It has now been a decade since the United States invaded Iraq, and the country’s beleaguered capital isn’t faring so well
after 10 years of conflict. In 2012, for instance, Baghdad topped Mercer’s list as the worst place to live based on quality of
life, edging out other war-torn heavy hitters like Khartoum, Sudan and Brazzaville, Congo. The city has even become a
synonym for chaos and destruction; when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, headlines such as “Baghdad
on the Bayou” and “Looters turn New Orleans into ‘Downtown Baghdad'” quickly surfaced.
But the city, nestled on the banks of the storied Tigris River, was not always associated with violence and decline. In 1932,
Iraq had just gained independence after more than ten years as a British mandate and centuries under Ottoman rule.
Baghdad, famed at the time for its quaint blend of Turkish architecture and ancient markets, suddenly found itself the
capital of a fledgling Iraqi nation. The ethnic and religious tensions that would ignite in the coming decades of war and
sanctions were already present but not yet explosive, and the vast oil reserves that would transform the capital into a
booming metropolis had only just been discovered. These 1932 photographs, drawn from the Matson Collection at the
Library of Congress, show a Baghdad on the brink of a new era, struggling to discover its identity in a time before it was
defined by devastation.
Above, pedestrians walk along the street in front of the Midan mosque.
King Faisal I (left), who ruled Iraq from 1921 to 1933, sits next to his brother, Emir Abdullah of Transjordan, during a lawn
party at the royal palace in Baghdad. The Saudi-born king was a favorite of the British during the mandate period, and
many Iraqis were suspicious of his pro-Western sentiments. An Arab Sunni, his reign also prompted unrest among
Assyrian, Kurdish, and Shiite minorities, which he vigorously suppressed.
Fires caused by the escape of natural gas blaze near the Iraq Petroleum Company’s oil wells in the Kirkuk District.
Beginning with the first discovery of oil in Persia in 1908, foreign powers eyed the region with interest, and international
competition over Iraq’s potential oil reserves played a role in determining its borders in the wake of World War I, as the
British and French both sought access. The controversy surrounding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 underscored the
continued foreign interest in this vital natural resource. As Peter Maas recounted in Foreign Policy, U.S. troops secured
the Iraqi oil ministry in Baghdad as the rest of the city was left to looters, prompting one Iraqi to tell him, “It is all about
Library of Congress
Iraqi army officers celebrate the country’s induction into the League of Nations at the Royal Palace in Baghdad. In 1932,
Iraq became the first former mandate to join the League after gaining independence. The mandate had gotten off to an
inauspicious start in 1920, when the British determined the borders of Iraq based more on geopolitical interests than
regional logic, and a bloody rebellion against British occupation followed.
Using language that some have read as a foreshadowing of the U.S. military’s quagmire following the 2003 invasion, the
British Orientalist T.E. Lawrence described the unrest. “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap
into which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor,” he wrote. “Things have been far worse than we have been told,
our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It’s a disgrace to our imperial record and may soon
be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster
Pedestrians walk on a bridge over the Tigris River, which snakes through Baghdad and divides the city. The Tigris and
Euphrates rivers help make up the Fertile Crescent and provide a vital source of life in an otherwise arid region. But years
of pollution and war have taken their toll. Upon visiting Baghdad in 2004, one New York Times reporter described the
Tigris as “a smelly, shrunken, deserted, refuse-strewn ghost of its former splendor.”
Men walk the street after crossing Baghdad’s Katah Bridge.
Young boys sit in watermelon barges banked on the Tigris River. Iraq possesses a unique breed of watermelon that is
capable of growing up to 50 pounds in the fertile land around the Tigris. Still an important agricultural product, the fruit
has long provided an alternative source of hydration for those who want to avoid unclean drinking water. During the Iraq
war, USA Today reported on the peril faced by merchants while transporting watermelon — by truck rather than barge –
– to Baghdad.
Library of Congress
Men wearing the Turkish fez and suits walk alongside those in more typical Iraqi dress while carriages pass by on a newly
constructed street. Baghdad’s mandate period was characterized by the melding of the modern with the traditional. But it
wasn’t until the nationalization of oil in the 1960s and 70s that the country saw modernization on a vast scale, as a
construction boom transformed Baghdad into a thriving metropolis.
