Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Friday, July 17, 2009

What Remains: The Shrine of Gurgur Baba of Baghdad

I had been snooping around the alleyways of Old Baghdad, trying to figure what the scope of a multi-billion renovation and gentrification of the area would look like. Of course, the billions required are still far from being allocated, but one can dream, right?

The challenge is to first identify what remains, and what is worth preserving. I was running by a map prepared by Captain James Felix Jones in the mid-1850s of Old Baghdad, the contours of which—alleyways, where the walls used to lie, some of the more important landmarks—can still be matched with the images from Google Earth.

Much of my quest was heartbreaking, for very little remains or can be rehabilitated. I zeroed in on several tasks, one of which was to locate the Bektashi tekkyas (plural of tekkya, a Sufi-leaning house of worship), which I first took note of after corresponding with a Turkish graduate student at Harvard conducting research on the heritage of Bektashism in Iraq.

There were two or three tekkyas on the Karkh (Western) side of Old Baghdad. According to anecdotal evidence, one used to be located near the former site of the statue of Adnan Kheirallah (now removed) in the Shawwaka neighborhood. A historian told a friend of mine that it had been recently blown up by Al-Qaeda who used to control the area, but asking around about the former site of the tekkya or a landmark that had been blown up by the jihadists only drew blank stares. There is a tekkya, which according to the people there only came into use four years ago, and has since been abandoned. There’s a family living there now, and I could be mistaken, since I didn’t take a picture of it and since I had seen quite a lot of stuff that day (…and it was hot and dusty), but the newly made sign above the doorway may have said that it was a Rifa’iyya tekkya. This does not rule out that it was indeed the Bektashi tekkya I was looking for (…even though it was a couple of alleyways off from the directions I had been given), for many Bektashi tekkyas were awarded and re-awarded to other Sufi orders throughout history.

The second tekkya’s history is more grounded in documented fact. It used to be located near the Shrine of Khidhir Ilyas on the water’s edge of the Tigris. It is not clear whether the tekkye itself was located on the water, or whether it was merely nearby. The immediate area around the shrine is now an empty lot, but a short distance away from the water is another Rifa’i tekkya. I was told that there are seven tombstones within this tekkye, but I couldn’t get inside since the family that lives there was out for the day. Had it been a Bektashi tekkye at one stage then one could determine that from the inscriptions and motifs on the tombstones.

The third tekkya was on the water’s edge where the Beiruti café now stands. No trace of the old structure remains. In the past it was located outside the city gates, on the road to Kadhimain.

The most important tekkya in Baghdad though, was on the Rusafa (eastern) side of the city. It was part of a complex around the shrine of Gurgur Baba (sometimes rendered ‘Baba Gurgur’…of the ‘eternal flame’ fame near Kirkuk). Satellite imagery wasn’t reassuring, since much of that area had been built-up or modern roads were cut across it. The other point was that historians of Old Baghdad seemed totally unaware of the existence of this shrine/tekkya. But I set out anyway, since I saw a dome that could have been what I was looking for.

This was the area behind the Ahmadi Mosque, bordered on the north by the street that takes you to the Haidarkhana Mosque, and on the east by the Maidan and the Ministry of Defense. To the south lies the Qishla, the old Ottoman barracks. The whole area is marked in Jones’ map as the ‘Gurgur Baba neighborhood’.

I found the dome, but it turned out to be a Shiite shrine; the burial place of one of the representatives of the Mahdi. I was momentarily crestfallen, but then some busybody across the street, probably suspecting that I was showing too much interest in the shrine at a time when such places get blown up, came up to me and asked what I was looking for. I said I was looking for ‘Gurgur Baba’ and he matter-of-factly told me that it was the next alleyway down. I didn’t know what to make of it, since I’ve received so many directions those days that gave me some hope but turned out to be false leads.

I went into that alleyway and again asked for ‘Gurgur Baba’. This was a closed alleyway, as in it was roofed, and consisted of several upholstery workshops. Another guy told that it the shrine was just down the alleyway, but I could barely hear him with the generator and several saws operating at full throttle. I overshot the place and came to a small empty lot. I thought, oh well, yet another empty space in the landscape of what went missing over the centuries. But then, a workshop owner that I had passed motioned to me and I walked back to him. He asked me what I was up to and after hearing me out said, “Oh, Gurgur Baba is right through here.”

We walked into his shop, full of furniture being stuffed with sponges, and furniture that will be cannibalized for parts, and at the very end was a half-opened metal door, with debris mounded behind it. The guy said, “That’s Gurgur Baba,” motioning for me to climb over the debris of sponges, metal springs, bricks and wood beams. Surely enough, a wooden casket with it top broken in by a fallen roof could be made out. A small epitaph engraved in stone marked the spot where Gurgur Baba was buried.

I was ecstatic. Something remains! Or at least enough of it that can be rebuilt! A small part of the heritage of Baghdad was there, waiting to be resurrected. The winds flooded into my sails, and I was propelled forward, full of hope for more finds.

The tekkya was built in 1670. It mainly served the Janissaries who were housed in the Ottoman fort nearby, many of whom were adepts of the Bektashi order. The tekkya was also frequented by one of the most important Ottoman personages to rule over Baghdad, the modernizing Vali and statesman Midhet Pasha. At some point, it fell into disuse, and the Awqaf department that oversees religious sites, divided up the tekkya into workshops and rented them out. Within recent memory, the roof over Gurgur Baba fell in. The last group of Turkish pilgrims to visit the shrine are said to have come by in the 1970s.

I don’t know much about who Gurgur Baba was supposed to be, but I’ll keep researching, and I’ll fill you in. I’m hoping that this post would encourage other Baghdadis to seek out their heritage and to figure out ways of preserving it. The point is that every single religious and ethnic group in Iraq has a symbolic foothold in the capital, Baghdad. I could go through a long list, but our immediate topic, Gurgur Baba, could be significant for the Shabaks near Mosul, and the townspeople of Taza near Kirkuk, where a Bektashi tekkya is still operational.

Here are some pictures from the site:

click to enlarge

Did I mention that I'm trying to put together a 'Rebuilding the Gurgur Baba Shrine' fundraiser? A roof can be put up for a couple of grand, but doesn't Gurgur Baba deserve a turqoise-tiled dome? That comes with a 40,000 USD price tag...ahemmm...


Blogger Unknown said...

Good work, restoration is worth more but should be part of a bigger project..and funding that will not be wasted by corruption..hmmm

Faisal Kadri

9:43 AM, July 17, 2009

Blogger Jeff said...

This is a wonderful post! It's such a privilege to read commentary on Iraqi political and military questions from someone who really knows about and cares about Iraq as a whole and isn't just trying to prove some point or sustain some narrative.

Thanks for what you do with your life.

9:16 PM, July 20, 2009

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Glad to see you back! I love the description of your search, I could feel the heat, sand, dust and hear all the sounds!

Keep writing. I'm learning from you.

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