A Crumbling Cultural History

Times Staff Writer

Donny George, director of the Iraq Museum, is sitting on a bench under a covered porch, talking about Baghdad’s glorious past. It is midafternoon and the sun is beating down on the museum’s barren front lawn. Nearby, a group of U.S. soldiers lingers around an armored assault vehicle, keeping a watchful eye on the iron entry gate.

On this day, the museum is still closed after a two-day looting rampage that wrecked many of its galleries. George seems relieved by the enveloping stillness. A heavyset Iraqi with a broad smile, he is describing the decades-long search for the Round City. Constructed by the Abbasid caliph Al Mansour in the 8th century, the city was a dazzling image of military precision. Its domed palace, surrounded by circular bands of housing for court officials and government offices, evoked a perfectly ordered universe.

“It was the beginning of Baghdad,” George says, wiping sweat from his forehead. “We found traces of it on the banks of the Tigris River. There are walls, pottery that go back to that period.”


And if I want to see the site? Impossible, he says. “It is 15 meters underground. There is nothing but earth.”

Indeed, searching for Baghdad’s past can be an exercise in frustration. As an architecture critic, I have spent much of my professional life sifting through the layers of historical memory that cities accumulate over time. Buildings are expressions of how a civilization views itself. They can provide the elements of a cultural narrative -- one that can be used to piece together a vision for a city’s future.

Few cities in the world occupy as strong a hold over the collective imagination as Baghdad. Set at the crossroads between East and West, the city was one of the first great power centers of the Islamic world. Its name still conjures up a mix of images, from the rich intellectual heritage depicted in its ancient texts to the exotic fantasies scattered through the pages of the “Arabian Nights.” Its emergence as a world capital marked the beginning of centuries of cultural dominance by the Middle East at a time when Europe was floundering through the Dark Ages.

Today that legacy has understandably been pushed to the background. The country is struggling to reinvent its political institutions amid escalating violence. The attention of Iraqis is focused on basic issues of survival, from finding work to getting their children home from school safely.

But there exists another kind of damage -- the destruction of so much of the city’s physical history. Centuries ago, the Mongols obliterated most of Baghdad’s ancient architectural treasures.

Since then, the city’s heritage has been neglected by the Ottomans, abused by Saddam Hussein and -- most recently -- picked apart by U.S. bombs and Iraqi looters. The few remaining landmarks from its Golden Age only seem to underline that sense of loss. They reflect more permanent psychological wounds, the erosion of a city’s cultural memory.

The Round City is a case in point. To Iraqis, it is a poignant symbol of the city’s cultural flowering. Yet few historians can agree on its exact location; most believe that it existed only a short time before it vanished, swallowed up by the vibrant cosmopolitan center created by Al Mansour’s more famous grandson, Haroun al Rashid.

Loss is everywhere in Baghdad. It is, in many ways, the city’s defining characteristic. And if it seems impossible to conceive the city’s reconstruction amid a guerrilla war, it is equally impossible to imagine healing the city’s cultural wounds without first confronting its painful past. For better or worse, it will form the foundations for any vision of the city’s future.

Along the Tigris River

To understand Baghdad, one can begin at the river, as I did last summer. Flowing from the north, the Tigris’ lush green riverbanks wander through the desert like a great meandering oasis. Near the city center, the riverbanks lose their color. Soft reeds are replaced by hard stone embankments, the product of one of Hussein’s many urban renewal schemes. Rows of nondescript, concrete towers rise on both sides -- among them the charred shells of ministry buildings that are the most visible signs of the recent war. From here, the city spreads out in all directions, a collection of banal housing developments, crumbling commercial strips and congested traffic arteries.

The bleakness of that landscape is interrupted only by Hussein’s sprawling palace compound, whose verdant date palms dot the river’s west bank. Many of the compound’s palaces were damaged by U.S. cruise missiles. But inside, officials of the occupying authority labor in relative seclusion, much as the British did in the early days of colonial rule.

