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)

IS Harvests Rommel’s North Africa Legacy in Pursuit of Mayhem

The North Africa Campaign of WWII comprised some of the fiercest fighting ever seen across desert terrain, with momentum swinging violently between the Axis and Allied powers, before the latter’s eventual victory in 1943. The eventual success of the Campaign set up the invasion of Sicily and the subsequent Allied advance through the Italian mainland.

British tanks rumble across the desert during the North Africa Campaign
Allied tanks rumble across the desert during the North Africa Campaign

Almost 100,000 troops lost their lives on both sides, with more than 5,000 tanks and 9,000 aircraft destroyed along with countless thousands of tons of other war materiel. The rusting carcasses of some of these machines are a stark reminder of the intensity of the Saharan battles but even more significant is the legacy of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) left by the conflict.

Mile upon mile of dense minefields were laid by both sides during the fighting, with thousands of artillery shells, mortars, bombs and other munitions failing to detonate and remaining primed and deadly in the ground 75 years on.

This legacy has been a constant menace to the Bedouin tribes that continue to inhabit the region, with only sporadic Explosive Ordnance Clearance (EOC) tasks undertaken by the Egyptian government and international bodies since WWII. What remains a constant menace to the indigenous population has only recently been brought to global attention by the actions of the barbarous Islamic State (IS).

IS has made steady ground in Egypt, with the lawless deserts of the Sinai Peninsula and the Sahara now sheltering hundreds of jihadists intent on waging their terrorist war across international borders. It is has been noted that amongst IS’s wide-ranging and ad hoc armoury are devices with explosives harvested from UXO relating to the North Africa Campaign.

IS fighters in Sinai province
IS fighters in Sinai province

With more than 17 million land mines thought to remain buried across the Sahara, it is little wonder that IS has taken the opportunity to increase its chain of supply. Removing the munitions and reusing them in their crude Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) appears to be a further sign of the group’s adaptation in the face of an international onslaught.

Such a tactic may not be novel, however, with the 2004 truck bombing of the Taba Hilton now believed to have been caused by a bomb using explosives pilfered from WWII UXO.

Whilst the exact origin – i.e. Allied or Axis munitions – of the IS explosives is unclear, most media reports are attributing it to the Nazis and to one general in particular: Erwin Rommel.

Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox’, established a reputation for tactical mastery during the early phases of the North Africa Campaign, with his Panzer Divisions routing the chaotically-managed British Army during the initial exchanges in the desert.

Erwin Rommel: the Desert Fox
Erwin Rommel: the Desert Fox

Renowned and revered both in Germany and across the Allied world, Rommel would eventually be forced to commit suicide by Hitler after his alleged involvement in an assassination attempt against the Fuhrer in 1944. By then his Axis forces had been pushed out of North Africa with an invigorated Allied army led by Bernard Montgomery seizing the upper hand after the decisive Second Battle of El-Alamein in the Autumn of 1942.

Australian troops during the Second Battle of El-Alamein
Australian troops during the Second Battle of El-Alamein

UXO has contaminated huge tracts of land across the world since the 19th century, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians unable to escape the horrors of the past. It is no irony that IS – already one of history’s most hideous formations – should choose to harness this tragic legacy to inflict even more misery on those powerless to defend themselves.

Whilst it might give the Egyptian authorities and their allies a vigorous prod towards addressing this unwanted legacy – and Cairo should by no means be solely responsible for a job whose necessity has primarily been caused by the European powers – it is equally likely to encourage other terrorists to attempt similarly risky feats, harnessing the explosive remnants of war in their quest for ever greater devastation.

The days of ‘gentlemanly warfare’ – if such a thing ever existed – have long since past.

Iran Plays Powerful with Control Over Hormuz Strait; 500 Years on from Afonso de Albuquerque

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most strategically important waterways in the world today.  Providing the only sea passage between the Persian Gulf and the open ocean, it is used to transport approximately 20% of international petroleum requirements from the Middle Eastern oil fields.

