The Streets of Baghdad… What is Left?

The Streets of Baghdad… What is Left?

The writer explores the main streets of Baghdad with particular emphasis on Al-Rasheed and Abu Nawas Streets. Many of these streets are now ageing, with some of their endearing features being things of the past.

This exploration is not meant to be a lament over the current situation but rather the recovery of consciousness, the revival of a dream and the echoes of unforgettable places and scenes in Baghdad.

Al-Rasheed Street

Nobody can visit Baghdad without strolling along this street where everything invites you to see it , night and day: arches, books in libraries, doctors' clinics, prestigious shops, restaurants, where authentic Iraqi breakfast is served, as if all passers-by were your acquaintances. Each cobble is meaningful and makes you feel you are alive without getting bored, tired or annoyed because of the crowd: it was the stronghold of rebels and criminals, founders of political parties, readers of literary manuscripts, lawyers, cinemas of the golden age of this art, the latest fashions for the capital's aristocrats and old record collections which even the inheritors of the greatest Arab singers do not hold. The street goes parallel to the Tigris as if whispering to each other. It is the street of political turmoil and poems attacking the government by poets whom Iraq had never seen. It is Baghdad's "Fleet Street", with early editions, printing press and proofreaders; classical music, unique carpets, the best blankets, the lightest shoes, etc. Many things you can find only in this street.

The Street's record

As the records show, it is the first street to be paved in Iraq. It dates back to 1915, starting as a commercial, cultural and recreational centre. Every skilled Iraqi architect has contributed to it. The area on which the street was built had been a marketplace before Baghdad was established by Al-Mansour in AD 762. The "Tuesday Market", where villagers used to display their goods every Tuesday on the eastern bank of the Tigris, continued for the duration of the Abbasid caliphate. The market is now called "Al-Agha Gate Market" and is connected to "Al-Sultan Market", which is now called "Midan Square", facing the castle, now the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence, which, according to manuscripts, was built in AD 1338. Being the beginning of Al-Rashead Street and the army HQ, the castle was regarded as a centre of power and later coups d'e'tat and conspiracies. The "Midan Square" used to be a venue for mass rallies, celebrations and festivals and a place where walis' decrees were announced. "Sultan Taghrlbak Gate", now called "Al-Moazzam Gate", was located at the northern entrance of Baghdad during the age of Caliph Al-Mustazher (d. AD1118). It contains the Grand Imam's mausoleum and starts at Midan Square and ends at Sheikh Abdulqadir Al-Kilani's mausoleum.

The street and the river

Contrary to common belief, apart from the River Street, Al-Rasheed Street's alleys do not start from it but rather from the Tigris and extended in vertical and winding form to all of the city's parts and four gates. Accordingly, the Tigris is virtually Baghdad's main street. That's why everything in Baghdad is affected by it. A quick look at a map of today's Baghdad shows that nothing has changed in its general layout since the Abbasid caliphate.

The name tree

Many of Baghdad's familiar landmarks are found in this street : mosques, ministries, banks, inns, bookshops, cafés, markets, cinemas and prestigious shops. There are berths on the Tigris for boats and merchant ships and animals laden with goods.

Straight streets

Medhat Pasha, the wali of Baghdad, was the first to build straight streets in the city, influenced by European urban planning. He was also the first to introduce trams linking Kazimiya to Baghdad. He wanted to connect the Moazzam Gate to the Eastern Gate through a straight street, which is Al-Rasheed street now, mainly to facilitate the movements of the Ottoman forces, but his term of office was too short to carry out that project. Later on, in 1915, Khalil Pasha completed the project. That's why the street was first named "Khalil Pasha Avenue", then the British named it the New Street following the entry of their troops into Baghdad. The then Municipality Chief Raouf Bey Al-Jaderjy shared in building the street influenced by what he saw during his study in Germany. He employed the services of German experts who faced enormous problems in building a straight street : Tigris' alleys causing obstruction; clerics' objection because the street would pass through some endowments; compensation for expropriation.

