Cultural Life in Isolated Iraq a Pale Shadow of Its Former Self

Article excerpt

Andrew Hammond is a free-lance journalist based in Cairo.

"Happy is he who sees Samarra," goes an ancient Arabic saying. The sad truth, however, is that few are here today to see the former caliphal capital on the Tigris north of Baghdad. Samarra, whose name is a shortened form of that phrase, was once the relaxed center of an empire stretching from Morocco to China. Wary of the growing power of the Turkish slave soldiers he had imported into the capital of the Abbasid Islamic empire, Caliph Mutasim in 833 CE moved his court in its entirety to a new city in the calmer climes of Iraq's central plains. With its huge mosque, spiraled minaret, and 15-mile-long central street, the garden city was a return to the spacious and simple style of the Arabs who had conquered the region 200 years earlier, and a contrast to Persian-influenced Baghdad.

International isolation under U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait has kept the tourists away in recent years, however. Sites closer to Baghdad, including famed Babel, capital of the Babylonian empire, are empty even of the Iraqis who used to picnic there on holiday from the cities. With only a few European tour groups passing through the country, religious tourism from neighboring Iran has been the main interest in recent years. Two years ago Iraq opened its borders to pilgrims visiting Shi'i Muslim shrines, and Samarra features on that itinerary.

The modern town houses a shrine to three of the 12 religious leaders, or imams, looked upon by Shi'i Muslims as the true heads of the Islamic community because of their special blood ties to the Prophet. One of those three is the last of the line of 12, the so-called "hidden Imam," who, according to Shi'i theology, disappeared to return one day as a Messiah figure. Inside the shrine, southern Iraqi women in black cloaks swarm around, making for the stairs down to the vault from which the imam vanished. There they hug the marble walls inside, weeping and uttering private prayers to the holy figure.

Samarrans--today, Sunni Muslims--sit back drinking tea in the late afternoon, detached from the pilgrim fervor, and talk of the city's demise as if it happened yesterday. Iraqis have long memories to go with their long history. "When the caliphs went back to Baghdad, the place went to ruins," explained Khaldoun, a guard at some of the sites. "It went from `happy is he who sees it' to `unfortunate is he who sees it.' When the Mongols came," he added, "they left this place alone because it was already a ruin.

In 1258 the Mongols completely destroyed the Baghdad of the caliphs. It is not just the huge loss of antiquities that appalls today's culture-aware Iraqis so much as the huge loss of life. "The sea was two colors the day they burned Baghdad--black from the books of the city's libraries and red from the blood of its citizens," said Khodeir, who works near the Mustansiriya School, one of the few standing buildings in the modern city of Baghdad which survived the 1258 assault.

Nor is it just scholars of Islamic history who believe the Mongol invasion wrought a centuries-long catastrophe on Iraq's irrigation system. "Darkness fell upon the country after 1258," reads a government guidebook. "The people of Iraq have worked hard to rid themselves of the effect of centuries of stagnation."

Iraq's history also has been shut away from archeologists and restoration experts. "After the 1991 war, we counted 400 machine gun shots on the walls of the remains of the city of Ur," said Donny Youkhanna, director general of Iraq's Antiquities Research Department. "At the ancient remains of Hatra in the north, an arch collapsed from the effects of nearby bombings."

Money for restoration has been lacking, but in the last year French, Italian, Austrian and German missions have returned to sites abandoned during the 1990-91 crisis. In April a delegation of six Iraqi experts, including Youkhanna, was able to take part in a conference on north Iraq's Assyrian culture organized by the British Museum. …