Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A Baghdad omnibus

Justin Marozzi, Baghdad, City of Peace, City of Blood, London: Penguin, 2015, pp512

A Baghdad omnibus
A Baghdad omnibus
Al-Ahram Weekly

In Baghdad, City of Peace, City of Blood, a welcome reissue of a book that first appeared last year, British historian Justin Marozzi has provided readers with at least three books for the price of one.

There is an account of the foundation of Baghdad, the “City of Peace,” by the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansour in 762 CE and its starring role as the capital of the Abbasid caliphate. There is a history of Baghdad as a provincial capital and often backwater during the long period of Persian and then Ottoman rule. And there is an account of the city’s fortunes as the capital of the new state of Iraq, established in 1920 on the ruins of the former Ottoman Empire and taking the story up to the present day.

This is an omnibus version of Baghdad, a “history of Baghdad in thirteen centuries,” a Baghdad that includes everything but the kitchen sink. While the story of Baghdad under Abbasid rule has been told before, and the history of modern Baghdad given here is really that of Iraq as a whole, the book scores highly in telling the story of Baghdad from its sacking by the Mongols in 1258 to its re-emergence as a major city at the beginning of the last century. This period in Baghdad’s history may be unfamiliar to many readers and there are few other materials on it available.

One aspect of Baghdad that is less likely to be unfamiliar is the city’s role in the stories of the Thousand and One Nights and as the setting for some of this mediaeval story collection’s most famous tales. Baghdad at the time was the capital of an empire that stretched from Central Asia to North Africa, and it was designed on a matching scale.

However, the city’s size was perhaps not the most extraordinary thing about it, for Abbasid Baghdad was also circular in shape and surrounded by vast and elaborate walls. It was divided into different areas by function – administrative, commercial or residential – and the caliph’s palace stood in the very centre, equidistant from every point along its perimeter walls.

It was an almost unique example of urban-planning, and in its design, its scale, and its magnificence it was unparalleled among the Arab cities of the time. Marozzi explains that when Al-Mansour, the second Abbasid caliph, decided to build a new capital in Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq, he wanted it to be “sufficiently removed from both Basra and Kufa, the two Arab cities founded as garrisons for troops during the first century of the Arab conquests.” He led the search for the site of the new capital himself, picking a location 20 miles north of Ctesiphon, the capital of the former Parthian and Sassanid Empires, and Seleucia, capital of the Seleucid Empire, founded, like Ptolemaic Egypt, by one of the generals of Alexander the Great in the late fourth century BCE.

The Ummayad caliphs had settled on Damascus, a formerly Hellenistic and Roman city, as their capital following the Arab conquests in the 7th century CE. But in moving the capital of the Arab Empire eastwards to Mesopotamia, and underlining the difference between Abbasid and Ummayad rule, Al-Mansour wanted to build an entirely new capital that while within striking distance of the remains of the capitals of former empires would owe nothing to them. Perhaps he was thinking along the lines of the Arab conquerors of Egypt who chose to establish a new capital at Fustat rather than take over the existing Roman and Byzantine capital of Alexandria. If so, he also did not want simply to establish another garrison city. Baghdad was intended to be a permanent capital for the Empire, overshadowing other urban centres.

Marozzi says that the circular form of the new city was “a tribute to the geometric teachings of Euclid, whom Al-Mansour had studied and admired.” It was also a startlingly innovative design. “Four equidistant gates pierced the outer walls,” he writes, “and from each a straight road led to the centre of the city.” These massive walls, four miles long, were made of bricks, necessarily in a country that lacked stone but had vast amounts of clay. They were arranged in two courses, outer and inner, between which were the new city’s residential and commercial districts, leaving the inner city as an immense enclosure containing administrative and religious buildings, including the caliph’s palace. Relying on Arab historians such as al-Tabari, Marozzi says this building featured a “120-foot-high green dome visible for miles around and was surmounted by the figure of a horseman with a lance in his hand.”

