Chaldean Architectural Influences Throughout Iraq

By Bedre Konja
For years, Western media has only depicted one kind of reality of Baghdad. The images broadcast an unending sample of

rubble and wreckage as the city’s true and only condition. It is easy to believe the images given the decades of war. The world has been made to believe Baghdad is in a constant saturate of fractured, blown-apart, gouged-out landscape and buildings.

To see beyond the biased eyes of media one will find instead a historic city that perseveres and has clung to its wonderfully amalgamated heritage with tenacity.

Chaldean architects have played a major role in influencing the world with their enduring display of artistic architectural resourcefulness. Since the cradle of civilization began to form, the kingdoms of Chaldea, which ruled the Tigro-Euphrates valley, began to build. The scarcity of timber and the lack of good building-stone except in the limestone tablelands and more distant mountains of upper Mesopotamia, the abundance of lay, and the flatness of the country, imposed upon the builders restrictions of conception, form, and material.

Nonetheless, what emerged from such limited and harsh conditions was nothing short of remarkable. The Chaldeans had attained a high civilization before 4000 B.C., and had for centuries maintained fixed institutions and practiced the arts and sciences.

Excavations at Nippur (Niffer), the sacred city of Chaldea, have uncovered ruins older than the pyramids. The discovery reveals the early knowledge arch and the possession of an advanced culture. The limitation of building materials of the region afforded only the most limited resources for architectural effect. But the Chaldean genius prevailed and has stood the test of time.

Chaldean architects have passed on their genius, resourcefulness, and ability to adapt to different environments from one generation to the next. Chaldeans have long shared their skills and insight with neighboring groups and embraced a variety of styles, approaches, tools, and assembly. The effect has been an everlasting and perseverant showcase of building-art.

The central motif of Baghdad’s architectural evolution is the centuries-old artistry gained by the use of brick as a building material and ornamentation as embellishments to the urban living cells. In fact, much of the architectural skill of Baghdad’s homes and buildings is due to the now sadly declining trade of the ustas or Baghdadi master masons, who excelled at brickwork, which is at the core of the city’s architectural continuity.

From the early Mesopotamian era Chaldean brought forward the building art to the Hellenistic times followed by the stunning architectural configurations of the Abbasid Empire, to the reign of Harun Al Rashid— the combination of time and influences gave the city a unique palimpsest. Combined with Chaldean influences other major milestones in Iraq’s history impact the country’s building designs.

The Ottoman reign beginning in 1534 cast a unique ochre layer over Baghdad. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689), the great French traveler and pioneer of trade, describes Baghdad thus:

“…the houses were always made of vulnerable dried brick work, baked by the sun, of a lovely monochrome hue ranging from creamy beige to ochre to saffron according to the time and light.”

The influence of British rule is 20th century’s layer in the architectural strata of Baghdad. The British were the first directors of the modern Public Works Department (PWD) in Baghdad starting from 1920. It is logical that their education and professional skills had to intermingle with the Iraqi building tradition.

Architect J.M. Wilson, was the director of Baghdad’s PWD at that time, and influential in the planning of an “Arab Architectural Renaissance” in Iraq in the 1920s.

Before the creation of the School of Architecture within Baghdad University in 1959. The houses and public buildings were mostly executed, and sometimes, even designed by ustas. In fact, this superlative knowledge of brickwork has an unbroken connection to the Chaldean times.

The new techniques and designs taken from Europe at the start of the 20th century, combined with the city’s tumultuous socio-political history, lent Baghdad the next stage in an originality that sets it apart from its peer cities like Damascus, Beirut, Aleppo and Cairo.

From the Twenties to the Fifties, residential architecture becomes a model of excellence, inventiveness and know-how. Where the other countries worked with stone, stucco or wood, and before the generalization of the use of concrete for building, brickwork allowed Baghdad to become, along with the birth of its own vernacular style, the harbinger of the architectural renaissance.

The salient features of this period of design co-habitation defined, in residential terms, of classical-cultural aspects such as inner courtyards, personal spaces as per familial absolutes, facades, balconies, intricate detailing on surfaces and introduction of newer materials as design accessories.

Homes in Baghdad began adopting an outward facing design as opposed to the traditional inward facing seclusion of space. The Baghdad of the Twenties to the Fifties became wealthier and its urban visual identity became absolutely unique. Despite their common points, its Ottoman bay windows with those of Beirut; nor to take a Baghdadi Shanasil for a corbelled window in Aleppo, or its ‘urban cottages’ for those existing in Tehran; the Neo-Baroque style of Waziriya is not the same as that in Alexandria, its peacock-feather balcony railings are not to be confused with those of New Delhi.

The architectural future of Baghdad remains in flux as decades of neglect, abandonment and dilapidation. The quarter century of wars have provoked a huge exoduses of educated Iraqi people, professors, and architects.