The missed trains of Baghdad

July 5, 2020

Dr Ajaz Anwar recounts his travels through Iraq and its myriad architectural marvels

However much I had reason to resent having missed the train ride to Mosul and other cities of Iraq, I have great love for the land and its people. Mesopotamia, meaning “between the two rivers” — that is, Tigris and Euphrates — is called the Cradle of Civilizations. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Valley of Sumerians, and Nineveh all come to mind. Earliest writing, Cuneiform, was developed here; so was the history written on slabs.

They had trade relations with countries of the region including Mohenjo-Daro. Another great city in the region to make a mark in the world history, Baghdad was also founded on the banks of river Tigris, though much later.

After the last Umayyad ruler, Marwan II, was defeated in 750 AC, the succeeding Abbasids shifted their capital eastwards to Kufa. Al-Mansur travelled extensively to select a suitable site for a new seat for his government. They say, his exhausted camel sat at an open place and the caliph said, “Let the capital city be built here,” and there they built Baghdad for him in 762 AC.

The story might not be that simple. The advantage of the site was that it was a vast flat territory, very fertile, well irrigated and without topographical constraints. A vast city was planned on a geometrical circular plan. The palace of Al-Mansur was built in the centre, all the streets converged or radiated from there. Thus, it was the earliest city with radial planning. Paris, Rome, Khartoum, Lyallpur, and Sargodha too were planned on this pattern. But the grid-iron planning of Mohenjo-Daro, consisting of primary and secondary lanes with bevelled crossings, was found more appropriate for the automobile.

The long period of peace and prosperity and expansion of Muslim territories turned Baghdad into a cosmopolitan cultural and educational centre as well as a seat of learning. It was here that ancient Greek books were translated and scientific achievements propagated.

Baghdad was famous for literature, music and philosophy while Europe was still in the dark ages. Sinbad, Scheherazade and Arabian Nights are all linked with this city. In around 836 AC, another satellite city, Samarra, was founded by Al-Mu’tassim. Many important monuments were built there. Qubba al-Sulaybiyya, the earliest Islamic tomb, was built there. Its octagonal structure capped by a dome was inspired by the design of Qubbat as-Sakhra, or Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem. This design was extensively used in Indo-Pak subcontinent, for instance in Asif Jah’s tomb in Lahore.

Perhaps, the most significant part of the city was the construction of the largest mosque in the world — the Great Mosque of Samarra, which is no longer in use. Its boundary wall, having been broken at various points, it is used by trespassers now. Its most important feature is a minaret called Maliwiya, unique in the world, more like a cream roll. It has its distant source of inspiration: the Assyrian Zigarrets. It is placed over a square platform in front of the mosque. Instead of stairs on the inside, it has a ramp on the outside, its six cylindrical stories have proportionately diminishing diameters but same height. Therefore, the ramp which runs anti-clockwise, like the Tawaaf of Holy Ka’aba, in front of the mosque entrance, and ends in front it, becomes steeper and steeper as one ascends it. The Abbasid caliph is said to have ascended this minaret riding his donkey, to have a view of the city of Samarra as well as Baghdad.

The world-famous modern architect Frank Lloyd Wright who stayed for some time in Iraq redesigning modern Baghdad, is said to have been inspired by the same spiral minaret. Consequently, he designed Guggenheim Museum (built in 1959). The ramp on the inside giving access to its three cylindrical stories is a feature derived from the Maliwiya.

FL Wright was commissioned to build a cultural centre there but on July 17, 1958, the regime of the sponsoring King Faisal II, aged only 23, was curtailed and the entire royal family was killed by a firing squad. The tyrannical prime minister Nuri al-Said, educated in Istanbul, who collaborated with TE Lawrence to blow up the Hejaz Railway, was caught fleeing in the garb of a lady, betrayed by the gents’ shoes he was wearing, and brutally assassinated.

