The Lament of Baghdad: from the centre of the world to war-torn chaos

It sometimes seems as if Baghdad is the most lamented city on earth. The sectarian violence, the terrorism, the ruined infrastructure and uncertain future; in short, encompassing insecurity for all its inhabitants, both domestic and foreign.

The damage caused at an ice cream parlour in Baghdad after an ISIS suicide bomber struck in late May

How can one reconcile this devastated capital with the city that embodied the greatness of the Abbasid Caliphate, that unsurpassed centre of learning and commerce that held together an empire stretching from Andalusia to Central Asia?

In the 760s the second Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mansur, built the Madinat al-Salam on the banks of the Tigris, the fabled ’round city’ that would become what we know as Baghdad. His astute, economical and, when necessary, ruthless rule firmly entrenched the Abbasids as the successors of the Umayyads, in the process etching Baghdad onto the world map.

The famed ’round city’ of Baghdad, with the Great Mosque at centre

Al-Mansur’s successors prospered thanks to his tightfisted ways, the imperial treasury overflowing by the late 8th century, ushering in a period of territorial expansion and bold cultural expression. The Abbasids would soon reach their zenith under the rule of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), a formidable ruler whose life directly inspired many of the tales spun in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.  

This rapid period of Abbasid consolidation and growth soon made Baghdad one of the preeminent cities of the Middle East, an equal to Aleppo and Damascus as a place of religious, cultural and educational authority. The cities of western Europe could barely compete with the splendour of the Abbasid capital or its all-seeing Caliph.

Caliph Harun al-Rashid receives a delegation from Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne

Very little, if anything, remains of the original ’round city’. Like so many of Iraq’s archaeological treasures, centuries of warfare have caused them to be obliterated, the rise of ISIS and its complete contempt for anything of historical importance a continual threat to this magical legacy.

Of course, anyone that sees ISIS as an unusually barbaric incarnation of terror would do well to remember the intermittent horrors of Iraqi history, from the Abbasids up to the rule of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent US occupation.

ISIS recently blew up the 12th century Al-Nuri mosque in Mosul. The self-proclaimed Caliphate fortunately never engulfed Baghdad but suicide bombing remains a threat to the Iraqi capitals historic wonders

A particular episode in this bloody narrative that creates pause for thought occurred in the early 15th century and is related below:

In 1401, the Turkic warlord Tamerlane, the Conqueror of the World, stormed the city [Baghdad] and ordered every soldier in his army to bring him a Baghdadi head – or two. And they did: 90,000 severed heads were piled into 120 towers – Tamerlane’s terrifying battlefield signature. (Marozzi, p.30)

This followed an almost equally brutal ransacking of the city by Tamerlane’s Mongol predecessor Hulagu Khan in 1258, whose destruction of Baghdad and execution of the caliph Al-Mustasim signalled the end of the Abbasid dynasty.

Even ISIS has not been able to recreate such staggering atrocities, though that has not diminished the fear the terrorist group is capable of provoking in ordinary citizens and politicians alike.

What the people of Baghdad have proven throughout their history, however, whether in times of prosperity or destitution, is an uncompromising resilience. A city that was the envy of the world has been taken to the brink of destruction on more than one occasion, only to rebound. Its people are the reason why, their proud sense of history overcoming the humiliation of foreign invasion, the scourge of insecurity and the devastating personal losses to rebuild, to resurrect the rubble of the past and create the vision of a future.

The Mongol siege of Baghdad in 1258. Iraq’s capital has been a constant target for foreign invaders for centuries

The glory days of the Abbasid Caliphate may seem unattainable but the prospect of peace is enough to make people fight on and despite the pessimism of many in the international community, Iraq and Baghdad will continue to fight.

“Who will change old lamps for new ones?… new lamps for old ones?” (Aladdin, One Thousand and One Nights)

Source

Marozzi, Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood (2014)

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May Ignores Heath Folly and Pays the Ultimate Price

A couple of months ago, I mused in these pages whether Theresa May’s decision to call a snap general election would backfire, as it did when her predecessor Edward Heath took a similar decision back in February 1974.

As it transpires, May’s gamble has not paid off. Although her Conservative Party garnered the most votes in the 8th June election and remains the largest within the House of Commons, a surge by Labour has resulted in a hung parliament and the end of the Tory majority.

Theresa May’s tenure at 10 Downing Street looks increasingly untenable

The prelude, campaign and results of the 2017 general election mirror those of 1974. Tory overconfidence against a seemingly disunited opposition, a lacklustre campaign compounded by policy errors and weak manifestos, and ultimately a hung parliament (although it is worth noting that Heath’s Conservatives were not even the largest party, losing by 4 seats to Harold Wilson’s Labour).

As in 1974, also, the immediate future is unclear. May has vowed to soldier on as Prime Minister, even though her minority government is now reliant on an unlikely kingmaker to pass its desired legislation: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP sits even further to the right than the Tories on the political spectrum, its Eurosceptic, socially conservative views at odds with those of much of the British populace.

For years the DUP was led by the formidable Ian Paisley as a staunch opposition to Republicanism in Ireland

Even were May to win a loose alignment with the DUP – necessarily giving the Northern Irish party influence way beyond its 10 seats – she would still need to maintain the loyalty of Tory backbenchers, certainly not guaranteed.

The alternatives, however, are hardly appealing. May’s resignation would trigger a Tory leadership contest and probably another general election, something the British electorate is unlikely to have energy for.

Alternatively, there is the prospect of a minority Labour government under the stewardship of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has proved himself a competent campaigner, his skills honed by years of futile protesting against almost every policy any government has ever advocated. The chances of him being an effective PM, however, are slim, with Labour’s wild campaign promises surely not capable of being fulfilled in government.

Corbyn has hailed Labour’s election defeat as a victory, yet it is unlikely that he would be able to live up to his campaign promises were he to become Prime Minister

Mrs May will know that Heath’s attempts to form a coalition government in 1974 failed, prompting his resignation. Wilson’s minority Labour government hung on until a second election of the year (held in October) delivered him a narrow majority.

With Brexit negotiations yet to begin in earnest, threats to Britain’s security seemingly increasing by the day, and economic recovery still ponderous, all we know for certain is that the country is in for an uncertain few months.

How Mrs May must regret not taking heed of history and allowing her majority, albeit narrow, to steer Britain ahead through the choppiest of waters.

Edward Heath heads to the polling station in 1974. He would be out of office within days