Tower of Skulls

Malise Ruthven

  • Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood by Justin Marozzi
    Allen Lane, 458 pp, £25.00, May 2014, ISBN 978 1 84614 313 7

In 2006, when Baghdad was mired in sectarian killings and the murder rate was more than a thousand a month, Justin Marozzi spoke to Donny George, the director of the National Museum of Iraq, which had been looted after the invasion of 2003. The museum had lost as many as 15,000 pieces, including the priceless alabaster Warka Vase, thought to be the world’s oldest carved stone ritual vessel. Thanks to George’s courage and persistence in preventing the sale of such objects at international auctions, many were returned to the museum (including the Warka Vase, in twenty fragments) before death threats forced him to leave for North America, where he died in 2011. Speaking to Marozzi, George put the events in Baghdad in historical perspective. ‘There are stages such as these, and there are stages of calm,’ he said. ‘Each can last a hundred years, but it passes. A famous Sumerian writer described the scene here in 2000 BC, saying that people are looting and killing and nobody knows who the king is. So you see, nothing is new.’

Founded in 762 by the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur, Baghdad, situated on the Tigris and close to the Euphrates, was built on the site of older settlements that benefited from the region’s legendary fertility. Herodotus remarked that ‘as a grain-bearing country Assyria is the richest in the world … The blades of wheat and barley are at least three inches wide.’ The ruins of Ctesiphon, imperial capital of the Parthian and Sassanid empires, lay just twenty miles to the south (providing a useful source of building materials), while the previous capital of Seleucia, founded in the late fourth century bce, had been a great world city in the Hellenistic and Roman eras. In later Arab times, Marozzi relates, ‘the almost unbroken string of towns and villages along the Tigris gave rise … to the Baghdadi expression that “a cock could hop from house to house all the way to Basra.”’

Mansur’s city, like others in the region, was circular. It had a circumference of four miles and massive crenellated walls of mud-brick crowned with battlements. The walls commanded impressive views of the city and of the miles of lush palm groves and emerald fields that fringed the Tigris. The four straight roads that ran to the centre from the symmetrically placed outer gates were lined with vaulted arcades of shops and bazaars, with sidestreets giving onto residential areas, and an inner wall containing the royal palaces at the city’s heart. The caliph’s palace was surmounted by a green dome which could be seen for many miles around. It is said to have been topped by the figure of a horseman with a lance that swivelled like a weathervane to point towards the caliph’s enemies. The great mosque adjoining it was originally made from sun-baked bricks set in mortar; it was reconstructed by Mansur’s grandson, the legendary Harun al-Rashid, who built a sturdier version using kiln-baked bricks. It seems to have survived the devastation brought by Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, in 1258, but not the city’s subsequent development. Al-Jahiz, a ninth-century polymath and essayist, proclaimed that he ‘had never seen a city of greater height, more perfect circularity, more endowed with superior merits or possession of more spacious gates or more perfect defences than the City of Abu Jafar al-Mansur’. Its roundness, he wrote, made it seem ‘as though it is poured into a mould and cast’.

By the time Harun al-Rashid succeeded in 786 Baghdad was the largest city in the world outside China: it was one of the centres of world civilisation and the pinnacle of Islamic power. It had expanded far beyond Mansur’s circular city and was now a vast unplanned metropolis, spreading for miles on both sides of the Tigris. Harun, a contemporary of Charlemagne, presided over an empire stretching from the Indus to Tunisia. He was a figure around whom legends accrued. In One Thousand and One Nights – the tales originated in India and Persia but had Arab accretions from Iraq, Syria and Egypt – he features as the carousing caliph who explores the streets of Baghdad in disguise, accompanied by his friend Jafar the Barmakid, the eunuch Masrur and the poet Abu Nuwas. Marozzi indulges his readers with a feast of sexual and gastronomic details, including the story of a pair of slave girls summarily decapitated for having a lesbian affair.

A more sober assessment of the great caliph’s reign is hard to come by. The best-known chronicler, Tabari, probably embellished his narrative with fanciful details. He wrote, Marozzi tells us, of how

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