Qishla’s conversion from military base to cultural space
Baghdad - Ten-year-old Hamza Kazem’s eyes sparkled with excitement as the boat crossing the Tigris in the heart of Baghdad approached the river’s opposite bank where the imposing Qishla building and its landmark clock tower stood majestically.
The boy’s interest in Qishla, the Ottoman garrison turned into a public cultural space, delighted his father.
“I have always been keen on teaching my children about Iraq’s history and heritage. It is not acceptable that they grow up without knowing and appreciating their country’s historical places, which are unfortunately falling apart because of neglect and lack of restoration,” said Ribih Kazem, Hamza’s father, a university professor.
Qishla, built by the Ottomans in 1861, was partially restored and opened to the public in 2012 paving the way for the selection of Baghdad as the capital of Arab culture for 2013 by the Arab League. The two-storey building was constructed to serve as the headquarters of Ottoman forces. In 1868, a high tower adorned with a large clock was erected in the middle of the yard to serve as an alarm to wake the soldiers.
During the British mandate in the early 20th century, the site housed British officers and in 1921 it held the coronation of King Faisal I, the first monarch of modern-day Iraq. Qishla — Turkish for “barracks” — was later transformed into a serail, housing government offices. Now, it is known as the “old Green Zone,” a reference to the Green Zone in Baghdad where many government facilities are located.
The old garrison turned cultural space includes several spacious halls that are used for art exhibitions, concerts, theatres, poetry readings and cultural debates.
“The place is increasingly becoming a popular destination for Iraqi families, especially on Fridays with more than 3,000 visitors from different parts of Iraq. It is particularly attractive for intellectuals and lovers of music and poetry,” said Qishla’s director Haidar Jawad.
“In addition to the cultural attractions, Qishla is popular because of its historical importance. The place has witnessed key events that affected past generations and it is a source of inspiration for the young generation trying to revive their heritage through cultural and artistic events,” Jawad added.
Taking a tour of the site, one comes across artists and intellectuals who are regular visitors of Qishla.
“The place is of particular interest for intellectuals for two main reasons. First it is close to al-Mutanabbi Street — Baghdad’s renowned historic book-selling hub. Second, its gardens hosted many demonstrations by Iraqi activists and scholars,” said Iraqi cartoonist Khudair al-Humairi.
Humairi said he welcomed Qishla’s “remake,” which, he said, “bestowed” a sociocultural dimension that it did not have previously.
“The place has a new function different from any of the functions it had in the past one and a half centuries when it shifted from being a garrison for the Ottoman troops to a station for British officers and then a seat of government offices,” he said.
“In my capacity as a frequent visitor of Qishla, I believe that its latest function is the most distinguished. Its spacious gardens provide a unique and free space for artists, both professionals and amateurs alike, to demonstrate their talents,” Humairi said, noting that the location was the site of a landmark exhibition by the Iraqi Cartoon Association on combating corruption.
A corner of the garden has been allocated for “free drawing” by amateur artists. It is near areas used for art exhibitions and cultural performances, including singing and folk dance.
Qishla’s restoration project, however, has not been fully completed due to budget restraints. MP Faleh Hassan, a member of parliament’s tourism committee, said more than 300 historic sites within Baghdad’s governorate need maintenance and restoration work.
“The financial crisis that has gripped the country since the dramatic drop in oil prices has affected a large number of projects, including the restoration of historic and ancient sites in the country, among them Qishla,” Hassan said.
Former Governor of Baghdad Salah Abdul Razzaq said the initial project previewed transforming some of the Qishla buildings into an antique market featuring traditional items, paintings and rugs, along with Turkish, Iranian, Moroccan, Lebanese and Egyptian restaurants.
Hamza Kazem said he was happy to visit Qishla in the company of his family despite the site’s partial restoration.
“I am dealing with my son the same way my father did with me, basically introducing him to Baghdad’s heritage through informative visits of old quarters and historic sites,” Ribih Kazem explained.
“Historical sites should be rehabilitated because they constitute part of the treasures and culture of this country. This is very important to the history of Iraq and its future as well,” he added.