Baghdad's monuments fall apart or destroyed despite laws

Laws cannot protect Baghdad's monumental buildings, particularly when owners prefer that they fall down so they can replace them with modern buildings.

al-monitor The interior of the Khan Murjan ancient caravanserai, Baghdad. Iraq, Feb. 9, 2016.  Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images.

Apr 13, 2020

BAGHDAD — Khan Murjan, built in 1358 by Amin al-Din Murjan al-Alkhani, has been used for many purposes in its long life. Initially a caravanserai, or inn for travelers, this magnificent example of 14th-century architecture consists of large, high-ceilinged rooms on two stories around a closed paved courtyard. The building was first turned into a museum in 1935, then closed down. In 2003, it was reopened as a luxury restaurant, with traditional music playing.

But this treasured historical heritage is far from being well-kept. Its southern courtyard was filled with sewage for months recently until finally the local authorities repaired a broken pipe. But the whole water and sewage system needs an overhaul to prevent the same thing from happening again.

Khan Murjan is hardly an isolated case. Many of the old buildings in Iraq’s capital are falling apart. Some have already been left to collapse so the land can be used to build modern buildings. The home of Iraq’s first finance minister, Sassoon Eskell, in Baghdad was demolished in August 2016 and put up for new construction by the Baghdad municipality, but nothing has been done on the land so far. The home of Prime Minister Yasin al-Hashimi, described by Iraqi architect and academic Khaled al-Sultani as one of the most important features of modernity in Iraq, was demolished without any objections from the General Authority for Antiquities and Heritage, whose role is precisely to protect such architectural heritage. The Syriac Catholic Church in Shorja, which closed its doors in 2017 due to lack of attendance, was demolished and will be replaced by commercial development.

Some of the historical buildings that have managed to escape collapse have become eyesores. Despite the set of laws and instructions regulating their restoration as close as possible to the original, many have simply been “repaired” or “strengthened” with strange aluminum sheets or slabs of concrete.

Mohammed al-Chalabi, an architect and academic at the Department of Architectural Engineering at the University of Baghdad, and the author of the Encyclopedia of Iraqi Architecture, told Al-Monitor that Iraqi architectural heritage was basically divided into two: ancient houses built in the traditional Iraqi architectural style and the more modern architecture that began in the 1920s. 

He explained that there were very few left of the first group, which were palaces and mansions used by traditional rulers, and those that remained were likely to collapse soon due to neglect. The second group of 20th century buildings can still be saved if the state can take responsibility to preserve and restore them, by providing financial incentives to its private owners if necessary, he noted.

A set of laws regulate the preservation and renovation of heritage buildings; the primary article is the Antiquities and Heritage Law No. 55 of 2002, which aims to protect historical monuments from being torn down. In addition, the Baghdad municipality has its own regulations to ensure that the urban fabric of the city is protected and that monuments and areas classified as heritage sites are protected.

But laws on paper and calls by politicians do little to change the situation on the ground. The most striking example is Rasheed Street, the capital’s cultural and commercial artery that was declared a protected area on Feb. 14. But for many of the buildings it may be too late. Many of the early 20th-century buildings of Rasheed Street are already replaced with new ones and the few remaining ones are falling apart. The street’s Al Zawra Cinema, for example, was closed down years ago and has not received any maintenance. The building facade was damaged recently due to the clash between protesters and security forces. 

If a building is falling apart, contracts and real estate managers — particularly those supported by influential political parties — can find a way to take over ancient buildings and construct new ones in their place. They often benefit from the gray zones in the authorization. Often, the municipality and the General Authority for Antiquities and Heritage are bypassed when endowment offices — which are directly linked to the prime minister’s office and have jurisdiction over the religious sites — authorize the sites to be torn down. Or when owners of buildings under private ownership want to destroy the old building and construct a modern one in its place and set their own buildings on fire. Local reports indicate that many building owners have taken advantage of the protests that have been taking place in Baghdad since October 2019, to set heritage buildings on fire. The Iraqi judiciary is trying to stop many of these sabotage operations within the laws to protect antiquities and heritage, but it often acts after the fact and would have nothing left to do to save these buildings.

According to a Baghdad municipality source, the building of the Sharia Court in Nahr Street was demolished by the Sunni Endowments in 2010, by deliberately setting the building on fire. The court was an important historical monument built over 200 years ago by Adila Khatun, a wealthy woman who built many mosques and a large number of endowments. The court was demolished and turned into commercial shops, leaving only the room with Khatun's tomb as a remnant of the building’s past.

One of the difficulties, said Chalabi, was the shortage of architects who could carry out restorations and renovations of old buildings. He suggested that there should be a special architectural program or a faculty to restore and preserve selected buildings.

“This specialized school would attract an elite group of researchers to study these buildings and then develop a comprehensive guide that would enable restoring heritage with modern designs and purpose,” he said.

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