Between excursions on the streets of Cairo building my life of the next few months, I am in my restful moments visiting the Middle East of another era, gobbling up Desert Queen, the biography of Gertrude Bell written by Janet Wallach. In it she describes a Baghdad I long to breath, feel touch, a Baghdad I mourn, a Baghdad who is nothing like the image Americans have of her, nor her reality today which seems sacrilege in light of this Baghdad we will never know. Bell wrote,
“The citadel on the Tigris, built by the Abbassid Caliph Mansur eight centuries after the birth of Christ, one century after the death of the Prophet Muhammed, flourished for five hundred years. The heart of the Abbassid empire, it was the largest, most prosperous city in the world. More than a million people, of every imaginable race, color, and creed, filled its narrow streets, worked in its shops, bathed in its bathhouses, gossipped in its coffeehouses. Sophisticated and cosmopolitan, the Baghdad of a thousand years ago boasted of bookstores and literary salons, banks and commercial houses, gardens and zoos. Its writers and poets produced some of the Arab world’s greatest literature and translated into Arabic the works of Euclid, Plato and Aristotle. Its mathematicians, calculating in Arabic numbers, introduced the concept of zero; its scientists built an astronomical observatory and studied the round surface of the earth; its physicians earned their degrees in medical schools and served in public hospitals; its businessmen cashed checks at bank branches as far away as China. The cargo ships that sailed its river carried in gold from Africa, silver and spices from India, porcelains from China, pearls from the Gulf. Traders from East Africa arrived with ivory; desert caravans from Turkestan brought in slaves. In return Baghdadi merchants exported to the world the finest cotton shirts, thick cotton towels, fanciful turbans of colored silk, healing oils and potions, excellent swords, fine leather good and paper.”
Though most of this was gone well before Europeans arrived something was left in Gertrude’s time, during World War I.
“… here and there grand Ottoman buildings of yellow brick, two or three stories high, stretched across acres of green grass; slender minarets and domed mosques glittered in the sunlight; statuesque palm groves fringed the city. Verdant gardens brought relief from the hot dry sun, and the perfume of jasmine, roses, oranges, lemons, peaches and pomegranates wafted through the early morning air.”
I wonder what Baghdad smells like this morning.