Many events took place in the street : weddings, demonstrations and film shootings. There were twenty cinemas there, in addition to most of Baghdad's literary and popular cafés and bookshops. Tailors, barbers, jewellers and sweet shops lined both sides of the street, where the tallest communications centre stood. The building was destroyed by successive wars and looting. Some of the biggest banks in the Middle East, including the Iraqi Central Bank and Al-Rafideen Bank, also stood there, and so did a statue of the (poet) Al-Rasafi.

The street's agonies

The street's conditions have changed considerably: its joys have been replaced with agonies; it is now deserted and burnt with most of its markets and elegant shops closed. Traffic has become light. Don't ask passers-by or pedlars why, the reasons are quite clear. In brief, the street has died. In some places in the street you may at any time be attacked by armed gangs robbing you of anything you are carrying, even your shirt buttons: The Arabian souk which provided Iraq with clothes is now burnt with unending smoke. The communications centre has been destroyed and looted. Tens of metres before the banks area the Americans sealed off part of Al-Rasheed street with barbed wire and tanks. Instead of books, oriental rosaries, paintings and classical records, fishermen sell their goods to dispel the last fragrant smells, and thieves display what they stole a few moments earlier. Al-Rashed Street has been lost and its cobbles broken. Its prestige has been destroyed garbage is everywhere; cinemas and mannequins showing the latest fashions have disappeared. The street looks as if it had been dug and turned over by a huge plough. You look here and there, imagining, in vain, what you see were only transient, but the fact is that Al-Rasheed Street, like the rest of Baghdad, is wounded.

The Girls Street

This street used to attract girls who roamed it in their modern clothes and the latest fashions, accessories and shoes. They came to this street to buy handkerchiefs, perfumes or abayas, or for dates. As the street which was originally a long alley became a centre for the capital's women it acquired its new name: the Girls Street. That's why it is very rare to find a Baghdad girl who has never walked along it, However, like Al-Rasheed Street, The Girls' Street is waning and abandoned by its girls, and the "Carnival Passage", which was called the Girls' Street is now worn out and has lost its glamour.

A lit street

Whatever the motives of Nazim Pasha, the wali of Baghdad, for building a lit street at a time Baghdad consisted of unconnected roofed tin boxes, work in the project started in 1910 when early surveyors and road engineers stretched an imaginary rope along its dust alleys and passages and all buildings in its way had to be demolished. Many of the area's notables resisted the wali's plan, that's why the street took a winding shape in the end. However, demolition of most houses and slums started in order to build the street, but the project stopped when the British forces entered Baghdad. Anybody who lived that period can recollect scenes of half-damaged and demolished buildins whose owners failed to rebuild them and were forced to live in the open air without lighting or drainage, and freshwater was only available in water skins carried on donkey back. The first water pump entered Iraq in 1907.

River transport

Following the British occupation of Iraq, trade along the Gulf to Basra and onto Baghdad and Mosul in the north was given a boost. As there was no road or rail transport to carry goods from Basra in the early 1920s, the authorities resorted to river transport, which flourished until the end of World War II and the discovery of oil, which required modern roads. Baghdad's share of rivers was just one: Tigris, which is its lifeline. The River Street at the time was all but the berth where all goods and necessary supplies were loaded. The berth was expanded and developed to include warehouses and retail and wholesale shops, thus becoming by far the most important commercial station in Iraq.

Early khans (inns)

As the above outline of Al-Rasheed Street shows, it has many functions and roles. That required facilities to accommodate its workers, visitors and customers. To that end, the first khans (inns) were built in the River Street, which runs parallel to Al-Rasheed Street and Tigris. Khans (inns) are the equivalent of today's hotels.

The fingers' street

In the past, when a proposal of marriage was made, the prospective bride's mother was not asked about her daughter's beauty, height or education but whether she was good at kitting, sewing and needlework, That's why mothers taught their daughters these activities and how to choose the necessary materials and tools, which was only completed visiting the Girls' Street. Men's clothes are also made and sold here. But, as the street's professionals say, imported ready-made and machine embroidered clothes have reduced demand for local needlework. Furthermore, girls, even Christians and Sabeans, currently prefer wearing Islamic dress and headscarves.


The River Street has maintained its reputation for its skilled Sabean jewellers who made their shops virtual museums with their shop windows showing beautiful gold artifacts, such as Quranic verses. Other goods are also sold in this street, including ready-made women's clothes, make-up and accessories. There are also sewing workshops where women's dresses are made.

