A tale of two capitals

Julie Badiee

January 22, 1993|By Julie Badiee

THERE was fire in the skies of two of the world's great cities this week. President Bush sent missiles to the ancient metropolis of Baghdad, and the answering anti-aircraft fire filled the sky with flashes of light.

Tragically, one of those anti-aircraft shots deflected a cruise missile aimed at a military target and sent it into a hotel crowded with conference-goers. The resulting outpouring of anger at the death of innocent civilians solidified the hatred of the population of Baghdad toward the U.S., threatened the fragile coalition pressing the West's case in Iraq and immeasurably strengthened local support for Saddam Hussein.

On that same date there were also fires in the skies of Washington, as fireworks celebrated the arrival of a new president, Bill Clinton. In this context, the fires stood for hope -- a word often heard these days. The light in the skies illuminated the faces of the young and the poor as they clasped hands and walked with the new president and his family across the Memorial Bridge over the Potomac. The next day in Baghdad the people also marched in the streets, but it was in funeral processions for those killed in the bombing raids.

Did any Americans make a connection between the lights over Baghdad and the lights in the night skies of Washington?

There are some interesting parallels between the two cities. Both were planned as capitals built on previously unpopulated sites and conceived as model urban centers. Baghdad was founded in 762 A.D., a carefully designed city that was circular in shape. At its center was the residence of the caliph, from which streets radiated into the city.

The central complex was marked by a dominant green dome that functioned as a symbol for the city. Washington, founded almost a thousand years later, was also a carefully planned city, and its designer, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, conceived of it as a series of circular round-abouts with the dome of the Capitol as a central point.

Both cities were founded as symbols of emerging political systems -- Washington as the capital of the newly born United States of America and Baghdad as the center of the vast and expanding Islamic empire.

As a reflection of the Islamic dream of a new world order coming into being, the city of Baghdad was given the name "City of Peace." Both of these dreams, those of the founders of the American republic and those who follow the tenets of Islam, have proven to be powerful and inspiring to generations of people.

The two cities subsequently developed into centers for extraordinary multi-cultural empires with people of many races, ethnic groups and religions living side by side. Islam, as practiced in medieval Baghdad, called for tolerance toward Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, and the general atmosphere of acceptance also drew Buddhists, Hindus and others to live in the city.

The wealth pouring into both of these cities from all over the world led to a cultural flowering and, in their time, both Washington and Baghdad became pre-eminent centers of art, literature, science, architecture and learning. In the 9th century, an institution called the House of Wisdom initiated a massive translation project in which surviving manuscripts from the ancient world were translated into Arabic.

It is because of this project that the legacy of Greek science was rescued from oblivion and later transmitted to the West. Ironically, it was the acquisition of this knowledge that laid the basis for the West's ability to develop the weapons used to bomb Baghdad.

The glittering capital of medieval Baghdad is no more, for it was long ago buried under the streets of the modern city. The echoes of the Baghdad of the caliphs persist, however, in the stories of the "Thousand and One Nights" and characters like Scheherazade and Sinbad the Sailor. How many of us have thought about how the city we bomb today is the same one fantasized in one of our most popular recent films, Disney's "Aladdin"?

Baghdad remained the site of the Islamic caliphate for almost 500 years until 1258, when the last caliph was sewn up in a carpet and trampled to death under the horses of the Mongol invaders. Even after this disaster, when most of the inhabitants of the city were massacred in the streets, Baghdad endured for centuries as an intellectual center.

Washington, too, has been tested by fire, but the span of its existence is too short to assess its contributions to history. This week's celebrations, however, speak of the ascendancy of this American city, while the rubble and funeral marches of Baghdad tell of its decline.

In Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons plants and in hibiological warfare laboratories, it is difficult to find any echoes of what was once dreamed of as the City of Peace. Sadly, the light over Baghdad proclaims the failures not only of Saddam Hussein and of George Bush, but of the whole of humanity.

We can dream our dreams, we can celebrate our ideals, but we have not yet found any way but violence to settle our disputes. It is in the specter of this universal failure that the lights in the skies of the cities of Washington and Baghdad are most fatally linked.

Julie Badiee teaches the art and culture of Islam as professor o art history at Western Maryland College. She is currently working on an introductory textbook on Islamic art.

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