Home Real Estate Baghdad’s historic homes crumble as real estate booms

Baghdad’s historic homes crumble as real estate booms

by Ozva Admin

BAGHDAD, Oct 6 (Reuters) – Overlooking the Tigris River in Baghdad, a 100-year-old Iraqi mansion sits dilapidated and abandoned. Visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of its faded glory are warned by a sign near the gate that reads: “Danger of Collapse.”

The 16-room building once featured barred windows, delicate carvings, a balcony, and an interior courtyard dotted with fruit trees.

Now, like many of Baghdad’s estimated 2,500 remaining historic houses, it is falling apart. Decades of political turmoil, neglect, skyrocketing real estate prices and lack of funds have taken their toll on the buildings that are part of the city’s architectural past.

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“This is one of the most important heritage houses left,” said Dhikra Sarsam, a founding member of the Burj Babel Initiative, which works to preserve the cultural history of the Iraqi capital.

Built about a century ago, the house had been in disrepair for years, one of its owners, civil engineer and consultant Faiz Falih al-Qassab, told Reuters.

He said the area where the house is located was chosen as the site for an opera house under former President Saddam Hussein and until 2015. No renovations were allowed during that time, but the opera house was never built.

“Now it’s too late to renovate,” he said from his home in neighboring Jordan, where he has kept old furniture salvaged from the Baghdad home.

From his own home, right next to the historic house owned by Qassab, Sarsam works to raise awareness of the need to preserve old Baghdad.

Owners of listed buildings cannot demolish them and the government can provide loans or grants for renovations, if necessary. But the government “is not committing to this at this time,” Sarsam said.

“Unfortunately, there is no budget allocated to support the owners,” Mohammed al-Rubaye, head of media and public relations for the Baghdad mayor’s office, told Reuters.

With the help of UNESCO, the government last year renovated al-Mutanabbi Street, a Baghdad landmark bustling with booksellers and artists. But nearby residential alleys are dotted with crumbling houses and “shanasheel,” traditional balconies with ornate woodwork, are crumbling.

To get around a ban on demolishing listed buildings, owners sometimes flood or set them on fire, Rubaye said.

The reason is clear: Baghdad property prices are high and the sale of land for development is profitable.

The relative stability in Baghdad in recent years and the recovery in oil prices since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 have provided a positive backdrop for the city’s real estate market.

Sarsam sometimes receives calls from neighbors worried about a possible demolition and rushes to the site.

As he walks past the ruins of a 1930s mansion on Baghdad’s Abu Nawas Street, which runs along the eastern bank of the Tigris, Sarsam points out traces of fire darkening its crumbling interior walls.

“It surely didn’t collapse on its own,” Sarsam said. After she contacted authorities, they prevented it from being demolished and cordoned off the building. But her fate remains uncertain.

“This is a great loss for the history of Baghdad. With each house collapsing, Baghdad also loses a part of its identity,” he said.

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Reporting from Charlotte Bruneau in Baghdad and Hams Rabah in Amman; Additional reporting from Haider Kadhim in Baghdad and Muath Freij in Amman; Edited by Dominic Evans and Jane Merriman

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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