What Is Baghdad Now?
Baghdad drowsed, a sleepy yet peaceful village on the banks of the Tigris. Change, however, rode in with the North wind. An Abbasid caravan of camels, horses, donkeys wound their way through fertile grassland and towering date palms, seeking a new home. Though the sun beat down with oppressive force, the Tigris lent its water to soften the sands into soil. The river watered the farms and whispered promises of trade and prosperity. The Abbasid Caliph renamed the city Madinat al-Salaam, but as the Caliph didn’t really want salaam, people kept calling it Baghdad. Nurtured by the Tigris, the city changed, becoming as large as Cairo or Mecca. Strong walls bound it on all sides, and the city overflowed with gardens, baths, mosques, taverns, theatres. Everything was built in circles, and people lived in circles too: to be born, to eat, to learn, to laugh, to pray, to work, to die.
Baghdad matured, no longer sleepy and far from peaceful, the city now shone brighter than Cairo, Mecca, or even Constantinople, changed into a beacon of exotic wonders. Stories seeped out of the theatres and onto the streets; on everyones’ lips were the tales of Aladdin the tailor’s son, Sinbad the Sailor and his seven voyages, Bulukiya’s bizarre adventures. Each someone they might encounter any day on the streets, who brought the fantastic just next door. From the streets, the stories took on lives of their own, expanding and changing as people everywhere strained ears to hear what would happen next. Next to the storytellers, the bazaars boomed, haggling over silks and spices, furs and wools, jewelry and trinkets from Granada to Makassar. Off from the streets and in the courts, the House of Wisdom aired its talents. Hunayn ibn Ishaq was keeping Aristotle, Plato, and Galen alive in his translations, while Al-Khwarizmi founded algebra and modern mathematics. The scholars collected texts from around the world, translating and writing about everything from astronomy to zoology. Yet in the midst of the alluring tales, the outlandish goods, the fascinating Greek books, the city had built its newfound wonder on the spoils of war. Turban-wearing, scimitar-bearing soldiers whispered in worried tones over unending battles, and rising internecine struggle. The strong walls had forced the city’s expansion upwards; everything was built a labyrinth, streets winding confused and towers obscuring vision.
Baghdad decayed, its walls collapsed under continuous war. The Caliphs no longer wanted to stay there, and so moved away. Not sleepy or peaceful or exciting, the city was now exhausted. Buwayhids and Seljuks and Mongols and Timurids and Persians and Ottomans, attacked the city, one by one. Each time they attacked, Baghdad fell a little more. By the time the wars had stopped coming, it was too late. The gardens waxed wild, unmaintained, alone. The theatres slammed their doors shut. The markets only proffered goods from Mosul to Basra now. Nobody talked about Bulukiya or Sinbad anymore. The libraries had burned down long ago. Old men played chess and gloomed together of better days. The people of Baghdad set aside pens and craftsmens’ tools and picked up the plow, and so the city fell back into sleep for a thousand years, returning to its ancestral state.
Baghdad stirred from its sleep after the bombs and shells of World War I. Strangers from a far-off land, Britain, came to claim that the city was theirs now. Britain provoked the city with its pale-faced architects who scurried around, planning offices, fountains, streets. But then the strangers left and the city was left alone. Kings came and made Baghdad important again. The city shook off its exhaustion, glorying for a brief period of peace in the renewal of its foundations, the restoration of how things were before. To think that Baghdad could return, however, was foolish: the world had changed, and Baghdad, unwittingly, with it. The wars reappeared with frightening rapidity. Rebellion, civil war, insurgency, foreign conflicts, governmental overthrow, terrorism boiled in the city. Baghdad now is a cauldron of discontent. Everything is built in ruins: the walls are crumbled, the towers shattered, the baths, mosques, theatres bombed and irreparable. The city does not enjoy even the ignorance of sleep; that is what Baghdad is now.
But what could Baghdad be? A city that strives, if not for the restoration of wonder and excitement, then at least for the tranquility of peace. A city that cannot return to what it was before but aims for yet another change, one that surpasses all the transformations that came before. A city that swears to never sleep again, for sleep is stagnation, rot, death to the memory that inspires the change. A city that always remembers the name of what was impossible before but has been blessed with possibility in the present: Madinat al-Salaam. Everything could be built anew, and Baghdad’s people could live anew too: to die, to work, to pray, to laugh, to learn, to eat, to be born.
John Meyer is a sophomore studying History and English at Calvin University, Michigan. When he is not busy reading and writing, he enjoys walking in the woods, drawing nifty maps, and eating chocolate. “What is Baghdad Now?” is his first publication.