Pertinent, patient study of the tumultuous history of this strategic city since its founding in 762.
British foreign correspondent Marozzi (The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History, 2008, etc.) has experience living in the “slaughterhouse” that Baghdad has become since the mid-2000s. In fact, sectarian violence has plagued the city since its creation as the new capital by the victorious Abbasid caliph al-Mansur. Eclipsing the Sunni Islam capital at Damascus and sending the Umayyad dynasty into exile, the new Shia-based Abbasid leaders chose the ancient Mesopotamian site between the Tigris and Euphrates for its central location and fertile land. The city’s name might be from Persian, meaning “founded by God,” yet Mansur preferred the name Dar as Salam, or “house of peace,” which would prove heavily ironic even for the murderous Mansur, who had a storehouse of corpses of his enemies. Originally constructed as a walled, round city, it soon expanded across the Tigris. Following Mansur’s death in 775, Baghdad would endure nearly 40 Abbasid caliphs, many enjoying splendid building projects and cultural efflorescence—e.g., the prosperous reign of Harun al-Rashid, immortalized in A Thousand and One Nights. The Mongol raids descended on the city from the mid-1200s onward, followed by Persia in 1508 and the Ottomans in 1528, who would remain until 1917. Yet despite the turbulence and frequent destruction, Baghdad remained a “bustling emporium,” with a thriving Jewish population as well. Marozzi has sifted through the numerous tales of travelers throughout the centuries, and he also makes use of the rich British accounts, which saw the city’s opening to outsiders by the mid-1800s. Indeed, the British introduced a succession of colorful characters—e.g., Sir Stanley Maude, who wrested the city from the Turks, and Gertrude Bell, champion of modern Iraq and preserver of its antiquities.
A useful, relevant history of a “relentlessly tempestuous” city.