The Strait of Hormuz has great strategic and, by extension, military importance
The Strait of Hormuz has great strategic and, by extension, military importance

At its narrowest, the Strait flows between Iran to the north and the Omanian exclave of Musandam to the south.  It has been the scene of diplomatic incidents, military clashes and maritime collisions but to Tehran, in particular, it is a chokepoint of great potential.

The Iranians periodically threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz and have, indeed, made the potential for such a scenario central to their belligerent foreign policy.  It is the United States, unsurprisingly, that is typically the target of such threats and whilst Iran would suffer from halting oil shipments out of the Persian Gulf, its control over the Strait is an undoubted bargaining tool.

It is 500 years since the great Portuguese explorer, conqueror and administrator Afonso de Albuquerque perished in Goa, that strategic gateway to India whose capture secured a foothold for Lisbon in Asia. Eight years prior to his death, Albuquerque had sailed into the Strait of Hormuz on the orders of his patron, King Manuel I of the House of Aviz.

Ever since Vasco da Gama had landed at Calicut in 1498, the Portuguese had been in competition for dominance over the lucrative Indian Ocean trade with Muslim merchants, whose own commercial routes stretched all the way to Egypt and the Mamluk Sultanate, Manuel’s rival in the Mediterranean.  Capturing Ormuz Island on what is today Iran’s southern coast would be a major step in thwarting Muslim ambitions.

Da Gama's famed voyage initiated an era of worldwide European exploration and conquest
Da Gama’s famed voyage initiated an era of worldwide European exploration and conquest

With little effort, Albuquerque and his men captured their target in October 1507, only for their joy to be short-lived.  In a harsh climate without sufficient supplies, Albuquerque’s aim to build a garrison to hold the island led to resentment amongst his subordinate captains and provoked resistance from the local population.  A mutiny of the Portuguese ensued, whereby all bar Albuquerque’s ship returned to Portuguese India and Ormuz was lost.

Not to be deterred – and after securing Goa and Malacca in a series of brilliantly daring raids – Albuquerque returned to Ormuz again in 1515 with more than 1,000 men in 27 heavily-armed vessels.  This time the conquest led to the establishment of a permanent garrison, effectively cutting off the Indian Ocean to the Muslim merchants and securing the first overseas empire by a European power.  Indeed, it would not be until 1622 that the Portuguese presence at Ormuz was ended by the British.

Ormuz offered the Portuguese a grasp on both the Indian and Persian trade
Ormuz offered the Portuguese a grasp on both the Indian and Persian trade

There are few men as ‘great’ as Albuquerque today – and this term refers to his military and administrative achievements not his propensity to dispense brutal justice to those who dared cross him – nor as pioneering as his predecessors da Gama and Francisco da Almeida.  Indeed, we live in a world where such personalities are discouraged and any sense of individualism is often treated with noted scepticism.

Albuquerque was a formidable character...so much so that he earned the sobriquet O Terrível (The Terrible)
Albuquerque was a formidable character…so much so that he earned the sobriquet O Terrível (The Terrible)

The 16th century was characterised by the disproportionate achievements of the few against the many.  Nowadays it often appears as if thousands upon thousands of faceless diplomats and bureaucrats are incapable of creating the slightest change.  The Iran nuclear deal took the involvement of hundreds of such characters and, whilst driven by a select few global ‘leaders’, time is likely to prove how ineffective this venture has been.

Iran’s threats ring hollow; closing the Strait of Hormuz would hurt its enemies but also itself.  Sometimes it is hard not to pine after the dashing era of Albuquerque and his bloody-minded cohorts, who could ride roughshod over the barricades and penetrate the enemy heartland, safe in the knowledge that their technological and martial superiority would grant them passage.

Alas; timid diplomacy, bureaucratic gridlock and unadventurous leaders are all we can hope for in our tormented world of scrutiny, cynicism and obstinacy.

Source

Crowley, R (2015), Conquerors: How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire