaties and for Viking merchants trading exotic goods. There they contributed and were exposed to the sophisticated artistic and scientific endeavours fuelled by the Abbasid caliphs’ wealth, be it the translation of Greek and Persian texts or the creation of tales like the One Thousand and One Nights. They brought back home elements of this culture, spreading it even further. As such, Baghdad was one of the most important mercantile, artistic, and scientific centres of the world in the 9th century. 

Baghdad was part of the Abbasid Empire. What is the empire best known for? 

The Abbasid period is best known for its remarkable cultural, intellectual, and scientific advancements. The most important of them is surely the famous ‘Translation Movement’, a well-funded and sustained effort to acquire manuscripts of various cultural origins and translate them into Arabic. Led by scholars working in the city’s House of Wisdom, this movement contributed to the preservation and spread of ancient knowledge while facilitating discoveries. 

What was the biggest challenge in trying to recreate a lost city? 

The biggest challenge was to recreate a city that would feel vibrant and lived in. This requires a deep understanding of multiple aspects of the life of that city, many of which - such as political events and life of the court - historians don’t always think about, but also the general layering of the city and how it affected transportation; how elite as well as less fortunate people looked and sounded; what people ate, how they relaxed, what they considered beautiful or ugly, how they named their horses, etc.  

The challenge was immense, but fortunately, the life of the inhabitants of 9th-century Baghdad is described in detail by numerous written sources. For instance, for music and the life of famous singers, we could use the Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs) by Abu al-Faraj, while for table manners we could use the Kitab al-Bukhala (Book of Misers) by Al-Jahiz. 

To complement written sources, we used artefacts provided to us by many collaborating museums. They helped us get inspiration for everything from uniforms and weapons to floor tiles and astronomical instruments. 

Finally, we took inspiration from buildings from the same period that have withstood the test of time, like palaces from Samarra. 

 What’s the most surprising fact about Baghdad you learned during your research? 

The importance of musicians and singers in the political rivalries of the time! Music was considered the ultimate representation of adab, the mix of good manners and high culture a court member should display. So, sponsoring a famous singer was a way for members of the Abbasid elite to spread their influence at the court while thwarting the career of their rivals. Some epic showdowns between competing music schools are recorded in sources, full of witty repartees and slashing insults hidden behind exquisitely turned verses. The losing side and their patrons often ended up losing all influence at court.  

The game features real people from history such as the Banu Musa. Who were they and what part do they play in the game?

The Banu Musa were prolific inventors, skilled political operators, and generous scientific patrons. Studying with the mathematicians and astronomers of the House of Wisdom, they acquired multiple scientific, technical and linguistical skills. They participated in an expedition to calculate the circumference of the Earth, paid for manuscript-buying trips from the Byzantine Empire and published 20 books on various subjects. The most important was the Kitab al-Hiyal (Book of Ingenious Devices) which presented detailed and illustrated descriptions of one hundred mechanical devices such as automatic fountains and musical instruments.  

In our game, they put this knowledge at the service of Basim, our main character. They help him craft new tools and better understand the political landscape of the House of Wisdom.  

Are there any other notable historical figures who appear in the game? 

Without spoiling too much of the story, I can tell you that we have included various political and cultural important historical figures in the game. Among them is at least one caliph, one poet and one philosopher.  

From a historical perspective, what are you most proud of in the game? 

I love that we managed to represent the multicultural aspect of Baghdad in the game, as it was one of the most important elements of its identity at the time. We did it by including characters of many different faiths and cultural origins as well as various languages that you can hear all around you while you explore the city. This helps tremendously in making our Baghdad feel authentic and lived in.  

Do you think games like Assassin’s Creed can play an important role in educating players about history? 

I hope it does! Assassin’s Creed games immerse players into vivid recreations of the past for many hours, leaving deep emotional impressions about different cities in them. They are not meant to replace teachers or museums, simply to complement their work. They are used by dozens of teachers to capture the attention of their students and help them visualise what the Parthenon looked like or how people lived in 9th-century Winchester. Other cultural institutions also use it for educational purposes (latest example in the UK). 

Do you hope the game will change people’s perception about this period? 

Assassin’s Creed games can certainly serve as a great entry point into a culture. In my case, one of the things that ignited my interest in history is the movie Gladiator. It is not in any way an accurate depiction of 2nd-century Rome, but it gave me a thirst that led me to reading books, learning Latin and Greek, and eventually working as a historian. If in five years someone chooses a class about medieval Middle Eastern history because of Assassin’s Creed: Mirage, it would be wonderful!