Justin Marozzi

Diary – 29 August 2009

Justin Marozzi opens his diary

I’m researching a new history of Baghdad. What strikes you most about this unfortunate part of the world is how extreme violence and bloodshed have been endemic to the city from its foundation by the Abbasid Caliph Mansur in ad 762 to the present day. Baghdad may have been christened the City of Peace but, as Richard Coke wrote in the last history of the Iraqi capital in English, published in 1927, a year after Gertrude Bell’s death, ‘The story of the City of Peace is largely the story of continuous war.’ Hardline Sunnis were impaling and burning alive ‘heretic’ Shia 1,000 years ago. Jews and Christians occasionally got it in the neck, too, and caliphs were always on the lookout for more ingenious methods of inflicting pain. An Iraqi colleague is translating a seven-volume Abbasid treatise on torture for me. They have been lopping off heads here for ever. The caliph Hadi (785-786) once interrupted a banquet to rush off and personally behead two of his slave girls who had been caught having an illicit lesbian affair. His companions were horrified to see his eunuch bring the bloodied, bejewelled heads to the table on a platter. A dear Iraqi friend calls from Baghdad. He has already lost several family members in the violence since 2003; four more of his relatives were badly wounded in the huge bombing outside the foreign ministry, some of them blinded by the blast. ‘Perhaps it is our destiny to live like this,’ he says.

The highlight of a hellishly hot visit to Baghdad was a down-the-line interview with Sandi Toksvig for her excellent programme Excess Baggage. We discussed some of Herodotus’s observations on the curious sexual customs of foreign peoples. The Greek historian was much taken by the unique post-coital habits of the Babylonians, who used to fumigate their genitals with incense after a bout of lovemaking.

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