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)


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

Mosul Dam on the Verge of Collapse: Echoes of the Yellow River Disaster of 1938

Fears persist that springtime snow melt will lead to an uncontrollable rise in water pressure that will finally cause the collapse of Iraq’s Mosul Dam, potentially devastating vast swathes of the country and killing and displacing millions of people.

Italian engineers have been hired to repair the Mosul Dam. But has the Iraqi government left it too late?
Italian engineers have been hired to repair the Mosul Dam. But has the Iraqi government left it too late?

The warning bells have been ringing ever since the dam’s construction in 1984, when it was known as the mouth-twisting Saddam Dam. Built on unsuitable geology to line the pockets of one of Saddam’s cronies, the dam has required nightly infusions of concrete to keep it stable over its three-decade existence. This process was halted, however, after its capture by the Islamic State in 2014. Whilst it has since been recaptured, the structural integrity of the dam has been severely compromised and some analysts fear that a collapse is imminent.

Of course the US in particular has been at pains to point out to the Iraqi government the weakness of the dam and the potential consequences of its failure. The government in Baghdad, however, has over the past couple of years downplayed the potentially disastrous situation and continued to insist that people living in its shadow have nothing to worry about.

Whether this is wishful ignorance, naivety or something more sinister is unclear. Could it be that the Iraqi government actually sees the flooding of a large portion of its country as a final defence against the Islamic State? Does it believe that it can control a bursting of the dam and add the force of nature to its weaponry?

PM Haider al-Abadi has called the potential Mosul Dam collapse ‘highly unlikely’ and told his citizens that ‘all necessary measures’ will be taken to prevent such a disaster. Yet he has failed to act with conviction

It seems preposterous that Baghdad would allow millions of its people to perish underwater. However, desperate times call for desperate measures and there are precedents. One in particular is worth noting.

During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek made the fateful decision in June 1938 to destroy the dykes and dams on the Yellow River in Central China. The reason? To prevent the inexorable advance of the Imperial Japanese Army towards the Nationalist government’s then capital of Wuhan.

Hard facts are difficult to obtain but estimates place the death toll from the subsequent flooding in the central Chinese provinces of Anhui, Henan and Jiangsu at 500,000, with at least a further 3 million peasants made refugees.

Refugees of the Yellow River flood of 1938
Refugees of the Yellow River flood of 1938

Chiang was fully aware of the deadly consequences of his order and the fact that Wuhan was surrendered to the Japanese in October 1938 shows how fruitless his diabolical efforts were. Not only did the plan fail to halt the Japanese tide, but it exacerbated an already fraught refugee crisis, with the new Nationalist capital at Chongqing unable to cope with the influx of desperate, starving people.

The Nationalist control over the dispersion of information, coupled with the chaos of war, helped shield Chiang from the blame for the horrendous flooding. His potential allies in the West, however, became fully aware of his complicity in the devastation and may have contributed to the distrust shown towards him by the US and British throughout WWII.

Were the Iraqi government to allow the failure of the Mosul Dam, there would be no hiding place and the blame would be levelled squarely at Baghdad’s front door.

Sacrifice is a necessity in times of warfare and it is reasonable for a government to ask its citizens to make concessions to their daily lives when faced with an existential threat. This is not sympathetic with a government sacrificing its own people to bolster its hopes of survival.

Chiang Kai-shek’s legitimacy declined during the Sino-Japanese War. The Nationalists and their allies may have prevented a total Japanese occupation but that was more to do with the overstretch of the Tokyo regime than an effective strategy of defence and counter-insurgency.

Chiang at the Cairo Conference in 1943 with Roosevelt and Churchill. Both the American and British leader would develop unfavourable opinions about the Generalissimo
Chiang at the Cairo Conference in 1943 with Roosevelt and Churchill. Both the American and British leader would develop unfavourable opinions about the Generalissimo

Furthermore, the corruption and brutality of Chiang’s regime (who it must be said bore the brunt of the fighting) was contrasted unfavourably with the Communist stronghold in Yan’an, where land reform and distribution of resources pointed to a regime of benevolence. The Communists would take control of China in 1949, of course, and this myth was quickly put to bed.

The Mosul Dam should never have been built where it was but it is now imperative that it is reinforced and re-engineered to ensure its survival. That survival may go hand-in-hand with that of the Iraqi government, whose own legitimacy and capacity to control its outlying provinces will be irreparably damaged by any foolhardy decisions to harness nature’s power to destroy an enemy that can only be obliterated through a willing coalition ready to make their own personal sacrifices.


Mitter, R. China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: the Struggle for Survival (2013)