What is left of ancient Baghdad is a short drive from here, across the river, in the old historic district of Rusafa. Even under the grip of occupation, the area is surprisingly lively, a mix of street vendors, bookstores and metal shops. The 13th century Abbasid Palace can be found on an isolated back street, not far from the district’s bustling main strip.

Our car pulls up to the gate, and we call out for several minutes before two middle-aged men come out to greet us. There are no U.S. troops here. The men quietly lead us past a nondescript single-story house that they say was temporarily occupied in the 1950s by King Faisal II, the country’s last monarch.

What remains of the palace’s former beauty is tucked away in its central courtyard. The space is anchored by a low, cylindrical stone basin. Narrow arcades flank it on either side, their ceilings decorated with the ornate, pointed arches that are a hallmark of Abbasid architecture. The arcades form a welcome sanctuary from the oppressive heat.

As we travel deeper into the palace, the mood becomes somber. Its furnishings were stripped away before the invasion. More recently, several decorative marble wall panels were torn out of one of the rooms by looters and hauled off before Iraqi guards could secure the building. Narrow shafts of light spill through small openings in the roof, but they are the only light source, and the rooms feel sealed off from the outside.

In fact, given its stature as one of the city’s few remaining historic monuments, the whole palace feels disconnected. By the time of its construction, the Golden Age of Abbasid power was over and Baghdad had lost much of its cultural pull. The palace cannot match the drama of the 9th century Dar al Khilafa just a few hours’ drive to the north, whose crumbling walls and sunken pools immediately convey the majestic grandeur of a lost civilization.

We next drive a few blocks to the Mustansiriya, an ancient 13th century college that ranks among the great works of Islamic architecture. Like the Abbasid Palace, the Mustansiriya feels withdrawn from the city. Its massive exterior walls are unadorned except for a band of intricate brickwork along its upper level. A small wooden door leads into the structure.

Upon crossing this threshold, one finds a vision of communal utopia. A large courtyard is marked by a fountain that worshipers use to wash up before daily prayers. Two large iwans -- vaulted portals, here used as outdoor study rooms -- are set into the courtyard’s walls. A third opening encloses the mihrab, a carved prayer niche Muslims use to mark the direction of Mecca.

Centuries ago, the Mustansiriya was a center of vibrant intellectual exchange. Four Muslim sects shared its 80,000 volumes. Those volumes included the first Arabic translations of a range of ancient texts, from Persian poetry to the works of the ancient Greeks.

The nature of that social pact is revealed in the design of the courtyard’s stone facades. A delicate tracery of intersecting lines is carved into the walls’ surfaces. Look closely and the pattern is infinitely varied, its forms subtly reflecting the hand of each stoneworker. It is a perfect expression of the desire to resolve the competing needs for individual expression and social conformity.

Yet the Mustansiriya’s history also tells a more painful story. Although the building survived the 13th century Mongol invasion, its halls were ransacked, its books thrown into the Tigris River. The brutality of that act was summed up in a first-person historical account, which describes the river’s waters stained red one day, black the next -- the former from the blood of the Mongols’ victims, the latter from the ink of its ancient manuscripts.

These days, in a city of 4.8 million that is once again under attack, the Mustansiriya is virtually abandoned. Its doors are rarely open. Its rooms remain empty of books. It is a moving but painful scene. It reminded me of a tomb.

Discarding the past

Surveying post-Hussein Baghdad, one is apt to think of a battered child bracing himself against the next blow. Gloom, anger, despair are all part of the city’s psychological makeup.

Standing in the Mustansiriya’s courtyard, I am approached by a former Baathist military officer who rages about the looting of Baghdad’s landmarks. “Why do the Americans let this happen?” he asks. “I believe they do this in order to erase Baghdad’s identity.”

I hear this accusation constantly. And it is understandable. The U.S. military was slow to respond to looting here. And confronted with the current guerrilla war, the occupying authority has not made cultural issues a priority.

