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Essay

Backstory: City of Peace

 

By Adam Greenfield, Associate Artistic Director

Photo Credit: Associated Press

In Heather Raffo’s play, Noura and her family emigrated from Mosul, Iraq eight years ago. Back home, Tareq was a surgeon. In America, he's a hospitalist. And in her new life, Noura works as an occasional tutor in New York City; but before she and her family left Iraq, Noura was an architect. Above is a photo of Mosul taken last year.

In 2017, the World Bank estimated that the reconstruction of devastated Iraqi cities will reach 100 billion dollars, making this among the biggest markets for reconstruction in the world. According to Iraqi Tradelink, an English-language Iraqi news agency, it’s expected that this massive reconstruction project will continue through 2028. Here’s a street in Baghdad, 2004:

Photo Credit: The Courier-Mail

Onstage here at Playwrights Horizons, spread all across the kitchen table in Noura’s otherwise spare apartment are rolls and rolls of architectural drawings: meticulous, obsessive sketches she’s making for a modern structure that would house her massive family. “To live all-together,” she imagines, “like the old houses, with a garden in the middle…The lower level, a huge communal kitchen, bedrooms going all the way up to the roof. On the ground floor, each family’s sitting room opens to the courtyard, so on big occasions if you open the interior doors, it makes a giant circular room…So the family stays connected.”  

But of course, she knows this can only be a fantasy, something she’s creating as a Christmas gift for her husband, “for his imagination.” Their family is too scattered now, building new lives in other countries across the world. They are the Iraqi diaspora, one of the largest in modern times. Looking at the accumulation of architectural plans multiplying on Noura’s kitchen table, Rafa’a jokes dismissively, teasing her: “What’s all this? Still re-designing Baghdad?”

Josep Lluís Sert, The U.S. Embassy, 1955-59. This was built, and it housed the Embassy until 1967. It now stands unused, in disrepair.

As the international community faces the task of rebuilding Iraq, and as Noura confronts her dreams of home on stage in Hell’s Kitchen, a consideration of Iraq’s past becomes all the more poignant. Mercer’s annual Quality of Living Survey has placed Baghdad at the very bottom of their ranking consistently for the past decade, behind 230 other cities; and the images we’re fed of Baghdad in recent history are only of war and devastation. Which stands in poignant contrast to an early variation of city’s name: Madinat al-Salaam, or “City of Peace” — a name coined in eighth century AD, when caliph Al-Mansur built a new city that would quickly become the epicenter of what’s often referred to as the Islamic Golden Age: a 600-year period in which Baghdad was the intellectual, cultural, and commercial center of the Islamic world.  

The design of Al-Mansur’s city was a marvel in urban planning, executed by the most renowned architects and engineers, and considered the greatest construction project in the Islamic world at the time. A circular walled city that measured four miles in circumference, Baghdad was built on the banks of the Tigris River, a location that would provide both a bustling metropolis in peace and a resilient citadel in war. The city soon became home to the legendary Bayt-al Hikma (“House of Knowledge”), a vast repository of all the existing knowledge in the world, which offered an unparalleled study of sciences and humanities not only to Muslim but also to Jewish and Christian scholars, and which by the ninth century boasted the largest selection of books in the world. In the center of the city sat the Great Mosque and Royal Palace with its 130-foot-high emerald dome visible from miles around. In the eleventh century, scholar Abu-Al Qasim wrote, “whichever road you take to Baghdad, you will find beauty herself looking astonished.”

Here’s an artist’s rendering of what Baghdad might have looked like at the time:

Photo Credit: Jean Soutif, Science Photo Library

Ultimately, this period ended in the thirteenth century, when the city was captured by Mongol forces who destroyed large sections of the city and massacred most of the population. Then (skipping ahead) in the fifteenth century, the Mongols lost the city to the Ottoman Turks, who (long story short) led the city over an extended period of general decline that lasted until 1917, when Britain captured Baghdad and Southern Iraq in the course of World War I.  

Le Corbusier, Baghdad Gymnasium, 1958. This plan gathered dust until 1982, when it was built under the regime of Saddam Hussein, largely unbeknownst to the western world. In 2005, it was “re-discovered” by French architectural scholar in the wake of Hussein’s overthrow. It now stands in disrepair.

(Another fast-forward.) Then, in 1941, an 18-year-old king was crowned, and the city seemed poised for renaissance. Educated at the elite Harrow School in London, the young King Faisal II took the crown in a time of growing prosperity: with more direct control over oil revenue and powerful allies in Britain and the US, he instituted a relatively tolerant government and began to invest oil revenues from petroleum exports into infrastructure projects that would put Baghdad back on the map. Envisioning a bustling, cosmopolitan capital with new residential projects, museums, opera houses, sports complexes, civic centers, libraries, and a major university, Faisal — like so many followers of modernist urban planning — went all-in on an idealistic belief that vast architectural mega-projects could by design transform a struggling city into an affluent, buzzing metropolis of the future. 

But as he strengthened his alliances with the west, national loyalty to Faisal deteriorated, and in 1958 he was murdered in the palace courtyard during a coup d’état, his corpse strung from a lamppost. While his reign was short-lived, his vision for Iraq and apparent devotion to modernism did succeed in enlisting a coterie of architectural heavyweights to join his dream of remaking Baghdad, among them Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius. Though most of their plans were either abandoned by the new regime or severely compromised, some did manage to come to fruition, and collectively they paint a picture of a very different city: one of optimism and hope. 

The gallery above contains a selection of sketches, which — like Noura’s plans for a new family home — will remain unrealized; as well as some designs from this time which were ultimately built. As we stand facing the mammoth task of rebuilding Iraq, however dubious or unwieldy this may seem at the moment, a look at the vision of past generations may serve as distant inspiration for the city it might become, drawing on the rich culture and tenacity of its many past lives.