The Street that was Straight
The late Mr. Albert Hourani, longtime dean of Middle East studies at Oxford, once remarked that one of the differences between Baghdad and Cairo was that parts of the city of Cairo had been designed and built along European lines in the nineteenth century while Baghdad had to await the coming of the British in 1917 to enter the era of urban renewal. While his statement is, in essence, correct, because the massive redesign of the city was indeed given impetus to by the British occupation, the first street cut from north to south in Baghdad was the pet project of several Ottoman governors; but it was only under Khalil Pasha that the street was completed, and formally opened it in 1916. In 1925, the British paved the street and expanded it, and under its penultimate name, Rasheed Street, it developed into the first straight artery in Baghdad. Rasheed Street started from Bab al-Muazzam (or the old northern gate of Baghdad) and ended in the “east”, Bab al-Sharqi (which, despite its name, really was the site of the southern gate of the city).
The story of Rasheed Street is not just the story of the impact of European architectural standards on Iraqi/Ottoman/Arab form. It is also the story of a political contest between a belatedly resurgent Ottoman regime in Baghdad and the British merchants and consuls who were attempting to impose their will on a city that was still technically part of the Ottoman orbit. It is also the story of Baghdad’s landowners and merchants, its embryonic press establishment and the budding local politicians that were attempting to curry favor both with the Ottomans and the British in their bid for political position. In fact, the building of Rasheed street became the microcosm for the city’s pre-war tensions, which only exploded with the beginning of hostilities in 1914.
In the years leading up to the establishment of Baghdad’s main commercial thoroughfare, the Ottoman governor that preceded Khalil Pasha, Nazim Pasha incurred the wrath both of the British merchant houses and the influential Iraqi families in Baghdad in his zeal to begin the Rasheed street project. In 1910-1911, he began to pull down the mansions of some of the greatest landowners in Baghdad, offering them, it was said, paltry compensation for their loss. His argument was the same to whoever dared to complain: Baghdad needed a main artery and it had to be broad. The municipality of Baghdad, composed of some of the best families in town, balked and set an enormous sum for compensation of lost property, and then tried to cut their own deals with the Pasha in secret. The British commercial houses, meanwhile, were equally horrified. The famous Lynch merchant shipping company stood to lose its main offices if the street was to be continued further, and the British Consul sent Nazim Pasha a stormy memorandum ordering him to cease and desist because his construction work was liable to cut right through the gardens of the British Legation.As a result of all of all of these attacks, Nazim Pasha was recalled to Istanbul. His successor was not as aggressive, and was able to work out agreements both with the British as well as Iraqis to continue the project, but with several detours to mollify Nazim Pasha’s aggrieved constituents.
In March 2004, I tried to pass by the street with the elegant colonnades but was told that it had been closed off by the American army because it housed the Central Bank, which was always prone to attack. And in fact, an attack did occur several weeks back in which a Bank guard was killed by unknown assailants. I saw the street last in June 2003; it had become a trash-strewn, scruffy area where forlorn children lived on dirty pavements. How different it was in 1916. I’ve seen old photographs that show it in its prime. I think that one of the first municipal improvements in the new Iraq must be to return Rasheed street to its historic grandeur, and in the process, house the disenfranchised population that have made it their home.
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