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Book review: Baghdad, by Justin Marozzi

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 July, 2014, 5:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 July, 2014, 11:44pm

Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood

by Justin Marozzi

Allen Lane

4 stars

Christopher de Bellaigue

Travel writer-historian Justin Marozzi has lingered long enough in Baghdad since the 2003 invasion of Iraq to get to know the city by learning the language, forming friendships and reading the Arab historians of the past.

Of the five historic metropolises of the Middle East - Baghdad, Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus and Istanbul - the Iraqi capital offers the flimsiest evidence for its own glory.

Founded by the Abbasid caliph Mansur in 762, the city had the blessings of an excellent water supply, access to the sea, and proximity to the Mediterranean and the uplands of Asia Minor and Iran. Here was an ideal home for an empire that had united east and west for the first time since Alexander the Great.

Baghdad embodied the Abbasids' ambition, a magnificent new city drawing in a dramatically variegated population of Arabs, Persians, Jews and Christians. The first two centuries of the empire marked the absorption by Islam of the taste and knowledge of the world. Envoys brought back Indian mathematical treatises, theories of Iranian statecraft and the models for that affable literary mongrel, The Arabian Nights. Most significant of all were the Hellenic acquisitions: Byzantine envoys brought virtually the entire extant corpus of Greek written culture. Medical and scientific knowledge grew as the arts flourished.

But the empire attracted a rougher gang from the steppe and the Abbasids were gradually submerged by the Turkic tribes. The Mongols killed the caliphate in 1258: the last caliph was fed a banquet of jewels then killed. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered.

Thus, as the Renaissance arrived in Europe, Baghdad was snuffed out as a world city.

Marozzi is good on Baghdad's minorities, particularly the Jews with their trading outposts in Bombay, Shanghai and London. There were 80,000 Jews in the city before the first world war, and they sat in the Istanbul parliament. When Marozzi arrived in 2004, the community was seven-strong.

The crucial line now is between Sunnis and Shias: under Saddam Hussein, the Sunnis were in control, but now the jackboot is on the other foot, with the Shias driving many of Baghdad's Sunnis out of their former neighbourhoods and the Sunnis in open rebellion in their provincial strongholds.

It is an irony of Baghdad that one of the few monuments to survive from the 500-year Abbasid empire, the Mustansiriya theological school, is, stylistically, an Iranian building. "Defiance and nostalgia," Marozzi writes, "are set in every stone."

Guardian News & Media