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February 26th, 2003 Brian Libby | Featured Stories
 

My ass swells well over the river babylon

If Bush has his war, history may fall as the first victim.

     
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George Bush calls Baghdad part of an "axis of evil." Historians offer another description: the "cradle of civilization." Whatever your political stripe, it's worth noting that the Iraqi capital, already damaged by years of warfare and sanctions, could be leveled by American armed forces in a matter of weeks. Before that happens, here's a look at the historic architecture in the cross hairs.

Baghdad is located along the banks of the Tigris River, which along with the nearby Euphrates River forms the "Fertile Crescent," which gave birth to such ancient civilizations as the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians. It's also where the alphabet, agriculture and literature first came to be.

Baghdad itself was founded in 762 during the Abbasid dynasty by Khalif al-Mansur. A few decades afterward, the reign of Harun al-Rashid would be celebrated in the famous tales of the Arabian Nights. Although Mecca formed Islam's spiritual center, Baghdad was the region's cultural heart. The best scientists and scholars of the time came from there, inventing scientific processes and mathematical concepts still used today. Baghdad was also home to the world's first hospitals and was one of the first cities to develop street lighting.

The city first followed a circular plan, said to have been created using traced lines of ashes along the ground. It included four gates (a defensive posture from the start) with a palace and mosque at the center. Although none of these original structures remains, contemporary Baghdad includes vestiges of architecture dating back to at least the 13th century.

The most famous surviving building is the Mustansiriya Madrassa Mosque, built between 1227 and 1233. It features a rectangular courtyard building (Islamic buildings almost always focus inward) with four large spires, or "iwans." Another building, the Abbasid Palace, dates to 1250, with stately brickwork and a striking minaret. Much of the structure is remarkable for having survived the Mongol invasion in 1258, which destroyed much of the city. The Mongols, thankfully, didn't have the stealth bomber.

Many buildings from Baghdad's Ottoman period remain in some form today, including the shrine of al-Kadhimiyya, which houses the tombs of the imams Musa al-Kadhim and Muhammad Jawad--some bigwigs of early Islamic history. Although partially destroyed several hundred years ago, the structures were successfully remodeled in the 18th century and now include shrines topped with golden domes and minarets.

Many other ancient Baghdad buildings are of a smaller scale but no less important. The Khan Marjan, located in Baghdad's old center, was constructed in the 14th century and, after a 1970s restoration, now houses a restaurant and other commercial facilities. And some of Baghdad's most enduring forms are those of its modest houses. Most include a courtyard and gardens.

Baghdad is not without its significant contemporary architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned for a series of works there in 1957, but his patron, Abdul Karim Kassem, was murdered the following year, and the project was canceled. Nevertheless, a host of skyscrapers, mosques, and other buildings rose for decades through the 1970s, thanks to massive oil reserves.

Rifaat Chadirji's 1971 Baghdad Post Office and Telegraph Building and Hosham Munir's 1970 Baghdad Municipality Building elegantly fuse classic Islamic forms with the clean lines of modernism.

Tyrant though he is, Saddam Hussein built a series of noteworthy memorials--and not just to himself. Muhammad at-Turki's Shaheed Martyrs Monument, completed in 1983 to honor those lost in the Iran-Iraq war, features two halves of a tilted turquoise dome set upon an artificial lake. Forget Hussein for a moment: Shaheed is very striking.

There are two important Iraqi structures outside of Baghdad listed on the World Monuments Fund "100 Most Endangered Sites." The Erbil Citadel, where Alexander the Great defeated the Persians in 331 B.C., is in the Kurdish Autonomous Region, originally settled more than 8,000 years ago. In Mosul, the Nineveh and Nimrud Palaces date to 883 and 681 B.C., respectively. The actual palaces are gone, but archaeological work has unearthed reliefs depicting the military campaigns of two Assyrian kings, Sennacherib and Assurnasirpal. Western museums have collected much of the antiquities here, but U.N. sanctions have since inspired widespread looting of what's left.

Another architectural treasure, Samarra, lies 125 kilometers north of Baghdad. Built in 847, its Great Mosque features a signature spiral minaret that is one of the most recognized icons of the Middle East. Despite all the damage inflicted by war and the decay incurred by sanctions, much of this ancient city's architecture remains intact--if without electricity or running water.

It's not to say architecture is necessarily more important than the world's safety. But war will not come without destroying the irreplaceable, from great buildings to those who inhabit them.

 
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