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Remnant of a Humanist Past

A 13th-century Baghdad building saved Greek civilization



SEPTEMBER 20, 2008




In the subliminal life of cities, the historical remnants of a golden age can act like a layer of conscience, a nagging reminder from the past to the present of the heights that life can attain. Across China, from Beijing to Kashgar, for example, one can almost hear the reproach of the ancients being deliberately silenced by the brutish juggernaut of the new China. Along Turkey's Mediterranean shore, the classical ruins are eloquent testimony of how perfectly life could be situated in nature -- in contrast to the past decade's concrete coastal sprawl.

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Madrassa al Mustansiriya

Corbis Courtyard of the Madrassa al Mustansiriya.


But nowhere is the reproach more audible than in Baghdad, so horribly has the modern era squandered a humanist legacy going back to the medieval Caliphs. In the city itself, past and present contrast most palpably at the 13th-century Madrassa al Mustansiriya, arguably Baghdad's most celebrated surviving building. The Madrassa was constructed during the second efflorescence of Abbasid culture by the Caliph al Mustansir between 1227 and 1234, before the obliterating Mongol invasion of 1258.

Once the world epicenter of medical sciences, the Madrassa also taught theology, mathematics, jurisprudence, astrology and the like. When historians remind us that Greek medicine and philosophy was lost to the world until Islamic civilization interceded, this is precisely the kind of place where much of that rescue happened. The Greeks were translated into Arabic by the Christians of the region, who passed on the scholarship to Islamic thinkers chiefly through the learning centers of Abbasid Baghdad. Caliphs had Christian physicians whose systematic medical doctrines -- the first to require the testing and licensing of physicians -- spread throughout the medieval world.

When William Dalrymple, in his 1993 book "Delhi, City of Djinns," went in search of Delhi's "Unani" medicine, he was looking for the last practitioners of the Baghdad tradition that Turkic Silk Route dynasties such as the Ghaznavids and Moghuls had transplanted to India. (The Turkish unan means Ionian, or Greek.)

These days, the Madrassa al Mustansiriya's appalling environs point up its past glories more poignantly than ever. The sepia rectangular building sits on the edge of the Tigris in the troubled, not to say lethal, Sunni neighborhood of Fadal in downtown Baghdad (not to be mistaken with Mustansiriya University in a Shiite area).

Fadal was overtaken by al Qaeda elements in 2004, and though it joined the pro-government Sunni "Awakening Councils" movement earlier this year, it remains effectively segregated, a strictly no-go area for interlopers.

[Baghdad building]Corbis

The ceiling from a gallery corridor facing it.

The city's sectarian neighborhoods impose a kind of facial uniform; the extreme Sunni style, borrowed from the Afghans, is a straggly beard with no mustache. I found this out the hard way while attempting to visit the Madrassa. Entering Fadal by car through an adjacent area, my two clean-shaven Baghdadi companions and I were stopped and nearly kidnapped. When we finally got to the official Iraqi army outpost near the Madrassa, the soldiers rebuked us fiercely for our stupidity. They added that we were now putting their lives at risk simply by asking for their help. And yet they were kind enough to escort us along the narrow dark lane behind a souk to the Madrassa's wooden door set into a high portal carved with interlacing geometric patterns.

Its inner pointed-arch striations narrowing down to become a doorway, the gorgeous portal rises vertically above the middle of the mudbrick rectangle's long, front wall. The portal's recessed patternwork is always either partially or fully shaded, and as the light moves it seems to provoke the arabesques into a visual madrigal. The first Bedouins seeing the sun pricking through their tent fabrics must have envisioned this starry texture. Inside the 157-by-348-foot building is an oblong courtyard surrounded by four internal porches (iwans) and arched galleries on two floors. One feels at once the enveloping tranquility of ancient quiet and symmetry. No one visits the place anymore, according to the custodian -- certainly no one else was there during our visit. Sharply aligned shadows fall across the pointed archways in strict parallels. You walk across the courtyard into the arabesqued porch directly opposite the entrance and you are in a weirdly high single-file corridor like those secret passages in the innards of Egyptian pyramids.

The corridor runs the length of the building, opening -- through narrow arched doorways -- into high rooms where students prayed, slept, bathed, debated or ate in minimalist sepia surroundings. One senses that the fusion of spartan aesthetics with warm brick tones embodied the mood of the place as a disciplined learning ambience for the young -- many of whom were far from home. Each of the four iwans hosted one of the four main branches of the Sunni faith -- the Hanbali, Shafii, Hanefi and Maliki -- separated by geography and the influence of different cultures. The Madrassa aimed, among other things, to restore harmony among Sunni Islam's diverging strains.

The vertical stature of the rooms, the eye's upsweep upon entry, is no mere aesthetic effect, though. Ancient residential designers learned to catch the wind at a height and funnel it through ducts around buildings and into rooms. Hence the narrow corridor and the ducts atop the vaulted spaces. Some of the rooms -- oratories, to be precise -- feature a little aperture in the wall, about 15 feet up. The teacher would appear above his students like a saint in a niche or a figurine in a monumental clock-tower.

In the end, the golden age dwindled, as did the Madrassa in importance, eventually becoming a place of business, a hospital and a military barracks while the West picked up civilization's baton from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution and beyond. The Madrassa, like the culture around it, was too insulated from fresh ideas arising beyond Islam and yet not enough protected from its own kind, suffering waves of Muslim conflicts down the centuries.

In 1945 the British, as the governing authority, launched the renovation process. Photos from that time show half-collapsed, moldering mud walls. Saddam Hussein continued improvements, and the place became a secular cultural center -- but it was one whose ideas clearly didn't harmonize with those of the immediate neighborhood. The Iraqi soldiers escorting us understood this. They were terrified that a hostile reception committee would greet us beyond the walls. The inhabitants didn't want outsiders polluting a building that, ironically, they themselves never visited.

Mr. Kaylan writes about culture for the Journal.

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