Baghdad was once the capital of an empire and the centre of the Islamic world, but at 1,250 years old, the Iraqi city is a far cry from its past glories after being ravaged by years of war and sanctions.
Construction of the city on the bank of the
Tigris River began in July 762 AD under Abbasid Caliph Abu Jaafar al-Mansur, and
it has since played a pivotal role in Arab and Islamic civilisations.
"Baghdad represented the economic centre of the
Abbasid Empire, and it was used as a starting point for controlling other
neighbouring regions to enhance Islamic power," said Issam al-Faili, a professor
of political history at Mustansiriyah University.
"Baghdad witnessed a renaissance of thought
through translation, which was usually mastered by Jews and the Christians, and
became a destination for intellectuals, poets and scholars from all parts of the
world, and a centre for craftsmen and a city of construction," Faili
"Baghdad today, after it was the capital of the
world, has become one of the most miserable cities," he said.
British consultancy firm Mercer ranked Baghdad
as the worst place in the world to live in its 2010 Quality of Living
The city has been conquered several times in
its history, the first in 1258 when the Mongols destroyed Baghdad.
It was captured in 1831 by the Ottomans, in
1917 by the British, and in 2003 by a US-led coalition that overthrew dictator
Saddam Hussein but also ended up unleashing internecine violence that killed
tens of thousands of people.
Baghdad was a modern capital known for its
nightlife in the 1970s, but it has fallen into gloomy disrepair in the years of
Saddam started a war with Iraq in 1980 that
lasted for eight years, and then launched a disastrous invasion of Kuwait in
1990 only to be forced out in 1991.
Iraq was hit by a harsh regime of international
sanctions over the Kuwait invasion, and later lived under an ever-present threat
of bombings, assassinations, gun battles and death squad killings in the years
Even now, government employees, including
high-ranking officers in the security forces, are frequently gunned down in the
Concrete blast walls still surround official
buildings, hotels, and other structures that could be the target of
Despite its long history, there are only
fleeting signs of historic buildings on even its oldest streets. Ugly,
uninspired concrete boxes are far more common.
Checkpoints cause massive traffic jams, and
security forces in the city are armed for war, with equipment including assault
rifles, machine guns and armoured vehicles.
Baghdad's streets are often strewn with rubbish
and riven by potholes. What public works projects there are move at a glacial
Spider webs of power cables criss-cross many
streets, linking houses to private generators -- a testament to the failure of
the government electricity grid to provide citizens with consistent
The government is headquartered in a heavily
fortified area known as the Green Zone, which is defended, among other things,
by newly acquired US-made Abrams tanks.
Entry to the area requires passing through a
Byzantine series of security checks, some of which are of questionable value in
deterring attacks, and journalists' cameras are regarded with deep
While Baghdad was once the centre of an empire,
the Iraqi government has been paralysed by political crises for almost eight
months, during which it has accomplished little.
"Baghdad today is like Baghdad of yesterday in
terms of the luxury that was enjoyed by the caliph and his family in the days of
the Abbasid era, while the people were in misery," Faili said.
Corruption is widespread, and while Iraq takes
in billions of dollars a month in oil revenues, signs of it benefiting the
general public are hard to find.
Iraq has made some efforts to return its
capital to regional prominence, hosting a summit of Arab leaders in March and
talks between world powers and Iran on the Islamic republic's controversial
nuclear programme in May.
Preparations for those events cost around $1
billion, although the impact of that outlay for most Iraqis was
Iraqi writer and journalist Rifaat Mahmud said
that the "issue of restoring Baghdad to what it was is a difficult matter, and
cannot be achieved in circumstances such as those in which the neglected city
"Baghdad needs what we can call a miracle to
regain its form and heritage and at least a part of its past."
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