Can there be another major city in the world where legend and historic reputation are so different from gritty reality? Baghdad is, of course, the setting of the earliest Arab stories in the Arabian Nights, the city where the caliph Harun al-Rashid wandered the darkened streets at night looking for adventure. The Arabian Nights may be the most familiar point of reference to the Western reader, but the reputation of the city was well established long before the Nights appeared in French and English as an 18th-century exotic. Within a couple of generations of his death in 809, the Baghdad of Harun had, in the popular imagination of its citizens, acquired a legendary glamour as a city of beautiful people, plentiful money, extravagant cuisine and outré poets. Perhaps the name has always conjured up more than the reality.
In Mesopotamia, where cities had been flourishing for millennia, Baghdad was a new town. Plentiful chronicles in Arabic mean that we know when it was founded, AD 762, and the name of its founder, the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur. As the ruler of an empire that stretched from central Asia to Tunisia, he needed a capital on the fertile plains of Iraq, the land in the centre of his domains which provided much of the revenue that kept his administration running. We are told of his monumental building project, the great round city: we know how high the walls were, the size of the bricks out of which it was constructed and how much it cost to build. But if we search for the physical remains, we draw a complete blank. The Tigris, on which it was built, is a faithless friend. It brings the water of life, but it often floods and changes its course, inundating whole quarters. The mud brick out of which most of the buildings were constructed does not leave elegant ruins like the classical cities of Syria, with their columns and porticoes: it simply disappears into the mud from which it was first made. Almost always it was easier to build anew than to preserve and redevelop the fabric of the old.
In a sense this paradox lies at the heart of Justin Marozzi’s new book. Unlike other great cities of Islam – Damascus, Cairo, Istanbul or Delhi – Baghdad has attracted few tourists and fewer writers. Abbasid civilisation produced great writing, science and history, but the city was made of mud, plaster and wood, and its walls and floors were covered with exquisite textiles. Almost nothing of this has survived. So we are left with the written sources to create a virtual city in our imaginations. Marozzi has achieved this in a lively and fascinating book, a ‘biography’ of the city that can be compared with Simon Sebag Montefiore’s recent ‘biography’ of Jerusalem.
Marozzi takes the history chronologically from al-Mansur’s foundation to the present day. He himself has lived and worked in the city for several periods since the invasion in 2003. He has seen the city’s recent agonies at first hand and finds plenty of parallels in the past. Although in its early days it was formally known as Madinat al-Salam, the ‘City of Peace’, there can be few cities in the world which have had such an unpeaceful history but which have, despite every-thing, still survived as urban centres. There are, of course, the major events: the civil war that followed Harun’s death and devastated the city for four years; and the Mongol conquest of 1258 that put an end to the Abbasid caliphate and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. But there were numerous other catastrophes largely forgotten to history, like the floods, plague and massacres that attended the Ottoman reconquest of 1831 and threatened to destroy urban life, and which Marozzi brings to life by mining contemporary accounts.
Marozzi’s writing is vivid and compelling and his historical judgements convincing and well founded in a wide variety of original sources. Some of his most interesting sections come when he deals with periods that have been almost completely neglected by modern historians. Though I like to think that I have some grasp of the longue durée of the history of Iraq, I was both surprised and fascinated by his account of the rule of the Mamluk Pashas from 1704 to 1831. These military chiefs, recruited from slaves from the northern Caucasus, ruled the city, effectively independent of the Ottoman government in Istanbul. Some of them, like Suleyman the Great, were competent and energetic, if sometimes bizarre, rulers who made serious efforts to keep the peace and encourage business and economic activity. It was during this period that the British Agency was established in 1798 on the banks of the Tigris; we begin to find accounts of foreign visitors and the sketches and drawings at which so many of them were adept. Not a golden age, perhaps, but certainly a silver one.
Many readers will turn to Marozzi’s account of the 2003 invasion and the subsequent American occupation. His method here is not one of open or strident condemnation, but rather one of collecting facts and images and letting them speak for themselves. Anyone who believes that sanctions are a humane and reasonable alternative to war should read his account of the devastation the sanctions after the First Gulf War brought to ordinary Iraqis, while giving their leaders even more opportunities to enrich themselves. The first-hand accounts of the American occupation tell us nothing new but make it clear, once again, what an incompetent and cruel disaster it was.
But it is not, perhaps, on this that we should dwell. Baghdad is the best account we have in English of the long story of the development and survival of this remarkable city. As one of Justin Marozzi’s Iraqi informants says at the end of this book, ‘The cycle that sees Baghdad lurching between mayhem and prosperity has been long and gory, but of course we must have hope’.