Historical Notes: Rape, pillage and slaughter in Baghdad

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The Independent Culture
RECENT ATTACKS on Iraq have been regretted by almost everyone familiar with the history of that benighted land. Its historical records are packed with evidence that it was a dangerous place long before Saddam Hussein gained power. And so it will surely remain until generals and statesmen, like scholars, attempt to enter the Arab mind and learn from the past. Meanwhile, ancient conflicts are re-enacted with the same results - the alienation of the Iraqi people and the prolongation of a tradition of violence that has haunted Baghdad for centuries.

Founded in AD 762 as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphs, Baghdad became a centre of Islamic culture and a nodal point on the trade routes connecting India, Persia and China with Europe and Asia Minor. The decline that followed its subjection to the Mongols in 1258 ended in the 16th century when it joined the Ottoman Empire. After Turkey's defeat in the First World War, the region became a British mandate. With British support a Hashemite monarchy was established in 1921. Its British connections were always unpopular and never more so than after the Suez crisis. In July 1958, the royal family was massacred and Iraq became a republic in which the Baath socialist party acquired the powers which are now monopolised by Saddam Hussein.

Against this backdrop, the early 19th century stands out as a period of strife, destitution and foreign intervention. The region, then called Mesopotamia or Turkish Arabia, was ruled by Mamelukes. Although officially servants of the Ottoman sultans in Constantinople, they wielded power locally. Like Saddam Hussein, however, they lived in constant dread of deposition - or worse. Of the nine Mamelukes who ruled Iraq until 1831, six were either murdered or executed.

The last Mameluke ruler, Daud Pasha, was born in Tiflis in 1767. He was sold as a pretty child in Baghdad's slave market and later in life he exploited his looks, erudition and connections to ensure a brilliant career. As "Pasha of Baghdad, Bussorah and Courdistan", he dazzled visitors with the splendour of his audience chamber, the uniforms of his guards, the ceremonials of his court. "His state," wrote the dilettante and archaeologist Sir Robert Ker Porter, "was perfectly that of a royal prince." Beneath the surface, however, violence was endemic. Accounts of the period state that "towns and lands were sold to be governed by this or that favourite slave or genial courtier, Aghas still bullied, troopers still raped and robbed". British traders deplored the Pasha's disapproval of their privileges, while the Sultan, Mahmud II, as a moderniser and devotee of Rossini operas, considered him and all Mamelukes an offensive anachronism. In 1830 orders arrived from Constantinople: Daud Pasha must surrender his authority to direct Turkish rule.

The events which followed his refusal to obey were horrifying. After the strangling of the Sultan's emissary, Turkish armies were sent to install the appointed successor, Ali Ridha. Meanwhile another force had arrived - the plague. In April 1831, 7,000 people fell victim to it. As Ali Ridha's sponsors besieged Baghdad, famine set in. Dogs devoured the dead while orphans wept and adults looted and burned the grandest houses including the Pasha's. The Tigris river then flooded its banks and destroyed 7,000 houses.

In September, Daud Pasha accepted a compromise enabling him to save his honour and guarantee his Mamelukes compensation for accepting the new regime. The latter were assembled in the palace courtyard when Ali Ridha made his entry. Within minutes his Albanian guards had received secret orders. Rushing forward they slaughtered the Mamelukes to a man. Meanwhile Daud Pasha had left Baghdad for his estate at Bursa. After a period of rest, he became Wali of Bosnia and, finally, Guardian of the Prophet's Tomb at Medina, where he died in 1851.

Alan Rush is the editor of `Records of Iraq' (Archive Editions: 15 volumes, pounds 3,995)