Months after the American invasion began, the grounds of the former Ottoman headquarters, the Kushle, are littered with rubble. Broken glass crunches under my feet as I pass through the entry hall. The empty shell of a cluster bomb lies in an otherwise gutted second-floor room. Such images are typical of Baghdad. And one quickly gets used to them, as if stepping through a construction site.

A moment later, in the courtyard, I watch as a frail old man methodically loads bricks onto the back of a horse-drawn cart. The bricks are piled 10 courses high, and as the horse lurches forward they spill out of the cart, crashing back down into the courtyard.

The man is one of the many looters who have eaten away at the city’s abandoned ministries, palaces and office buildings. But in this case, there is a particular irony: Built in the late 19th century as a testament to Ottoman power, the Kushle is partly constructed from bricks that the Ottomans themselves pillaged from the Rusafa district’s ancient fortified wall.

This sort of cannibalism is a particularly grotesque legacy of the breakdown of a city’s social fabric. But there are other, more subtle ways the past has been diminished. In the 20th century, for example, the brutality of war was joined by another destructive force: the myth of progress. This was particularly true of the developing world, where modern architecture was not only embraced as a sign of technological achievement, but older structures were often reviled as emblems of a primitive past.

The result was a form of historical amnesia. And in Baghdad, that problem was compounded by a lack of durability in traditional building materials. Cairo’s great landmarks were built in stone; most of Baghdad’s ancient buildings were constructed of mud bricks. As such, without constant care, they were apt to melt away over time. Termites often devoured what was left.

For centuries, these structures were patched up or rebuilt. But modern architects found another solution: concrete. Many of the traditional courtyard houses that once gave the city its character were bulldozed to make way for new development -- especially during Hussein’s rule.

In 1984, a government-sponsored survey listed 3,089 historic structures worth preserving in the Rusafa district alone. A decade later, that figure had been reduced to fewer than 1,000. Today, the examples of that tradition are virtually nonexistent.

The callous indifference to the past in a city once rich with history is particularly glaring along a segment of elevated freeway in northwest Baghdad. Built in the 1980s, the freeway carves through the center of an ancient cemetery. The stele of the Zubayda tomb -- built for Haroun al Rashid’s wife -- rises among a number of lesser-known graves on one side. On the other, more tombs are scattered along the base of a mud-brick tower -- one of the few remaining fragments of the ancient wall that defined Baghdad’s historic core.

It’s hard to find a more potent symbol of disrespect for the past in the name of progress. One immediately thinks of Rome, with its inexhaustible storehouse of architectural treasures and the cultural pride those layers inspire. At the other extreme, Los Angeles’ lack of an architectural tradition has been a form of liberation, pointing the city toward the future.

Baghdad has neither the benefit of an unbroken history nor the freedom that comes with youth.

Buildings that survived

There are places in Baghdad where history still feels very much alive. Capped by a great dome and intricate minarets, the inner sanctuary of the ancient Shiite mosque, Musa al Kadhim, dominates the northwest district of Kadhimiya. This space is off-limits to non-Muslims, but the courtyard is open to anyone, functioning much as it did when it was built about 700 years ago.

Families gather in small rooms set inside its thick interior walls. Old men squat on the stone pavement begging for coins; Shiite Muslim worshipers -- with men and women divided into separate groups -- line up to remove their shoes before entering to pray.

During the day, this energy spills out onto the streets, where vendors hawk everything from DVDs to radios and hair dryers. It can also explode with sudden fury, as when an American soldier was shot in the neck here a few months ago while shopping for a CD.

Such moments exist only in fragments. The conflicting images they contain are a sharp contrast to the regimented purity of the Round City. Like this lost relic, they represent an elusive ideal. They evoke an image, however imperfect, of the city as a great collector of human experience, with its accidental encounters, cultural slippages and tolerance for the other.

These are clues to the city’s potential resurrection, signs of hope rooted in a deeper understanding of history. Baghdad’s future will be played out between these extremes -- the legacy of a shattered past and the dream of a more tolerant, cosmopolitan ideal.

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times’ architecture critic.