Old Baghdad is slowly vanishing

Sunday 17/04/2016
An Iraqi woman walks next to a historic house made from mud bricks and wood in al-Sadriya, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the centre of the capital, Baghdad.

Baghdad - Strolling along the narrow alleys of al-Shaabi neigh­bourhood in Baghdad’s historic Al-Karkh area is a weekly ritual for fine arts student Ansam Mohamad. The walk fills her with nostalgia and ap­preciation of the city’s rich, though fading, architectural heritage.
“Every time, I walk there I get to know old Baghdad better with its particular architectural legacy, its smells and sounds, the shouting of children and the noises of fisher­men preparing to board their boats moored on the Tigris banks,” Mo­hamad said.
“Most of the time I draw the old houses to keep a record of them as I fear they will disappear just like many others did.”
Many of Baghdad’s districts, in­cluding Al-Murabba’, Al-Bataween, al-Shawaka and al-Qazimiyya, have preserved their archaeological his­tory, characterised by snaking al­leyways and historic houses with traditional wooden windows and decorated walls that were engraved with religious phrases by skilled craftsmen who are hard to find these days. Such landmarks are be­ing slowly erased and replaced by shops and modern buildings.
“I want Baghdad to be to be pre­served with all its contradictions of narrow streets, wide boulevards and its old neighbourhoods, which reflect its architectural history and tales from the past,” Mohamad said.
The fine arts student, however, bemoaned the dilapidated state of historic houses, left to collapse amid public indifference and neg­ligence. “It is most unfortunate,” she said. “We definitely need to have a law to protect the historical neighbourhoods especially that Ira­qis have been individually contrib­uting to such situation by turning their old properties into shops and supermarkets.”
With chaotic urbanisation ex­panding in Iraq, developers and construction companies are pay­ing less attention to the country’s archaeological heritage and historic landmarks are replaced with mod­ern buildings. Owners also do not care much for the significance of properties’ cultural heritage, pre­ferring to sell to developers in re­turn for profit.
“Old Baghdad is vanishing be­cause of neglect and people’s igno­rance of the historical and cultural value of their properties. Unfortu­nately, they are all thinking com­mercially, ignoring the importance of conserving heritage and history,” said cultural journalist Wissam Kamel.
He argued that the “culture” of making profit exacerbated after the 2003 US invasion with many people seeking financial benefits from “just everything”. “There is no harm in making money, but it should not be on the expense of the country’s history,” Kamel said, call­ing on the government to assume its responsibility and role in salvag­ing Iraqi heritage.
According to non-governmental cultural associations, only 200 his­toric buildings depicting traditional Iraqi architecture remain in Bagh­dad. Wrecking balls demolished hundreds of houses after 2003, es­pecially, in Al-Rasafa, making way for department stores and shop­ping centres.
Architecture expert Bassem Hammoudi blames not only citi­zens but authorities for the demise of architectural heritage. “There is a blatant indifference and negli­gence on the part of the Ministry of Culture and Baghdad municipality for the fate of historical landmarks in the capital and other cities and governorates,” he said.
“This, compounded with the destructions caused by recurring wars, has been detrimental for the country’s heritage.”
Hammoudi called on the govern­ment to draft strict laws to prevent the demolition of cultural heritage and to seek the assistance of inter­national organisations, including the UN cultural agency, UNESCO, to help in the rehabilitation of land­marks.
“Many of those sites are associ­ated with symbolic Iraqi figures and events and should be transformed into museums in view of their his­torical value,” he added.
The most famous houses date to the Ottoman era in Iraq. Some are 200 years old and belonged to the aristocracy and political and arts figures, including politicians Rashid Kilani and Tawfiq al-Suwai­di and singer Nazem al-Ghazali.
Atwan al-Atwani, deputy director of Baghdad Provincial Council, ac­knowledged the government’s fail­ure in preventing the destruction of the traditional features of the Iraqi capital. “Unfortunately, there is no clear government plan or scheme to rebuild and rehabilitate historic buildings and this is largely due to the lack of resources and poor funds,” he said.
Atwani pointed to the absence of laws that restrict the demolition of old houses. “Many houses are pri­vately owned and there is no law as such that prevents the owners from exploiting their properties,” he said. “As for the ones owned by the state, they are leased to politi­cal parties and civil societies for a pittance.”
Some practical steps are being taken to preserve cultural heritage. For instance, the Babylon House for Culture, Arts and Media moved its headquarters into a building dating to the late 19th century after it was restored.
Still, many fear that if laws are not devised and enforced to put an end to the chaotic urban sprawl, Iraqi cities will lose their traditional identity and become identical to new cities in which citizens will become mere consumers, emotion­ally detached from their environ­ment.