Baghdad: The world’s most unfortunate city? (Book Review)

Title: Baghdad – City of Peace, City of Blood; Author: Justin Marozzi; Publisher: Penguin; Pages: 512; Price: Rs.599

Capital cities whose names begin with B usually don’t have an easy time. Berlin, Belfast, Budapest, Beirut, Belgrade, even Bombay, have had periods in which they were embroiled in violence or nearly destroyed in wars and residents found it hard to survive, let alone prosper. But worse befell another of their ilk – once the heart of an empire spanning continents and now only in the news for deprivation, repression and brutal sectarian violence. But was Baghdad always like that?

On the wrong side of history for most of its over 13-century existence, the city was for quite some time the centre of the known world, with its magnificent architecture, opulent lifestyles, vibrant culture and excellence in intellectual pursuits (ranging from philosophy to cooking) overwhelming visitors. And it is these glorious heights and despairing depths that British journalist-turned-historian Justin Marozzi presents in his fifth book.

Marozzi, whose previous books include biographies of Tamerlane, or Timur the Lame (one of the despoilers of Baghdad) and “Father of History” Herodotus, is well-qualified to tell the story, having lived in Baghdad for quite some time. Divided into 11 chapters, which range from a few decades of glory to shorter periods of devastation to a century or two of ignominious decline, his biography seamlessly integrates past and present as a stroll down an area and its description leads to its history.

His story actually begins (after a brief account of obscure ancient settlements) with Caliph Mansur (754-75), the second Abbasid ruler but the real founder of the dynasty that supplanted the Ummayads as the rulers of the Islamic heartlands, personally scouting for a new capital. The caliph selected a spot on the Tigris for “Madinat al Mansur” but local people preferred to call it “Madinat al Salam”, or the city of peace, rather than of Mansur.

And its peace and renown was secure under Mansur and reached its apogee under his grandson, the celebrated Harun al-Rashid (786-809), who has the “Arabian Nights” as the best record of his reign and times. Despite historian Harold Lamb making a case that the stories of the Caliph walking incognito actually are of Baybars, the later powerful Mameluke monarch of Cairo, it is indubitably Harun accompanied his grand vizier Jafar ibn Yahya Al Barmakid and executioner Masrur. This part is best brought out – in all its glory and vulgarity – by Marozzi.

But the lustre soon dissipated. Jafar, a capable man (not like his current image of the evil vizier), was executed in 803 and Harun’s reputation was never the same. After him, his sons Amin and Mamun fought for power – and destroyed quite a bit of the city. Though the Abbasids would reign for another four centuries, their power would be circumscribed by various outsiders who seized control – the Buyids, the Seljuks, the Fatimids – till the Mongols led by Hulagu extinguished them entirely in 1258 and nearly levelled the city.

Even then, Baghdad could have revived, but a century and half later came Tamerlane, who just asked his soldiers to get him heads of two Baghdadis each! Thus followed a long period of decline – rule by obscure Turkmen dynasties, conquest by the Ottomans (Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent personally) – before being briefly snatched by Safavid Iran under Shah Abbas – and languishing under indolent Ottoman pashas till the end of the World War I, when the British conquered it. Then came an installed monarchy, its bloody overthrow, a long spell of violence, (including foreign wars) and instability from Kassem to Saddam Hussein – which even the American invasion in 2003 has been unable to quell.

Few cities can be as unfortunate as this one. Cities have been invaded and razed to the ground, flattened or depopulated by natural disasters, or crushed by economic factors but poor Baghdad has suffered almost all of this. But, as Marozzi concludes, that accompanying the memory of its glorious past, its strength is in the resilience of its hapless citizens, their dignity, their pride and their endurance that their city will live up to its original name.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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