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Basra: The 'Venice' of the East

posted on: Apr 14, 2021

Basra: The ‘Venice’ of the East

By: Pamela Dimitrova / Arab America Contributing Writer

Basra has a long history with a rich culture and an identity distinct from its more northern cousin Baghdad. While Baghdad developed the busy urban character typical of capital cities, this city retained more of a romantic quality and is often called the most beautiful part of Iraq.


Basra was founded by Caliph Umar I in 638 c.e. It is the Bassorah of the Arabian Nights and Sinbad. In 1534, Basra was made part of the Ottoman Empire by Sultan Sulayman, who incorporated Iraq into his empire; along with Baghdad and Mosul, Basra was designated one of the vilayets (provinces) of Ottoman Iraq. Although the Mamluks ruled Iraq for several centuries, the Ottomans reestablished their authority in 1831, ousting the Mamluks and forcefully subjugating the tribal areas. British companies meanwhile established a sphere of influence, strengthening ties with tribal shaykhs and controlling the import–export market. The strategic position of Basra as a link in the overland route to Asia or the Mediterranean created a competition between the Ottomans, Germans, British, and Indians.

‘The Venice of the East’

Many referred to Basra as the Middle Eastern Venice for its rivers, winding canals, and decorative gondola-shaped boats that bared exported goods and newlyweds.

The picturesque qualities of Basra have attracted a number of artists, poets and intellectuals over the years. Early on in its tumultuous history, it was known as a great centre of learning and theology and many figures important to the history of Islam were born or lived there, including the female Sufi mystic Rabia al-Basri and the polymath Alhazen. Perhaps most famously, it is also the city where Sinbad the Sailor began his seven voyages. An island in the river now bears his name in commemoration.

An interesting fact is that some people believe Basra is the actual location of the Garden of Eden.

‘Where Many Paths Meet’

The etymology of Basra is uncertain, but some claim the name comes from Arabic and it means “the over watching” or “the seeing everything”, because of its role as a military base in the ancient past.  Some sources suggest it comes from the Persian Bas-rāh or Bassorāh meaning “where many paths meet.”

In fiction, the city has sometimes appeared in novels characterised as a kind of geographic crossroads. In Voltaire’s Zadig (1747), the protagonist visits Basra and meets with travelers and religious leaders from around the world; “It was no little consolation […] to see so many men of different countries assembled in the same place. It seemed to him that the universe was one large family which gathered together at Bassora.”

In H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1933), he describes the Second Conference at Basra, a similar scene where world leaders come to meet and discuss important matters. In Wells’s future history, however, religious beliefs have been suppressed and, in an inversion of history, Basra is made the center state of an atheist world purged of Islam and all other major religions.

The “Fall”…

For centuries, its strategic position was transfigured at a crossroads of commerce and in a coveted square, the scene of battles between a number of nations. His current decline was born in the 1980s. Basra was disfigured by the war between Iraq and Iran and sank with international sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s regime. The 2003 American invasion and the arrival of a new ruling elite in Baghdad did not heal the visible wounds in the streets of the town, an icon of the ravages of corruption and abandonment. “Basra is a devastated city, with destroyed agriculture. Now it is reckless to compare it with Venice, ” says Wisam Jaafer, author of a full report that stripped months ago the shame of what was once the cultural center of Iraq.

The promises of help that have been voiced by international agencies since last year and the Government to placate the anger still do not arrive. The city – which still offers as its main attractions the island from which, according to legend, Simbad the sailor began his travels and the palm groves that grow in the suburbs, crammed with the tastiest dates in the country – has lost the old snapshots of his Belle Époque, when residents and outsiders furrowed the canals while on the banks the crowd danced to the rhythm of the music coming from the West and the liters of alcohol ran carefree. Nothing remains now where he inhabited everything. Those who still live in Basra have turned their backs on the river, guided by worry and fear. “There is no way to be more than two minutes near the canals. Its stench is unbearable. The water is full of rats and offal. The Iraqi dream has vanished,” Al Hasan gloomy concludes.

… and the “Rise”

Basra, however, is not giving up and it slowly started to build itself again aver the past destructions. The province it’s rich in oil and also one of the richest in the whole country, giving the people of Basra the confidence to aim for the skies… literally.

In 2015, the British-Iraqi architecture firm – AMBS revealed they want to build the “world’s tallest building”, calling it The Bride of the Gulf, and it will be 230 stories – 1,152 meters – high. That’s roughly the Burj Khalifa with the Shard on top of it.

shared their idea of building a “vertical city”, with four interlinked towers of varying heights, containing not just offices and hotels and the usual stuff, but also “its own transport systems, schools, clinics, and neighborhoods”. There’s also a vast canopy over a public area at the base of the towers, called “The Veil”.

Basra is a prosperous and relatively peaceful city these days, “more like Kuwait than Baghdad”. The tentacles of the Islamic State are at least 600km away. There’s oil money sloshing around. There are new cars on all the new roads. Five-star hotels and a new sports stadium recently opened (Basra is football-crazy, apparently). The government is working on a new masterplan for the growing city, of which the publicly funded Bride would be the centerpiece.


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