Copper workers use traditional wooden horses as they hammer at the metal. Baghdad’s Safafeer market has been home to
copper merchants and craftsmen for hundreds of years. Only recently has the business faced serious decline thanks to
increasing imports of factory-made goods combined with a lack of tourism. The market, made famous by its rich copper
history, now sells mostly clothing
Tea sellers smile after serving a customer at a typical railroad tea stand in Ur.
Shoe sellers line one of Baghdad’s many markets. The city’s famed bazaars have attracted visitors for centuries, though
more recently they have also gained notoriety as the targets of bombings.
A street barber at work in Baghdad.
An older man instructs a young boy at the Haidar Khana Mosque. This mosque, constructed during Ottoman rule in
1832, is a popular Shiite place of worship. In March 2007 it was partially damaged by a bombing in eastern Baghdad,
where the city’s Shiite population is largely concentrated
People gather along the bank of the Tigris River, with Baghdad’s old city walls in the distance. The city’s location along the
river historically enabled it to thrive as a center of commerce and ideas. In the monarchy’s early days, and even in the years
of instability following Faisal’s rule, Baghdad fostered a great deal of intellectual exchange. But under the rule of Saddam
Hussein, intellectual life stagnated due to censorship, which drove much of the publishing industry underground.
More recently, the country has suffered from brain drain as skilled workers fled the violence that accompanied the U.S.
A freshly tarred gufa floats on the banks of the Tigris. The round boats, which were made from reeds caulked with asphalt
and capable of transporting up to 20 passengers, were commonly used for river travel in Baghdad until the 1970s.
The Iraq Museum displayed a wide array of artifacts from the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. Built by famed British
Orientalist Gertrude Bell in 1926, it housed the findings of U.S. and European archaeologists who conducted ambitious
excavations in the aftermath of World War I. The museum was looted during the U.S. invasion in 2003, prompting two
senior cultural advisors to the Bush administration to resign in protest. One of them, Gary Vikan, lamented, “if we
understood the value of Sumerian cuneiform tablets to our past, as we do with oil getting us somewhere in our cars, I don’t
think this would have happened.”
Women walk in front of the Royal College of Medicine, which was founded in Baghdad in 1927. One of the first medical
schools in the Middle East, it still exists today as part of the University of Baghdad.
Goods are unloaded and carried by donkeys on their way to Baghdad’s markets. King Faisal attempted to modernize Iraq’s
economy by building roads and beginning construction on an oil pipeline to the Mediterranean, but the economy
remained centered around the exchange of agricultural goods during his reign. The nationalization of petroleum in the
1960s and 70s, fueled a commercial boom in Baghdad, but the growth was shortlived. The Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) left
Iraq $80 million in debt to its Gulf neighbors, and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 drove the country further
into debt by setting off a series of crippling international sanctions
Rabbis stand in front of Ezekiel’s tomb, a Jewish shrine and pilgrimage site located in Kifl. In the 1930s, Iraq’s Jewish
population, one of the oldest in the world, exceeded 120,000, and Hebrew was listed among the country’s six languages.
But after the creation of Israel in 1948, Iraq’s Jews faced increasing persecution and pressure to leave. Today, Baghdad’s
Jews have “all but vanished.”
“Basket boys” carry unwanted sand from a highway construction site in Baghdad. While Iraq might be “10 parts sand to
1 part water,” the sand’s quality is not great for construction: Writing for the New York Times’ At War blog in 2010,
Stephen Farrel noted how U.S. troops had to ship “more resilient desert” from other parts of the Middle East for their blast
Library of Congress
People stand in the old Turkish Qualla’a, a citadel, in Baghdad. The city was conquered by Ottoman Turks in 1534 and
remained under Ottoman rule until the British established the Kingdom of Iraq in 1921.
A Baghdad cityscape in 1932. For some, even when this picture was taken, the glory days of Baghdad had long passed. In
fact, narratives of decline have surrounded the city since the 13th century, when it was the center of medieval Islamic
intellectual life. When the British painter Tristram J. Ellis stopped in Baghdad as part of his travels in the early 1900s, for
instance, his artist’s eye found it wanting. “All those who are acquainted with the past history of Baghdad, and the glowing
descriptions of its buildings and streets in the time of the Caliphs, will think the present city very mean, and it is so,
compared with almost any other great Oriental city,” he wrote.
In the century since he wrote these words, Baghdad has persevered through decades of invasion, dictatorship, and war.
Today, as reconstruction efforts flounder and sectarian violence plagues the capital, it again finds itself labeled as a
place to avoid. But for the more than 7 million people who live there, this enduring city on the Tigris remains home.