A Glimpse of Old Iraq, Age of Arab Enlightenment, amid the Bullets of `Democracy'

By Fisk, Robert | The Independent (London, England), December 23, 2003 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

A Glimpse of Old Iraq, Age of Arab Enlightenment, amid the Bullets of `Democracy'

Fisk, Robert, The Independent (London, England)

JUST BESIDE Baghdad's cloth market are two noble wooden doors set in a massive and ancient brick wall with the first words of the Koran inscribed on the top. There is only one God but God and His Prophet is Mohamed. Because classical Arabic today remains the same language as that in which the Koran was written, there is always a slight surprise to see words written so long ago in unmistakably the same spelling and sense.

When the Caliph abu Jaafar al-Mansour bin aldahar Mohamed al- Nasr had those words inscribed on the al-Mustansariyah university wall, we were writing in the early Middle English which would soon resemble the English of Chaucer.

Indeed, Chaucer's pilgrims would have appreciated the peace and architectural glory of Baghdad's oldest university. From the moment I pushed open one of those noble doors, the roar of the market - the street hawkers and the men staggering under the weight of carpets and linen strapped to their backs, the taxis and trucks - fell away.

The four great walls of the university square surround two pools, and birds fly into the courtyard from the blue-domed mosque next door. The intricate designs of each wall, the product of Islam's prohibition on the human form in religious art, speak of an age of Arab enlightenment scarcely a hundred years after the Crusades. If we live today in "New Iraq" - and I'm not at all sure we do - then this is "Old Iraq".

Each door-niche around the courtyard was home to a scholar who would, according to legend, spread gossip and back-stab the scholar teaching in the next niche, a fine academic tradition which we in the west maintain in most of our universities. Science and theology were taught together in al-Mustansariyah, a tradition which lives on in Arab bookshelves where religious books and volumes on nuclear physics and chemistry are often placed on adjacent shelves.

There is even a little library off the courtyard where you can buy old PhD theses on Islamic art - there's an excellent treatise on Islamic bridges and minarets submitted to Edinburgh University in 1975 - and second-hand copies of Wilfrid Thesiger's explorations, and even a 1957 account of Nasser's relations with the Soviet Union which demonstrates how pitifully the language of Egyptian nationalism aped the prose of Pravda and Izvestia.

A female keeper walks up to me in the square outside and makes a familiar plea.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

A Glimpse of Old Iraq, Age of Arab Enlightenment, amid the Bullets of `Democracy'


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?