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under threat
baghdad’s historic ‘one thousand and one nights’ houses

Ahmad al-Rubaie
Central Baghdad is famous as the setting for many of the ancient tales in One Thousand And One nights. However many of the houses, located on prime commercial real estate, are under threat from owners’ greed,…
19.09.2013  |  Baghdad
Historic buildings on one of Baghdad\\\'s oldest streets. Pic: Getty
Historic buildings on one of Baghdad\\\'s oldest streets. Pic: Getty

For around 200 years, Saad al-Azzawi and his family have lived in the same house in central Baghdad. And recently al-Azzawi was considering selling his home to the Ministry of Culture so that they could preserve it. But he changed his mind.

“There are other investors who offered me a much higher price, compared to the trivial amount the Ministry offered,” al-Azzawi says. Al-Azzawi had wanted to renovate their historic home but his family could not afford it and they have yet to receive any of the state subsidies they are entitled to, to complete the job.

“We might have to renovate the house at our own expense,” al-Azzawi says. “But because we haven’t received any subsidies that will probably have to be in a way that diminishes the house’s history.”

Al-Azzawi is not the only owner of a historic house who is thinking this way. Officials suggest that there are almost 2,000 heritage buildings in Baghdad that are in bad repair or threatened with destruction. A lot of the central city is famous as the setting of various tales in the famous A Thousand And One Nights compilation of stories, first thought to have been put together in this region in the 10th century. Many of those historic houses are located near some of Baghdad’s busiest commercial streets.

“And everybody is aware of the high prices of land in this area because the land could be used to build a hotel or a shopping mall,” says another of the historic homes’ owners, Majid al-Dahabi – his place is located in the Kadhimiya area. “Although it’s in bad shape, a lot of investors have already offered to buy my place,” he told NIQASH. “But the house is protected and I am not actually allowed to sell it. So I haven’t done anything about it. I’m waiting for the government to do something.”

There are ways around this: “It was the only way I could sell my house,” says another local who said he wished to remain anonymous before admitting that he had to burn his house down to get around heritage orders and sell his land.

Another owner of a historic Baghdad building, Abdul-Jabbar al-Sudani, points out that bombs and conflict in Baghdad have also damaged older constructions and that attention needs to be paid to foundations and to sewage leaks. “There are hundreds of buildings like this in Baghdad,” he told NIQASH. “A lot of them are under threat because of bombing from the first and second Gulf wars.”

One local said he and his family had simply deserted the home they and their family members had lived in for over 150 years. “I became desperate,” he says. “I was waiting for promises made by the Ministry of Culture to be fulfilled but nothing happened.”

Centres for the preservation of culture and various civil society organisations have also called upon the state to recognise the importance of Baghdad’s ancient buildings and to maintain them.

And in fact there is already a law that stipulates they do exactly that. Heritage Law Number 55, of 2002, “talks about financial resources that should be made available to the owners of historic buildings,” says Marwan al-Atroushi, a legal expert.

“This law also protects historic buildings against demolition or destruction. It penalizes any person who deliberately destroys a historic building and the punishment is up to six years in prison.”

However as Hakim Abdul Zahra, director of media and relations at Baghdad’s provincial council, says, the city lacks the money to resolve this issue. “The municipality of Baghdad had prepared many plans for the heritage buildings,” Abdul Zahra said. “But most of them require a lot of money or some kind of joint venture between the city and private investors.”

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities also cried financial foul. “Efforts are constrained by lack of finances,” says Ali Abdul-Hussein, the spokesperson for the Ministry, who added that his Ministry monitored the buildings in question on an ongoing and regular basis.

However Abdul-Hussein suggested the owners of the historic homes were partially to blame for the current situation. “The owners of these buildings have taken advantage of their locations and they’ve asked for extremely high prices, if the government wants to buy them,” he explained. “That’s why we haven’t been able to buy the buildings from them.”

Of course, not everybody feels this way. “We have been waiting for more than seven years for a special committee to visit us and estimate the value of the house so we can sell it to the government,” another of the historic homes’ owners, Fatima Hussein complained. “Up until now though, there’s been nobody here.”

“Our house needs work and it’s almost unfit to live in at the moment. It feels as though it might actually fall down around us,” Hussein continued. “But,” she added, “we are aware of the historic value of houses like ours. And we see it as part of Baghdad’s legacy. Our family doesn’t want to trade that for money – we want the building to continue to tell Baghdad’s one thousand and one nights’ worth of stories,” she said proudly.