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Baghdad: Symbol of Islamic Glory

24 January 2023

Interview with Dr Julia Gonnella

Baghdad: Eye’s Delight, on view at the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) until 25 February, celebrates the city’s history and ongoing legacy. MIA's director, Dr Julia Gonnella, walks us through the unique significance the city holds in the Arab world and beyond.

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Q. What makes this exhibition special?

Dr Julia Gonnella: This exhibition is the first exhibition on the city of Baghdad ever put together by a major international museum. We really wanted to celebrate the outstanding legacy of this important Middle Eastern town, not only for visitors to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ but also as part of the Year of Culture dedicated to the MENASA region. The city, its history and culture mean so much in the Arab/Islamic world but alas, due to the wars and miseries of the past forty years, this legacy has gone out of focus, especially for many of our international visitors.

Q. What does Baghdad represent to Qatar and to the Arab/Islamic world?

Gonnella: Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid caliphs for five centuries (762 to 1258 CE) when the Arab world ruled the globe. The city certainly stands for a ‘Golden Age’ in Islamic history and needs to be considered alongside other legacy capitals such as Athens, Beijing, Rome or London that have made an impact on global history. As the seat of the caliphs, it was a city of power that, with its impressive palaces, gardens and sporting grounds, had a visual impact on the world outside. The investment in trade and infrastructure led to a thriving economy with global outreach but also strong domestic industries. Above all, Baghdad is synonymous with outstanding scholarship, as the caliphs invested in schools, libraries and academia. The translation movement and Baghdad’s contributions to the sciences of the world cannot be overestimated. At the same time, it was also the capital of the arts, music and literature that impacted generations to come.


Baghdad, City of Commerce and Industries. General view with the central table display


Baghdad, City of Commerce and Industries. General view from the central table display, with travel posters and historical maps, loans from QNL, Qatar National Library, Doha

Q. The exhibition takes visitors on an imaginary tour of Baghdad over many centuries. What will they take away from the experience?

Gonnella: We hope visitors realise that Baghdad was an overriding political and economic centre in the 9th and 10th centuries under the rule of the Abbasid caliphs as well as an outstanding intellectual and artistic centre with world-leading scientific developments and innovations and a magnet for great scholars and thinkers.

The exhibition reveals that Baghdad’s culture did not cease to exist after the devastating Mongol conquest of the city in 1258, which is often seen as the downfall of Abbasid/Arab rule, but instead continued to be an important centre, especially with the discovery of oil in the 20th century when it became a political, economic and cultural hub again.

Visitors will see how the legacy of Abbasid Baghdad contributed to the artistic production of the 20th century.

Q. What new research or new information does the exhibition present? What do you think visitors will find surprising?

Gonnella: We believe that the combination and juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern will come as a surprise to many who might not expect how the legacy of Baghdad has lived on. It is important to note that the exhibition is not conceived as a linear chronological story like in a normal history book. Instead it is more of a walk through a city that wants to be explored, leading you through different spheres of the city life. It is very evocative, with strong emotional parts in it like poetry, films, pictures and music. People will recognize some things they know but also discover new things.

The exhibition catalogue includes many articles by international scholars on various topics of Baghdad, its history, infrastructure, architecture and urban planning, but also the arts, both ancient and modern.

Q. How does this exhibition fit into MIA's position as home to one of the most comprehensive collections of Islamic art in the world?

Gonnella: MIA represents Islamic art of three continents from the 8th to the 19th century. Baghdad was the key urban centre for the entire Islamic world and a huge inspiration, and in the active sense also an instigator of the arts, culture and sciences that influenced generations to come.

This exhibition celebrates the special place Baghdad has in the Arab world and reminds us all that the vision of the city continues to inspire people in Baghdad and beyond.

Dr Julia Gonnella is the Director of MIA.