The city was soon extended to Karkh to the south, which became a predominantly commercial area, perhaps the location of the bazaars mentioned in the stories of the Thousand and One Nights, and Rusafa to the north-east, developed as a garrison city for the army. Its population exploded, and magnificent palaces and other buildings sprang up in the new suburbs. Writers such as the poet Abu Nuwas and the essayist Al-Jahiz made Baghdad their home, perhaps profiting from the intellectual atmosphere fostered by the seventh caliph, Al-Mamoun, who sponsored the Bayt al-Hikma, “the House of Wisdom,” described here as a “sort of combination of lavishly endowed royal archive, learned academy, library and translation bureau, with a dedicated staff of scholars, copyists and bookbinders rolling forward the frontiers of knowledge.” It was Al-Mamoun who sponsored the famous translation movement responsible for translating classical Greek and Roman works into Arabic at the time.

These years were the high point of Abbasid rule, and long before Baghdad was destroyed by invading Mongol forces the Empire was showing structural problems, with caliphal authority being effectively lost to Turkic soldiers, the equivalent of the Egyptian Mamelukes, from the 9th century onwards. Outlying regions, including most of the Levant and Egypt, were lost to competing regimes. “Power was ebbing away from the Abbasid caliphs, as they declined from masters of the civilised world to puppet rulers maintained in luxurious seclusion,” Marozzi says.

The full extent of this loss of power became clear when the armies of Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, arrived on the horizon. The Abbasid caliph at the time, Al-Mustasim, according to British historian Sir Henry Howarth “a weak and miserly creature… in a state of mental imbecility,” proved incapable of meeting the challenge, and in the carnage that followed the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in February 1258 between 200,000 and 800,000 people were massacred, including the caliph, and much of the city was razed to the ground.

The world of Islam had suffered setbacks before, Marozzi comments, notably when Seljuk Turks had taken over much of Persia and Frankish Crusaders had occupied the Levant. “But Hulagu’s invasion of 1258 was on an altogether different scale. It reduced Baghdad ‘from the peerless seat of Islamic dominion to a shabby outpost of the [Mongol] Ilkhan Empire.’ It was by far the most shattering blow the Muslim world had ever received and imperiled the very future of Islam.”

WHAT CAME NEXT: Marozzi’s book is notable for describing what happened next, taking the story of Baghdad from its destruction at the hands of the Mongols in the 13th century to its reappearance as the capital of modern Iraq.

The city lost its position as an intellectual and religious centre (the Abbasid caliphate was relocated to Cairo), and it became something of a backwater, fought over by the neighbouring Persian and Ottoman Empires until eventual Ottoman victory and the incorporation of Mesopotamia into the Ottoman Empire. “Pashas rose and fell against a backdrop of regular tribal revolts outside the city and murderous mutinies and garrison uprisings within it,” Marozzi comments.

European travelers began to visit and were unimpressed. By the time the German explorer Carsten Niebuhr arrived in Baghdad in 1766, much of the eastern area of the city was “entirely without buildings and uninhabited.” The Al-Mustansiriya Madrassa, built by the Abbasid caliph Al-Mustansir in 1227, was in a dilapidated state and was being used as a bazaar. Few people seemed to be able to read and write, and the only things on which money had been spent were the local Mameluke forces and the personal bodyguard of Omar Pasha, “magnificently dressed and mounted on beautiful horses.”

However, economic developments in the Ottoman Empire and wider world soon began to lead to political change. In early 19th-century Egypt the coup de grâce was delivered to the Mameluke regime by Mohamed Ali in the wake of its defeat at the hands of invading French forces. Something similar seems to have happened in early 19th-century Mesopotamia, minus the French, when the Ottoman authorities, still reeling from defeat in the Ottoman-Russian War, decided to reform the Empire’s eastern provinces.

