After the First World War, Iraq was created as a kingdom under Feisal I, who had been recommended for the job by the British traveller and spy Gertrude Bell.
Another British adventurer, the intrepid Freya Stark, visited Baghdad in 1931. Her description of the city would appear to substantiate the Arab proverb. ‘True happiness, we consider, is incompatible with an inefficient drainage system. It is one of these points on which we differ most fundamentally from the East, where happiness and sanitation are not held to any particular connection. In spite of many efforts, Baghdad still remains triumphantly Eastern in this respect.’
The travel writer Robert Byron passed through Baghdad a few years later with a similar impression: ‘The air is composed of mud refined into a gas. The people are mud-coloured. They wear mud-coloured clothes, and their national hat is nothing more than a formalised mud-pie.’
The seasoned Baghdad hand Justin Marozzi offers a less contemptuous view of the city in which he lived and worked for much of the past decade. How has this city, once home to a thriving community of Muslim, Christian and Jewish scientists, artists and physicians, descended into a maelstrom of sectarian strife and life on the edge?
Marozzi explains that Baghdad’s history has been ‘written in blood’ since its foundation in 762. The author takes us through 13 centuries of Baghdad’s life in a timely and lively biography that is the consummate history of this ‘relentlessly tempestuous’ city.
BAGHDAD: City of Peace, City of Blood by Justin Marozzi; Allen Lane, £25