Three wars, a decade of sanctions and an aping of foreign urban planning have taken their toll on the city’s skyline.
The Iraqi capital is no longer the famed Islamic city of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, but rather the child of the world’s worst crimes against architecture.
In the days following the US-led invasion last April, the occupiers oversaw the decimation of the city’s cultural and historical heritage in an orgy of burning and looting.
And now Iraqi architects are warning it may take hundreds of years for Baghdad to recover its former glory.
Most of the buildings in Baghdad are testament to a monumental lack of imagination.
The shattered and looted
Featureless, decrepit office blocks and high rises abound, many suffering badly from the effects of bombing, burning and looting.
The city is full of grotesque flyovers, barricades, rubble and messy clutter. Piles of rubbish strew the city’s streets and there is hardly a tree or a green space in sight.
This, combined with the unending traffic jams, makes Baghdad a truly awful place to live.
No go areas
Meanwhile, most of the capital’s most impressive buildings – such as the presidential palaces and some mosques – are strictly off limits.
Architecture fuses Islamic,
They lie within the Green Zone behind which the occupation authorities barricade themselves, thus denying locals and visitors a glimpse of some of the capital’s splendours.
A recent report by a UK research company rated Baghdad as the world’s worst city.
Mercer Human Resource Consulting based its quality of life survey on political, social, economic and environmental factors, as well as personal safety, health, education, transport and other public services.
Mounting rubbish reflects the
Unsurprisingly, Baghdad scored badly on all counts.
Ahmad Adnaan al-Watari, a Baghdad architect, describes the best Iraqi architecture as a fusion of Assyrian, Babylonian and Islamic influences. But he said the Saddam years put paid to traditional influences and any creativity.
“Architecture is a reflection of a civilisation’s thought,” he said. “But after so many years of dictatorship people lost the spirit of invention. In Iraq, we haven’t had good singers, good artists and good architects in the last 30 or 40 years.”
Al-Watari believes the move away from traditional Islamic architecture has particularly affected Baghdad’s look.
“Islam is a wonderful starting point for great architecture because it is about making the inward and the outward beautiful. The Muslims have lost their Islam and this has been reflected in the lack of great Islamic architecture, or for that matter architecture in general.”
Architect Ahmad al-Watari is
But, according to al-Watari, the rot really started to set in during the 1960s and 70s – the beginning of the Saddam era.
“Baghdad used to be a beautiful place. From the 30s to the 60s Iraqis used to have their own identity, fashion-sense, style and architecture.
“But then a sort of inferiority complex began to take hold. We lost a bit of our identity, looked to outside influences and began to copy the West. In the 60s and 70s there was definitely a retreat.”
He added: “Iraqi architects studied in western countries and took on their mentality. They weren’t really Iraqi architects. And when the war with Iran started in 1980 that stifled creativity even more and many architects went to work abroad.”
Americans at fault
But al-Watari said the most serious destruction to Baghdad’s appearance happened when the Americans arrived last year.
“When the invasion took place, there was chaos everywhere. The US let terrible things happen after April 11 – all the government buildings and ministries and palaces were looted and burned and they stood by and did nothing.
“The US let terrible things happen after April 11.
Ahmad Adnaan al-Watari, Baghdad architect
“Hundreds and thousands of buildings were burned in Iraq. This really hurt us. These criminals erased a real part of Iraq’s history.”
He added: “All the wars and a decade of sanctions did not do one tenth of the damage that this period did to Iraq. Baghdad was a great Arab city – greater than Cairo.
“But now people have no pride in our city. We need time to recover our identity. We are starting from zero again.”
If Baghdad is ever to recover its former lustre, then much will depend on serious investment and political stability.
According to al-Watari, only such an environment will allow the creativity of a new generation of Iraqi architects to flourish.
But after around 25 years of uninterrupted turmoil, such hopes must be the realm of fantasy for most Baghdadis.