Abu Nawas Street

The only street whose lights glitter on the river all year long. Everyone in Baghdad has his reminiscences of this street, with memorable evenings. Many wedding celebrations were held in this street. It is unique by any standard of judgement, with sculptor Muhammad Ali Hekmat's wonderful statues representing the epic of Scheherazade and Shahrayar, together with the words of the poet the street is named after.

The first fall

It was the street's fate that the major powers stayed for months in Palestine and Sheraton Hotels when they first came to Baghdad. It was also the favourite place for the former regime's cronies, who built their housing compounds there, let alone the sight of the Republican Palace, one of the merits of the monarchy in Iraq, on the opposite bank of the Tigris. They chose this street not for security, strategy or tourism considerations but rather out of selfishness and the desire to own good things.

The second waning

We monitored the gradual waning of the street, wishing it were transient, and we even decided not to photograph it, but, alas, the street fell with the free fall of all, when foreign tanks and armoured vehicles filled it and concrete blocks, pipes and sandbags blocked its entrances.

The end of Al-Rasheed Street leads to two paralled directions: Al-Saadoun and Abu Nawas Streets, where signs of sandbags and tall cement walls begin protecting a hotel, a party or a newspaper, up to the Jadriya Bridge, the area near which has been occupied by the current rulers of the country. The place has been turned into a modern military barracks as the new rulers seized the buildings of the former regime who sealed off their area at a certain point, but the area occupied by the new rulers is now without limits.

The early planners of the city did not build Abu Nawas and Al-Saadoun Streets as paralled streets haphazardly, but as they are the two busiest streets in Baghdad according to specialization: business and amuscment respectiverly, with many side streets branching off, where there are many hotels, suite hotels and furnished flats up to Kahramana Square, an area which used to attract foreign tourists.

But there are no visitors to Abu Nawas Street now, as most restaurant, café and shop owners have moved to other places. In addition to grenade attacks and assaults on hotels and parties, the street has become a home for robber gangs who took advantage of the mass migration and occupied abandoned homes. Theatres were looted and burnt in the first days of the country's plunder, an unprecended incident in history.

The fourth dream

Since the first republic in the late 1950s there has been talk about developing Abu Nawas Street, including building a national library, a museum of Baghdad, aquariums and an arts centre. But the former regime did not fulfil any of these wishes which are unlikely to fulfil now, either. There is only serious talk about changing the street's name, following a fatwa that it is inappropriate to name a street after a dissipated poet.


Jamal Hussein Ali


Liberation Square, in central Baghdad, and other old landmarks of the capital as caught by Al-Arabi's camera in the 1970s, when street were safe and decorated with works of art

American forces with their armament and tanks stationed in key locations in Baghdad

American forces with their armament and tanks stationed in key locations in Baghdad

Normal activity and explosions are on and off

Scenes from Baghdad's streets under siege by barricades and barrels. Baghdad Café in still there… with some of the city's old memories hung on the walls

Scenes from Baghdad's streets under siege by barricades and barrels. Baghdad Café in still there… with some of the city's old memories hung on the walls

Scenes from Baghdad's streets under siege by barricades and barrels. Baghdad Café in still there… with some of the city's old memories hung on the walls

Morjana fills the jars with water … Ali Baba's famous story in statue form in central Baghdad. From Al-Arabi's archives in the 1970s

Markets, activity, business and a walk along the river, a desire for bringing life back to normal

Markets, activity, business and a walk along the river, a desire for bringing life back to normal

Al-Rasheed Street, still awaiting the return of its past traffic and joy

Many Iraqi institutions still not functioning and surrounded by barbed wire, waiting in the hope of revitalization

Tigris, the silent witness… The cafés and casinos lining its banks are still damaged, waiting for rebuilding

Tigris, the silent witness… The cafés and casinos lining its banks are still damaged, waiting for rebuilding

Sheraton Hotel roundabout… A picture from the past

Al-Rasheed Bridge… one of Baghdad's distinctive landmarks

Out of the darkness of night a new dawn will break over Baghdad one day, and it will restore its glamour and get rid of its nightmares

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