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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Paris Exposed to Historic Violence: another War of Religion is nigh

In August 1572 the French Wars of Religion ignited once more as a Catholic mob stormed through Paris indiscriminately murdering Protestant Huguenots, a slaughter sanctioned by King Charles IX. Subsequently known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the violence would eventually spread across France, leading to the deaths of between 5,000 and 30,000 people.

The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre was notable for its mob savagery
The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was notable for its mob savagery

Religious distrust and hatred erupted in a furious spasm that would haunt France for decades to come, the clash of conflicting belief systems threatening to tear the country apart from the inside.

Today, French President Francois Hollande vowed to ‘destroy’ the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), whose coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday resulted in the deaths of at least 129 civilians. These two events – separated by almost 450 years – have important differences and similarities that testify to the new war of religion now being fought in the streets of Western Europe.

Firstly, the logistical origins of the two massacres bear no hallmarks to one another. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was initiated by a vengeful monarch and his controlling mother (Catherine de’ Medici) intent on destroying the Huguenot political hierarchy, in particular their military leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. The mob violence that developed was an unintended – if not wholly unsatisfying as far as the Catholics were concerned – consequence of the Crown’s directives.

The Paris attacks on Friday were coordinated between a terrorist cell affiliated with ISIL, although the full operational details are still not completely known. This was an atrocity perpetrated by a minority of radicalised individuals sponsored by an overseas terrorist organisation, rather than a state-sanctioned bloodbath supported by the majority of the country’s citizens.

The Paris attacks appear to have been well-coordinated, with clearly delineated targets selected Source: BBC
The Paris attacks appear to have been well-coordinated, with clearly delineated targets selected
Source: BBC

The second key difference – linked to the first – is that the carefully-constructed and targeted execution of the Paris attacks was in stark contrast to the haphazard and sprawling nature of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Again, this reflects the ‘minority’ nature of the Paris attacks when compared to the ‘majority’ support for the Catholic mob violence in the 16th century.

A striking similarity between the two events, however, is that neither was surprising. Just as the French were fully aware that they were immersed in a civil religious war in 1572, so too do the French people of today know that a sharp religious divide has opened up within their cities. A minority divide it may be but its strain of virulent hatred has for some time been obvious with other, smaller-scale terrorist attacks having been enacted by Muslim fanatics throughout the course of 2015 (see the Charlie Hebdo shooting for instance).

8% of the current French population is Muslim, a proportion that increases significantly in the larger cities. The majority of these people are second or third generation North Africans who arrived in France during the period of de-colonisation. It is amongst the younger generation – those born in France – where rates of radicalisation are higher. The masochistic appeal of ISIL has turned a small but significant number of young French Muslims into potential homegrown terrorists, a phenomenon likely to be repeated across other countries with similar religious minorities.

The porous EU borders have allowed Middle Eastern extremists to cross into Western Europe with alarming ease, giving hardline ISIL supporters access to disillusioned young Muslims. Some of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks are thought to have been French-born, whilst others appear to have travelled overland from Syria and other warzones where the ISIL flag is flying high.

Like the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the Paris attacks immediately affected Frenchmen but the long-term repercussions are international. Western Europe is at war; it may not have committed ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria or Iraq but desperate violence has come to our doorsteps. As with its 16th century equivalent, the battle is going to take decades of strain, violence and compromise to finally bring it to a satisfactory end.

The extremism of a minority of Muslims will face a fierce backlash in Western Europe, precipitating further bloodshed. Source: Tundra Tabloids
The extremism of a minority of Muslims will face a fierce backlash in Western Europe, precipitating further bloodshed.
Source: Tundra Tabloids