Lead book review

Baghdad's rise, fall – and rise again

Justin Marozzi's Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood is a work of love about a city that has seen glories and survived horrors

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood Justin Marozzi

Allen Lane, pp.442, £25, ISBN: 9781846143137

The history of Baghdad more than any other city mirrors the ebb and flow that has marked Islamic history and civilisation. The rise and fall of empires and dynasties, the splendours of Islam’s high culture and its decline, the periodic tensions and ease that affected relations between nations and peoples, sects and faiths have all been played out in the teeming neighbourhoods, palace precincts, market areas, great mosques, educational centres and military compounds of this remarkable city.

Unlike its rival Damascus, the capital of the first Muslim empire, the Umayyads, which had been established for centuries before the arrival of Islam into Syria, Baghdad was pre-eminently a city of the Islamic era. It was founded specifically to be the capital of a universal empire, smack in the middle of trade routes that converged on it from all points of the azimuth.

It was the genius of the caliph al-Mansur, brother of the first Abbasid caliph, Abul Abbas, ‘the Slayer’, the scourge of the Umayyads, who conceived of the idea of a new capital and selected the site. Separated by hundreds of miles of desert from the lands of Syria and Arabia, it stood in the middle of the fertile plains of Mesopotamia. Lying on the Tigris river, Baghdad faced east towards the Iranian plateau and central Asia. The Tigris and nearby Euphrates linked it north with upper Syria and Asia Minor and south with the Gulf of Basra and further to India and the Orient. Al-Mansur also chose the design — it was to be ‘the round city’, a geometrically perfect circle, protected by giant walls pierced by equidistant gates, from which ceremonial avenues led to the centre. The scheme was monumental in scope.

On 30 July 762, al-Mansur laid the first brick. Tens of thousands of labourers toiled on the site, excavating foundations for the public buildings around which the city was to evolve, and within a mere four years all was ready. Al-Mansur had supervised every detail of the construction himself and had kept meticulous records and strict financial discipline, in character with his parsimony and punctiliousness. But the caliph was also intolerant, and prone to fits of extreme violence. After his death, his son al-Mahdi discovered a hidden chamber in the palace grounds where al-Mansur had dispatched dozens of the descendants of Ali, rivals to the Abbasid claim of supreme authority.

Baghdad, now dubbed Madinat al-Salam, the City of Peace, quickly grew into its expected role as the capital of a world empire. The ninth century was the golden age of the early Abbasids, of Harun al-Rashid, and his son al-Ma’mun, when the metropolis was at its glorious height. Unbelievable wealth poured in from all corners of the empire; its markets and bazaars were brimful with all the world’s goods; its palaces and public buildings were a wonder to behold; its artisans and craftsmen were unmatched in skill and refinement; scholars, scientists, philosophers, theologians, poets, panegyrists and belletrists converged on Baghdad, raising its intellectual and artistic status beyond all other cities of the time.

But its rise was short-lived. By the tenth century, the once centralised empire began to crumble. The capital was moved to Samarra, 100 miles north of Baghdad, by the caliph Mu’tasim, mainly to avoid the tensions between the old Arab military class and his new Turkish praetorian guards. This was an ill-fated decision as the Abbasid caliphs now fell under the sway of their erstwhile Turkish protectors. Eventually, the caliphs returned to Baghdad, which remained the capital of the Abbasids until 1258.

For a long period, Baghdad survived the eclipse of Abbasid power, but the loss of its political status as the unrivalled imperial capital inevitably affected the stature and fabric of the city. Travellers spoke of its decay, despite its still resplendent exterior. Three centuries of political conflicts, sieges, fires and floods took their toll, and by the 13th century authority had shifted towards the military dynasties who ruled under a nominal Abbasid caliph.

Henceforth, neighbourhoods became increasingly defined by groups or sects. Frequent internecine rioting would break out, involving the Shia, residing mainly in the Karkh area of west Baghdad, and the majority Sunni population on the eastern side. A short-lived attempt by the caliph al-Nasir to revive the imperial power of the Abbasids brought a measure of peace and stability, but a few decades after his death, his work was undone by the inept last Abbasid caliph, al-Musta’asim. Through a mixture of lassitude and misplaced arrogance, presiding over a city torn apart by sectarianism, al-Musta’asim grossly underestimated the threat of the converging Mongol hordes. Nor was he helped by his scheming and possibly duplicitous vizier, Ibn al-’Alqami. In 1258, the city fell to the massed armies of Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, and to horrific wanton killing and destruction, with the massacre of some 800,000 inhabitants.

But even worse was to follow. As the city slowly emerged from the rubble of the Mongols’ devastation, it was struck a further blow, in 1401, this time by the armies of Tamerlane, whose savagery in many respects exceeded that of the Mongols. Thereafter, Baghdad sank to a wretched backwater, falling prey to the rival rulers of nomadic Turkic clans, the Black Sheep and the White Sheep. Occupied in 1508 by the expanding Safavid empire, based in Iran, it was next conquered by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman in 1534 and for four centuries (apart from a brief interlude under the Safavid Shah Abbas) it remained under Ottoman control.

Throughout this long period the city festered and shrivelled further, its distant sultan only showing interest when his possessions in Iraq were menaced by Persia.Though a measure of stability was introduced in the early 18th century by Hassan Pasha, the Georgian mameluke nominally under the suzerainty of the Ottomans, by the beginning of the 19th century, Baghdad’s population was reduced to a mere 50,000, prone to disease and pestilence.

An era of Ottoman reforms, beginning in 1839, opened Baghdad to the outside world, but with that came various European imperial powers, enmeshing the city in rivalry. With the onset of the 20th century, the city began to regain some of its vitality, only to be plunged into the maelstrom of the first world war. In March 1917, a victorious Anglo-Indian army entered under General Stanley Maude, ending centuries of Ottoman rule.

For the next half century, Baghdad developed rapidly as Iraq’s capital, first under the Hashemite monarchy established by Faisal I, and later under successive republican regimes. By the late 1950s, with a population of a million, it became (at least superficially) one of the most modernised cities of the Middle East, with its wide boulevards, cinemas and theatres, clubs and offices built in the international style, and its thriving cultural and literary scene.

But the plagues of war and civil strife then revisited with a vengeance. By the time of the US-led invasion of 2003, Baghdad was a sprawling metropolis of seven million mostly poor and even destitute citizens, with a decrepit infrastructure, rutted streets, abandoned houses and burnt or bombed public buildings.

Over the last decade, however, the city has once again begun to pull itself out of its downward spiral. Baghdad will always survive — and it may possibly even thrive again: a testament to the resilience of al-Mansur’s City of Peace.

Justin Marozzi’s book is a brilliant, evocative and erudite retelling of the history of this most intriguing of cities. The author has drawn on a wide array of sources, from travellers’ memoirs and diplomatic despatches to the works of the great medieval historians, geographers and theologians, many of whom were resident in Baghdad. To these important sources he has added his own experiences of sojourns there over  the last decade, giving the book an intimacy and authority often lacking in similar works. He knows whereof he speaks, having trudged the streets and visited the  monuments and landmarks even where they have been reduced to rubble.

Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood is a work of love, and a homage to a place that has somehow survived the depredations of its conquerors, the fractiousness of its population and the duplicity of its rulers. Perhaps it is sheer willpower that keeps the city moving on; either that, or the challenge of trying to meet the impossible standards of its own peerless past.

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Show comments
  • Tokopol

    Wow. In light of recent events, you… uh… may want to rethink Baghdad’s current status.