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Baghdad Before the Bombs On Assignment

Baghdad Before the Bombs On Assignment

Before the Bombs
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.


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Baghdad on the Brink of War
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Text and photographs by Alexandra Boulat



In the run-up to war, a photographer trains her camera on a city about to be changed forever.



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Palestine Hotel: March 19. The mood is so different today. People are scrambling to the shops to stock up on supplies. Families are packing, taping their windows, phoning overseas relatives one last time. Everyone in Baghdad knows war is about to crash down on them, but no one knows when. It's hard to sleep or think clearly. So you've got a city of five million people who are completely stressed out and sleep deprived. You can see it in their faces.

It's strange because even just last week, people were still trying to keep up a normal life, acting like nothing bad would happen. When I got here in January, I thought the Iraqis were in denial or maybe so hardened by past wars that they really weren't afraid. But after talking to people, I realized they thought the idea of foreigners invading their country was crazy. They simply couldn't believe it might really happen. So people carried on as if everything was fine. Just a few weeks ago I went to a wedding celebration that lasted two days and no one talked of war. It seemed as if everyone in Baghdad was getting married, fussing over food and clothes, and spending a fortune. If I didn't know better, I'd have thought Iraq was on holiday, with spring just around the corner.

Now suddenly soldiers are piling sandbags everywhere. Most journalists have pulled out, and who can blame them? But I've decided to stay. I've been traveling around Iraq for months looking for clues to what is real here in the lives of ordinary Iraqis. It's been difficult to figure out what people truly think and feel, made harder by the guys from Iraq's Ministry of Information who've been assigned to watch my every move. But I've been here long enough, and kept my profile low enough, that occasionally people relax and let their guard down.

Even now, on the eve of war, most of the Iraqis I talk to believe they will survive. I spent the other evening with a well-to-do woman whose villa was filled with art and antiques. She has decided not to leave Baghdad. To protect her belongings against any damage, she had packed up most of her furniture. But the next morning she woke up in her empty house and felt so depressed that she unpacked everything. She says she's not worried about the war, but about what will happen afterward. Who will rule Iraq? Will there be a civil war? What will be left standing? Will Iraq survive as a country? These are the biggest questions of all, and no one here can answer them.

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Multimedia

VIDEO Spared injury from tank mortar fired on her hotel, photographer Alexandra Boulat recounts life in Baghdad from the prelude to the height and aftermath of war.

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer  WinMedia


Audio

Author/Photographer Alexandra Boulat files audio reports from the streets of Baghdad.


Audio

Bombs in the distance hang as a sobering backdrop to the call to prayer, sounds of life and war from the streets of Baghdad.


Forum

As the international community debates how to rebuild Iraq, where do you see the country going from here? Share your thoughts.


Flashback

To 1925 when King Faisal I ruled Iraq from his opulent palace.




More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
In A.D. 762 the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur began construction of a new administrative center at a place where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow close to each other and were joined by a canal. Al-Mansur named his new capital Madinat al-Salam, meaning City of Peace, but the name by which we know the city, Baghdad, comes from earlier settlements at the site and may date from as long ago as the time of Hammurapi, about 1800 B.C.

Detailed accounts written at the time of construction and in the years following when Baghdad was the cultural center of the Islamic world relate that al-Mansur built the core of his city as an enormous fortified circle almost a mile and half in diameter. The circle was cut by four equally spaced gates, and from each gate a broad, paved road arrowed toward the center, piercing a series of walls before reaching the palace in a central square. A traveler arriving at Baghdad—perhaps for an audience with the caliph—would first cross a moat some 65 feet (20 meters) wide and then go through an outer wall, reported to have been 30 feet (10 meters) thick. Inside that wall, the traveler crossed a wide ring of open ground surrounding a second wall. This wall, the main defense wall, was 150 feet (45 meters) thick at its base and 100 feet (30 meters) high. Inside the main wall, our traveler found another open ring, although in this space the avenue he traveled on was lined with arcades for shops and markets. From the primary roads, streets were carefully laid out for residential areas designed to include neighborhood mosques and baths.  Continuing toward the center of the city, the traveler passed through a third wall and at last entered the inner circle of Baghdad.  Here stood the caliph's palace, topped by a great green dome that rose to a height of 150 feet (45 meters) and was surmounted by a statue of a horseman. Flanking the palace were the caliph's mosque, houses for the royal family, and offices for important administrative departments.

Today nothing remains that can be identified as a part of al-Mansur's city. Almost as soon as it was completed the public markets were moved outside the circular walls for security purposes. Suburbs grew around the market and soon spread to both sides of the Tigris. Later caliphs built new palaces outside the walls and soon the old section fell into disrepair.  After a disastrous flood in 1075, the caliph took down a portion of the original fortifications and then, over time, as the city grew and building materials were needed, the old city simply disappeared.

—Patricia Kellogg

Did You Know?


Related Links
Baghdad Museum Project
www.baghdadmuseum.org
Take a virtual  tour of the Iraq Museum.  This site, created after the museum was looted in April 2003, posts a history of Iraq, news of the museum's collection, and Web links.

DefenseLINK
www.defenselink.mil
Find photos, news, and Web links  about Iraq on the website of the United States Department of Defense.

ReliefWeb
www.reliefweb.int
Follow humanitarian efforts in Iraq and other countries in crisis  on this site produced by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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Bibliography
Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Henry Holt and Company, 1989.

Goldschmidt, Arthur, Jr.  A Concise History of the Middle East, 7th ed. Westview Press, 2002.

Mackey, Sandra. The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein. W. W. Norton and Company, 2002.

Weit, Gaston. Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate. Trans. Seymour Feiler. University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

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NGS Resources
Edwards, Mike. "Eyewitness Iraq," National Geographic (November 1999), 2-27.

Severy, Merle. "Iraq: Crucible of Civilization," National Geographic (May 1991), 102-115.

Ellis, William S. "New Face of Baghdad: Iraq at War,"  National Geographic (January 1985), 80-109.

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