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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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 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)
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.
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.
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 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.
This year of course saw the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of the American Civil War. It was one of history’s seminal – not to mention most bloody and divisive – conflicts. One of the first major wars to be captured on camera, it portrayed in a way not seen before some of the hardships and sickening realities of battle.
Amidst the torment and the bloodshed, however, were moments of poignancy and humanity. Countless stills, diaries and letters survive to remind us that war is ultimately a story about simple men and women engaging in activities that, whilst common to our species, cannot be prepared for.
One of the most touching letters of the American Civil War was written by Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry a week before the First Battle of Bull Run:
My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure—and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.
But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows—when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children—is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar—that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again.
As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.
Sullivan Ballou died at the Bull Run.
His sentiments are echoed in The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane’s 1895 masterpiece. Crane narrates the story of a young Private fleeing from battle, past the ‘methodical fools’ and machine-like idiots’ stupid enough to stand their ground. Only after he reaches the back of the ‘imbecile line’ does he realise that his Union comrades have held their position. ‘By heavens, they had won after all’, he exclaims, before slinking off into a body-strewn wood in humiliation. The Private ultimately returns to his regiment who believe his disappearance to have been the result of injury rather than desertion. He returns to battle where he fights gallantly and survives.
Like all of those conscripted into battle, the youthful Private is an amalgamation of conflicting human characteristics; excitement, anticipation, fear, cowardice, resilience and bravery. It is what makes the story so powerful. Any one emotion can win the day. We are not ‘machine-like idiots’. We are human beings. Under the greatest stress there is no predicting how one might act.
Today it feels as if we are engulfed by war, our media streams never free from the endless miseries of violent conflict that stain our earth. Most of these are, at heart, civil conflicts. From Syria to Afghanistan and Iraq, Somalia, Libya, South Sudan, Nigeria and Ukraine to name but a few, nation states are tearing themselves apart.
The violence has repercussions away from the battlefield; population displacement, refugee crises, economic devastation, famine, political anarchy. In this sense the American Civil War, as with most drawn-out conflicts, was no different.
People are engaged in a daily struggle that often defies description. But make no mistake; they are all fighting for something, as both Ballou and Crane’s Private were. For many it is simply survival, that most human trait of self-preservation. Others have ideological motives, some are driven by the prospect of monetary or political gain, a select few by the sadistic urge to inflict destruction on others.
The causes of war may be futile in nature but war itself is not futile; Ballou’s letter alone should be enough to make that clear. Everyone has their reasons for struggling on, for pinning on the red badge of courage, real or metaphorical.
The American Civil War has become synonymous with huge casualty figures and devastating fighting, the rapidly-advancing weaponry of the mid-19th century fast outstripping the archaic tactics of pitched battles.
A similar scenario is being played out today with our world increasingly weaponised and technology marching forward at a seemingly unstoppable pace. Drones patrol the skies ready to strike pinpoint targets at any moment, surface-to-air missiles, heavy artillery and armoured fighting vehicles are no longer the preserve of national armies. Much criticism has been laid at the door of the West for not ‘putting boots on the ground’ in the fight against ISIS but the era of the footsoldier is almost at an end. More worryingly, soon the West will no longer have unilateral control of the skies, so that even directing conventional forces will become increasingly challenging.
We are supposed to learn lessons from wars; perhaps we do in the way that they are fought. But what is good for the last war is invariably inadequate for the next. And war is a constant, a fact of life almost as certain as death itself.
With our ultra-connected world, in which people of diverse races, ethnicities, religions and beliefs are held together by fabricated borders and haphazard controls, this reality is set to persist.
Whether we will ever reach P.F. Sloan’s prophesised Eve of Destruction remains to be seen. But, just as many Americans probably felt just over 150 years ago, at the moment it does not feel as if we are far away.