Recently the centre of the prosperous, southern Iraqi city of Karbala has been undergoing development. City authorities are spending millions of dollars to make the city’s Old Town more attractive and convenient for the tens of millions who come to Karbala every year.
Karbala is home to some of the most sacred sites for Shiite Muslims from right around the world; as a result the city draws millions of the faithful every year and religion is big business here, from hotels to tour operators to taxi drivers and restaurateurs. And the historic Old Town is the most popular part of the city as it contains some of the most important shrines that visitors come to see, that of the Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, and the shrine dedicated to his brother, Abbas.
And recently those areas have been getting an upgrade. Layla al-Zinedine, the deputy head of Karbala’s provincial council committee on services and municipality, told NIQASH, the redevelopment of the area around the two shrines was one of the city’s most important projects.
“This area is integral to Karbala’s identity as a sacred city,” al-Zinedine said. “It is the place where visitors perform their religious rituals. This project is all about providing those visitors with the best services possible and the council supports that.”
It’s all about improving services in general, says Hassan Hadi, an engineer working for the Karbala city authorities. It will improve accessibility to the Old Town so that vehicle access, cleaning, lighting and other municipal services can be improved there. The aim is to provide a clean environment for tourists, Hadi noted.
“This project is all about developing the Old Town and expanding it in order to accommodate the increasing number of visitors here,” says local cleric Mohammed al-Hasnawi. The cleric believes the initiative is being driven and inspired by Iraq’s Iranian neighbours. A similar project was undertaken around the important Imam Rida mosque there that allowed visitors more freedom of movement. Iran is a Shiite Muslim-led theocracy and many of the visitors to Karbala are from Iran, as are many of the tour guides and hoteliers in Karbala.
“Expanding the Old Town is definitely going to make it easier for visitors,” agrees Haji Abdul Rida al-Attar, who owns a store in the Allawi market. He has seen a number of buildings vanish as the administrations of the two shrines have spent billions of Iraqi dinars buying up properties, and in many cases, demolishing old buildings on them.
Al-Attar has found this somewhat distressing. “People are going to lose their memories of these places because they’re slowly disappearing,” he noted. “That is despite the fact that many important things have happened there.”
Other local businessmen also expressed their concerns about the way the Old Town was being renovated.
There are many memories here, says Kathem al-Anbari, who owns a store selling fabrics in the Allawi market. “The former regime [led by Saddam Hussein] bulldozed this area in the early 1990s for political reasons,” he recalled. “The people here resisted the Iraqi army and as a result the authorities demolished and confiscated real estate and property here.”
“This area is one of the oldest in Karbala,” explains Muayad al-Jaraq, who owns a store in the Zainabiyah market in Karbala. “And there are many historic places here. The Kamuna family diwan [the seat of the family] has seen prime ministers, royalty and tribal elders visiting. It is filled with memories but it may be at risk because of this project.”
“Many ancient areas and alleyways are going to disappear because of this project,” complains Mohammed al-Hindi, the owner of a store on Jumhuriyah Street. Al-Hindi’s family owns two stores in the Allawi market and these have been there for almost a century. But now they are afraid the stores will be demolished.
“These shops are our family’s source of income,” al-Hindi says. “We have been selling herbs and spices and medicinal herbs here for years.”
On the positive side though, al-Hindi says he knows that the shrines’ administrators are paying property owners a lot of money so they can take them over.
Hotel owner Ali al-Husseini is quick to confirm this. “I sold my hotel at the beginning of 2012 to the Hussein shrine administration and they demolished it,” he told NIQASH. “But with what they paid me, I was able to buy a new commercial property and I was also well compensated for the earnings I lost from the old hotel. Anyway, as it is,” he added cautiously, “this area has become useless for business because of all the land the shrines are buying up.”
Not everyone is satisfied with the compensation though. Some smaller business owners who have been forced out are now paying higher rent elsewhere and not making as much money as they used to when they were nearer to the Old Town and the shrines within it.
“I used to own a shop in a building on Abbas street,” Asil Jaber, a juice vendor, said. “And I would make around a million IQD [around US$850] a month on average because of all the tourists who came to my shop. But the building was demolished so I had to find a new space. Now I am at a mall in the north of Karbala but I’m only making about IQD30,000 [around US$25] a month.”
Perfume-seller Haider Abdul-Rasul tells a similar story: He used to rent a space for around IQD500,000 (around US$420) a month. But after his building was demolished too, he had to move into another space where he pays an added IQD350,000 (around US$300) more in rent.
“Properties located in the streets around the shrines have become some of the most expensive real estate in Iraq,” local realtor Bassem al-Shibani told NIQASH. “The price per square meter is anywhere from as high as IQD20 million (US$16,900) to IQD8 million (US$6,700), depending on how close the property is to the shrines.”
By comparison prices per square meter in central Baghdad sit between US$2,000 and US$2,500. Karbala’s prices in these areas equal - and better - some of the most expensive real estate in the world, such as in London (US$8,000 per square meter) or New York (around US$9,000 per square meter).
It’s a knock on effect, al-Shibani explains. “The shrines' administrations buy – and are still buying – these properties in order to demolish them. The people who sold their property are then able to buy in other parts of Karbala and that’s what is leading to an overall increase in real estate prices. Prices are especially high in areas near the entrances to the Old Town. And places that were once residential areas are turning into commercial areas with banks, markets and malls.”
“This project is going to change the whole geography of the Old Town,” insists local urban planning expert Qassim al-Musawi. “That part of the city will become a closed area, only for the practice of religion. It won’t be like it was before – a bustling commercial and touristic zone.”
That’s why, al-Musawi says, the local authorities should be extremely careful how they develop the area; they need to preserve the historic markets and take care of the historic buildings, he argues.