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Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols in 1258. Its libraries were burnt down and the population decimated. This was one of the greatest tragedies in history from which the city has not quite recovered since. It was only the Zengis who drove the Mongols back.

In South Asia, it was the energetic Alauddin Khilji who saved the populace from the Mongol onslaught (as opposed to the prejudice held by the present-day fanatics in India). The Mongols believed in taking no prisoners; terror was their main weapon, hence the minarets of skulls that they left behind.

In the succeeding centuries, various dynasties ruled the city until the Ottoman Sultan Salim ordered a Baghdad Pavilion to be built in the Topkapi Sarayi before going to Baghdad to annex it. Iraq, thus, became an important revenue-generating province and a buffer zone for the Ottomans against the neighbouring Persian Empire.

With the start of The Great Game in later centuries, and the discovery of black gold in the region it became imperative to break up the Ottoman Empire to relieve the White Man’s Burden on one hand, and on the other to throw out the Sick man of Europe. The Turks still had the strength and military capacity to survive. They had set up railway lines in all territories in their control, which brought in renewed economic activity. The Baghdad Railway was a branch of the Hejaz entourage.

Iraq has been a granary for the region since time immemorial. Dates too form their source of income. But it cannot be converted into sugar due to its chemical composition, as I have been told by Mr Shahid Alemi, a professor of chemistry.

Iraq has a Shia-dominated populace. There are many Ziarats in the country to which the devotees converge from all over the world. Hence, pilgrimage and religious tourism are a big source of income. But oil remains the biggest pillar of economy. This factor alone has caused bloody coups and counter-coups, intermittently orchestrated from outside.

The same was happening in Iran for similar reasons. One thing that the powers participating in the previous world wars had learnt was that economy is the biggest reality. This needed an arms-race financed by the colonies. The Baghdad Pact effectively colonised the regional countries. The collaborating rulers were readily available to be handpicked; thus, human gun fodder and oil wealth were effectively used for research into more efficient killing machines. The dictators ruling various oil-rich countries parked their capital in the western countries’ banks. The freezing of the bank accounts of Iran and other countries did not shake them up.

The Machiavellian theories akin to those of the ancient Chanakya are beyond the scope of this dispatch. The Yom Kippur War in which Iraqi forces too had participated had brought some early victories for the Arabs. What followed is history.

Ataturk once said that when Muslims are defeated they lose everything and when they are victorious they lose all their gains on the negotiating table. When the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) held a Summit in Lahore, it sent alarm bells ringing regarding the agenda. All the leaders were eliminated one after the other.

The removal of Reza Shah Pahlavi and the emergence of Ayatollah in 1979 had threatened the agenda of powers that be. Saddam was used to confuse and neutralise the revolution. While Iraq was sending its boys to Iran’s border, Saddam was stabbed in the back. On April 4, 1980, at around 5 in the evening, several squadrons of Israeli planes destroyed what was presumed to be a nuclear facility in Baghdad.

Mr Shafi Bhatti, who worked there at the time, narrated the gross violation. According to him, Saddam was a strict administrator, yet benevolent. His people were well provided for. Around the same time, the Afghan Jihad had begun, in which Zia was used. I have found the Afghans to be most friendly towards tourists, especially Pakistanis, but that was before the American intervention in 1979. (I shall write later about my travels by road through Kabul, Qandahar, Jalalabad, Ghazni and Herat.)

As the USSR collapsed, Afghans were ditched and Pakistan was left to face the biggest refugee problem in history. Come 9/11, thousands were killed in carpet bombing in war-torn countries. Iraq was targeted on the pretext of possessing dangerous weapons. After the assassination of Saddam, no weapons were found there, but the then US president had the audacity to claim that Saddam could have made them. This seemed like an episode from Mongolian invasions.

As the Arab Spring fizzled out, democracy became only a distant dream. Though parts of Hejaz Railway were restored, most portions remain frozen in time and buried in the sands.

(This dispatch is dedicated to my friend Saffah, an architect from Iraq)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

The missed trains of Baghdad