Baghdad was founded by the Abbasid Caliph Mansur the Victorious during the early Arab conquests of the 8th century, on a bend of the Tigris. The city flourished. Its first inhabitants called it City of Peace and for 200 years it grew into a fat jewel of wealth and hedonism and scholarship; the original of orientalist fantasy, the setting for 1001 Nights. Justin Marozzi’s Baghdad is a richly researched chronicle of a city that was once the learned capital of the world, but whose dizzying apex gave way to a long and miserably bloody decline. By the time Marozzi visited after the American invasion of 2003, much of Baghdad’s rich heritage had been looted from the national museum.
His book is a litany of calamity: invasions, massacres, plague outbreaks, floods. Razed by the Mongols and then the Tartars, by the time Europe was struggling into the Enlightenment, Baghdad was under Ottoman control and continuously marauded by the Persians. Palace intrigues entwined themselves with competing empires. “Ruling Baghdad,” Marozzi writes, “has more often than not required an iron fist.” The last hundred years of British mandate and American occupation has not bucked this trend. Baghdad’s history is not a happy one, but it is fabulous and ghastly and fascinating. Ultimately it is the story of how the metropolitanism of a cosmopolitan city was devoured, first by imperialism and then by nationalism and finally by the sectarians who remained.
(Allen Lane, £25)