Baghdad engineer racing against time to document city's crumbling heritage

Valuable historic fabric has been lost amid social and political unrest and absence of preservation projects

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Baghdad resident Mohammed Salih, 52, is racing against time to document his hometown’s disappearing heritage, which has fallen victim to decades of war, neglect and mismanagement.

“Unfortunately, our heritage and old Baghdadi houses are fading away,” says Mr Salih, a civil engineer, standing next to a rundown building dating back to early last century in a narrow alley in Al Sinak area.

“It’s so heart-wrenching to describe Baghdad today,” Mr Salih tells The National.

Baghdad – also known as the Round City and the City of Peace – was built by the Abbasid caliph Abu Jaafar Al Mansur between 762 and 775 AD to serve as the capital of the Abbasid Empire that stretched from present-day Algeria to Pakistan.

For nearly 500 years, the city was the centre of economic and political power in the world, during the Islamic Golden Age. Then, the metropolis was an attractive destination for students, prominent poets, scientists, merchants and others from all over the world.

But that era ended with the Mongol invasion in 1258AD. At that time, the city suffered heavily.

The Mongol conquerors killed the caliph Al Mutasim and most of the city's inhabitants, looting and destroying mosques, libraries and other buildings.

After the Mongols, Persians and the Ottoman empire competed for the occupation and rule of Baghdad as part of the Ottoman-Safavid war. The Ottoman rule was the longest, lasting to 1918, and was followed by the British occupation.

Mr Salih's quest to discover old Baghdad goes back to 1989 when he arrived at the College of Engineering as curriculums on building techniques and the plans of old cities took him to the city's historic districts.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Mr Salih decided to use his experience for the benefit of the public.

“It was not easy before to hold a camera and take photos without security approvals from the authorities,” the Industry Ministry employee says.

“But since 2003, there has been a space of freedom and with phones fitted with cameras, anyone can now take pictures."

During his days off and on holidays, he walks through the countless twisted old alleys that run through the city like arteries.

At the end of each tour, he writes a post on his Facebook page, explaining the history of each site accompanied by new and old pictures.

“Readings offer me 75 per cent of the site information and location and the other 25 per cent I get from the people,” he says. “Sometimes, I can find only bricks or walls or nothing."

Baghdad resident Mohammed Salih's quest to discover old Baghdad goes back to 1989 when he arrived at the College of Engineering as curriculums on building techniques and the plans of old cities took him to Baghdad’s historic districts.

In recent decades, Baghdad has lost significant parts of its architectural heritage because of social and political unrest and the absence of the preservation projects.

Some old properties that once belonged to dignitaries and tell the story of its past glory are still standing. They are either under the government control or privately owned.

With a lack of law enforcement, many owners demolished their old homes without proper permits to build new buildings. Others have been turned unceremoniously into warehouses or workshops.

For some owners and tenants, Mr Salih is an unwanted guest.

He believes they fear that any light shed on the condition of dilapidated properties by his posts could spur government action. But sometimes, his negotiation skills can open doors.

In late November, he sneaked into the palace of Menahem Saleh Daniel, a well-known Jewish merchant, landlord and politician who was born in Baghdad in 1846 and died there in 1940, in the Al Sinak area.

An aerial view of Baghdad, Iraq July 11, 2020. Picture taken on board a helicopter. Picture taken July 11, 2020. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

The old section overlooking the Tigris was built in 1919 for the family and the other part facing Al Rasheed Street was built four years later for guests.

The two-storey house has marble staircases, tiles with floral and geometric designs, latticed windows and sprawling inner courtyards.

For years, it hosted King Faisal, the first Hashemite king of Iraq who reigned from 1921 until his death in 1933, as well as other dignitaries.

Like other Jewish community properties, the house has been considered a frozen asset since the 1950s after the emigration of Jews from Iraq. The government has given it to a local film company that undertakes renovation works.

The end of a long journey

At the entrance of the old part, Mr Salih was stopped by the supervisor, but managed to convince the man to allow him to enter.

Minutes later, he found what he was looking for.

With a smile and a gleam in his eyes, he yelled: “Here’s the first elevator in Iraq,” pointing to the now-idle lift that Menahem built for his wife who couldn’t use the stairs.

In 2021, his long journey came to fruition.

He wrote The Last Remaining Baghdad, a book that takes the reader on a journey of Baghdad while learning about the stories behind each site. He is working on the second edition.

“When I walk in Baghdad’s alleys and see its old houses, bazaars and mosques, I feel like living in its past glory,” he said.

“I feel good and forget all my worries.”

Updated: January 01, 2022, 12:33 PM
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