Iraq Diaries: Ringside View Of Tigris In Cradle of Civilization

The Sinak Bridge in Baghdad offered a breathtaking view of the snaking Tigris in the Cradle of Civilization, where pivotal technological innovations such as writing, the wheel, and irrigation originated.

The Sinak Bridge in Baghdad offered a breathtaking view of the snaking Tigris in the Cradle of Civilization

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 to overthrow dictator Saddam Hussein but ended up plunging the country into a protracted conflict.

Once known for idyllic palm gardens, the conflict turned Baghdad into a city of barricades and traffic jams apart from bringing untold miseries to the region that was the preeminent seat of scholarship, culture, and trade for centuries. 

More and more checkpoints to thwart terrorist attacks began blocking the traffic as we drove into Baghdad as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS in February 2016.

Until at least 2018, 800 roads and over 80 percent of the city’s avenues were closed; 281 checkpoints choked its traffic. 

As many as 73,000 segments of 15-foot-high concrete blast walls across Baghdad accounted for over half of the city’s total walls. The walls made the city an urban maze.

The violence had begun to ebb by 2016 but Baghdad’s traffic woes continued. We drove almost nonstop into Baghdad until we neared the fortified Green Zone, where the traffic slowed to a crawl.

The traffic stopped altogether as we reached the Sinak Bridge. We were stuck there for almost the same time it took us to reach Baghdad from Karbala, over 100 km away. 

Heavily-armed soldiers were trying their best to ensure the traffic moved on the bridge over the Tigris, which splits Baghdad into two parts—Al-Karkh (the western bank) and Al-Rusafah (the eastern bank).

But the gridlock kept worsening. It made more sense for us to explore the city on foot on a balmy, sunny, and bright winter afternoon.

A clear blue sky made the day particularly beautiful for the walking tour. There also was not a more perfect place to set foot on Baghdad’s soil than the Sinak Bridge.

It offered a breathtaking view of the snaking Tigris in the Cradle of Civilization, where pivotal technological innovations such as writing, the wheel, and irrigation originated. 

The Tigris and the Euphrates originating from Turkish highlands provided humans with the ingredients—fertile soil, freshwater, and brackish wetlands—to experiment with grain and cereal cultivation around 10,000 BC and to bring about the Agricultural Revolution.

Tower blocks and villas now line the Tigris, which the 12th-century geographer Ibn Jubayr likened to a shining mirror and a string of pearls, in Baghdad. 

The river was the widest I had seen until I saw the Hudson in New York in 2018. Seeing the Tigris hug Baghdad in the backdrop of the skyline dotted with domes and minarets was a sight to behold. 

The river curving around Baghdad is to it what the Danube is to Budapest and the Thames to London. We lingered on the bridge over it admiring the sheer beauty of the landscape as the time flew; muezzins called the faithful for the afternoon prayer and boats glided by. 

Restaurants lining the Tigris across the river whetted our appetite—all the more so since the traffic jam cost us our lunch. We had barely eaten anything since leaving Karbala and looked forward to our elaborate Baghdadi lunch among the first things first in the city.

Just downstream, people smoked hookah at an anchored restaurant. River taxis rowed by in the river that was until the 1960s an important waterway. 

Streamers would sail from Baghdad to Mosul in northern Iraq and Turkey before airplanes, better roads, and cars provided better transportation alternatives.

Keleks, or wooden rafts, made of logs and inflated goat skins that carried loads up to 35 tonnes of cargo, people, and livestock plied the Tigris, which has been Baghdad’s lifeblood. 

The river has been a critical source of irrigation, trade, and travel for centuries. It is also one of the reasons for Baghdad’s existence. 

Abu Jafar Abdullah al-Mansur, the second Abbasid Empire caliph, laid the city’s foundation in 762 considering its strategic location between the Euphrates and the Tigris in the fertile Mesopotamia plains over a kilometre from where the Sinak Bridge now stands.

Baghdad’s geographical position played a key role in its quick rise and prosperity. It gave the city a head-start in trade by linking it to key places in virtually all directions. 

The Tigris gave Baghdad access to the Maritime Silk Routes via the Persian Gulf and to China, India, and Africa via Basra.

Ships sailed from Basra (modern-day Iraq) to Chinese ports such as Canton via Malabar Coast in the Indian Peninsula, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Borneo, Java, and Sumatra islands. 

Baghdad’s location also placed it at the heart of the networks of land routes and made it an international trade centre. 

The city was a central market for merchandise from India, China, and Daylam (modern-day Iran). It exported ceramic patterns, paper, and textiles to China, Morocco, and the Roman Empire and was a major centre of silk and velvet production.

The commercial exchanges enriched Baghdad and for the most part, the foreign traders were welcomed in ‘an ecumenical spirit’. 

The foreigners had a lot to have them stay back: higher standards of living, thriving trade, and agriculture boosted by a network of canals, dikes, and reservoirs. 

Whole streets in Baghdad were devoted to a particular craft. Cairo’s papyrus makers, Antioch (Turkey)’s marble workers, Basra (Iraq)’s potters, Peking (Beijing)’s calligraphers plied their trades in Baghdad. 

The city spanned over 32 km and surpassed Constantinople in size by the 9th century. It had Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Armenian quarters as well as Jewish and Christian suburbs. 

An integrated, rich, and Arabic-speaking Jewish community was rooted in the region since its exile from the Kingdom of Judah in 597 BCE.

Baghdad’s openness reflected in its diversity since its foundation powered its rise as the world’s most important city at the peak of the Islamic Golden Age.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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