Iraqi architect and urban planner, Taghlib Abdulhadi Al Waily, shares his passion for Baghdad’s Historical City Centre, and provides insight on the significance of its revitalisation.
Q&A with Taghlib Abdulhadi Al Waily
Iraqi architect and urban planner Taghlib Abdulhadi Al Waily has long dedicated his research and work to the revitalisation of Baghdad’s Historical City Centre (BHCC). With a vision to create a celebrated space within this now neglected area, Al Waily shares insight on the importance of the centre and what he’s doing to save it.
Explain your background as it relates to your work.
I studied at Baghdad University in the 1970s, and specialised in urban and regional planning. I have worked across various fields of architecture, planning and design, and lived in many places around the world since then. However, Baghdad is in my blood, and I have always been drawn back. My life’s work as an architect and planner has circled and brought me back to the very origin of my inspiration and fascination with Baghdad – its historical city and centre.
When did you first become interested in BHCC? What do you find important about it?
It’s no coincidence that my master’s thesis was titled, ‘Bab Al Sharji Area, Baghdad’s Central Core’.
BHCC was a big part of our daily life back in the 1960s and 70s. My daily route between school and home cut across it, and we used to go there for its coffee shops, restaurants, cinema and so on. We enjoyed a vibrant city centre that had everything you needed. We would live, study, meet, eat, shop and celebrate in this area.
Most importantly, BHCC immerses you in the city’s heritage, and strengthened our culture and identity as Baghdadis. Every corner of this area has a memory that is etched into my consciousness.
When I returned to Baghdad in 2003 after 25 years of working outside of Iraq, I was sad to find the once vibrant street replaced with a chaotic atmosphere of people, wholesale markets and shops. The place I knew – its urban and social context – had gone, vanished. There were no longer places to eat, meet, celebrate or enjoy, and it had become a ghost of its former self.
Why do you feel it’s important to revitalise the area?
There are over 1000 years of history, culture, heritage and city memory contained within this area. Baghdad’s city centre is the very heart of the capital and it is an economic and touristic generator that has been underused. In addition, the city’s heritage and its architectural monuments are under serious threat.
This area should represent a place for its people to showcase their culture, express their identity and strengthen their unity. Revitalising it is of high cultural, social and economic significance to the city, the country and its people. BHCC is also an important part of the world’s heritage.
Tell us about ‘Baghdad 21st Century – The Historical City’.
In 2009, when I embarked on a study to research the current city centre of Baghdad, it was evident that there was a serious lack of information and documentation about the area, as well as a low level of public and governmental awareness regarding its importance. There was no recognition, either nationally or internationally, of BHCC.
I decided to compile my findings into a 580-page book, with the aim of reaffirming recognition for the city centre. The book highlights its past, analyses its present and offers an empowering, practical and hopeful vision for its future.
‘Baghdad 21st Century – The Historical City’ has been well-received as a resource on BHCC by academics, architects and the general public; however, I believe its strength lies in the seed of hope it plants through highlighting challenges and providing feasible, practical and sustainable solutions to revitalising the historical city to its full potential.
What are the different ways you contribute to the city centre’s preservation?
The vision I share in my book ‘Baghdad 21st Century – The Historical City’ emphasises that the conservation of heritage within the area should be the result of developing its economic and social potential and upgrading its infrastructure. This process, coupled with the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings, will ensure the integration of these elements within its urban context and create a viable feasibility that supports its sustainability.
It is very important to re-establish and reconstruct some of the city’s iconic structures that were demolished during the 20th century but that are still in the hearts and minds of the people, like Bab Al Sharji, Bab Al Muadham and Qalaa. Such monuments shall create momentum and quality to the revival process and city heritage.
Major public awareness campaigns highlighting the need for the preservation of heritage buildings that are in danger are managed on social media and are widely shared.
Recently, too, we founded Turath – a non-profit organisation dedicated to heritage conservation and awareness, through which I channel the work I have done in this field in an institutional form.
Tell us about your other roles – working in academia as well as with governmental and non-governmental organisations.
All my time, effort and resources in the past decade have been dedicated to the goal of reviving BHCC.
The first stage of this process started with gathering my research in a book, which took many years, to spreading public awareness. After publishing ‘Baghdad 21st Century’ in 2017, I began giving seminars and workshops on the subject in different countries. This opened up a discussion in universities with students and academics and led to publishing essays on BHCC in the academic context.
By 2018, an English mini version of ‘Baghdad 21st Century’ was published as a resource for international organisations and foreign researchers.
Most recently in 2019, we succeeded in getting the Ihea’a initiative recognised by major Iraqi authorities, which is currently under consideration.
Such a development has opened the door for further action to be taken towards the recognition and revival of BHCC, which was not possible without the hard work, dedication and team work of colleagues, architects and planners that have supported our initiative.
Tell us about Ihea’a.
The Ihea’a initiative (which means revival in Arabic) is part of my overall plan, and is a campaign aimed at public awareness and participation. It was launched in 2017 with the goal to preserve the centre’s urban heritage by re-stimulating its activities, as well as its economic, social and environmental development, which contribute to transforming it into a wonderful place to live, work and celebrate.
Through this campaign, we were able to take the Ihea’a initiative and campaign to the ground in Iraq this past year, which provided the opportunity for the physical gathering of people who are united in their support of heritage conservation in Baghdad. We have also succeeded in attracting the attention of many organisations, governmental and non-governmental, to BHCC and the challenges it is facing.
What are you working on now?
I continue to dedicate all my time and resources towards the revival and recognition of Baghdad’s Historical City Centre. I am furthering my planning development, working on a new book, facilitating workshops and organising meetups, all of which are geared towards fulfilling the goals and duties I set for myself towards the prosperity of our beloved city… Baghdad.
Our Meet the Finalists series is a compilation of interviews with those who have been shortlisted for our awards. Taghlib Abdulhadi Al Waily is a finalist for Tamayouz’s Middle Eastern Architectural Personality of the Year, also known as the Mohamed Makiya Prize. This architecture award recognizes individuals and organisations that work to advance the field of architecture in the Middle East and North Africa.