According to Marozzi, Ali Rida, perhaps a local version of Mohamed Ali, arrived with orders to depose Daoud Pasha, Baghdad’s Mameluke ruler, and begin a process of wide-ranging reform. “The army was reorganised and professionalised,” replacing the personal forces of the Mameluke emirs, and “factories replaced guilds, ministries of health and education were established, together with universities, schools, a central bank, stock exchange, post office and Academy of Sciences.”

This paved the way for the reforms of the Ottoman governor Midhat Pasha in the later 19th century, as well as the increasing importance of foreign capital in developing Baghdad. “By 1889, the entrepreneurial Lynch Brothers had two steam presses in Baghdad which together could pack 30,000 bales of wool a year. At the turn of the century the American firm MacAndrews & Forbes built a plant with hydraulic presses where thousands of tons of licorice root were dried, baled and exported,” Marozzi says.

While there were still problems with communications, the Ottoman authorities refusing to improve road travel between Damascus and Baghdad or invest in railways, even here the city was being opened up to the outside world. Marozzi claims that as late as the First World War, “there was only one street in the whole of Baghdad through which a wheeled vehicle could pass,” adding that the city was made up of “crooked, labyrinthine alleyways.” Even so, in 1857 the Ottoman authorities allowed the British East India Company to build a telegraph line between Istanbul and Baghdad. Ottoman Mesopotamia was being modernised and opened up to foreign trade.

MODERN BAGHDAD: Yet, until the beginning of the 1920s, when Baghdad took on its new role as the capital of the British Mandate territory of Iraq, the city had hardly grown in size or population.

The development of the modern city then began, accelerating in the 1950s as increasing oil revenues allowed for a building boom that involved quite a few white elephants. European architects, among them Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, had their appetites whetted by huge commissions. Fortunately, the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s “extraordinary opera house staring at a towering 300-foot statue of Harun al-Rashid” was never built, and money was spent instead on housing projects to meet the needs of the city’s exploding population.

Marozzi’s pages on this period in Baghdad’s history, not really distinguishable from his version of Iraqi history as a whole, have a nostalgic feel, perhaps understandable bearing in mind the horrors to come when Iraq fell under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and then the US-led invasion and occupation. He quotes the famous historian of modern Iraq Hanna Batatu to the effect that Baghdad in the 1950s was marked by “a vigour long unknown, a middle class in continuous growth and already intensely articulate, a modern education still meagre in content but extending in bounds, [and] paved roads, railroads and air services gradually spanning more and more of the country.” And he devotes several pages to the 1958 Revolution, writing luridly of the killing of the royal family and streets “swarming with nationalists, communists, pan-Arabists, slum-dwellers, rampaging thugs – a seething Baghdad mob at its most vicious.”

Swarming, seething, rampaging and vicious as some opponents of the monarchical regime might have been, Marozzi may nevertheless be overdoing the rhetoric. As he admits elsewhere, Iraq’s “liberal age,” roughly speaking the period between the 1920s and late 1950s, was marked by cringing submission to British interests abroad combined with staggering corruption and inequalities at home. That being so, it does not seem so extraordinary that few could be found to stand up for the regime when it came under attack or when the “desperately poor and disenfranchised, living in makeshift reed huts without water and electricity [and] eager supporters of the Nasserist message that was bombarding Baghdad’s airwaves with calls for a class war and a struggle against Britain and its stooges,” supported the army-led Revolution.

Today’s Baghdad, Marozzi writes in his concluding pages, has been marked by ethnic cleansing on a vast scale, with Sunni, Shia and Christian communities abandoning the city’s previously mixed districts and bunkering down in barricaded areas. Some 500,000 Iraqis are thought to have died between 2003 and 2011 in the chaos that followed the US-led invasion. “2013 was the deadliest year since 2008, with an estimated 8,955 killed in violence, a monthly average of 746 people,” Marozzi writes.

Vigilante groups and checkpoints have made circulation through the “City of Peace” almost impossible, with the violence that has become part of Baghdad’s daily life since 2003 probably justifying Marozzi’s alternative description of it as the “City of Blood” in his encyclopaedic new book.

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