As a child, Adnan Khalaf used to marvel at the Iraqi city of Basra’s “shanasheel”, finely crafted bay windows complete with intricate wooden latticework and ornate stained glass.
Today, the Iraqi retiree can only watch as the hallmarks of his hometown – “the city of shanasheel” – crumble out of neglect.
Authorities in Basra, the capital of Iraq’s richest oil province, are struggling to provide the bare minimum of services to its inhabitants, as nepotism and corruption divert lucrative revenues from the black gold.
But the southern port city’s “golden age” was not all that long ago. At 71, Khalaf remembers it well.
He can still name the city’s wealthy old families – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – who lived behind elaborate shanasheel in traditional homes along canals of Basra’s Old City.
“But the city has been neglected, rubbish has been dumped into its waters,” said Khalaf. “No one cares about it anymore.”
The latticework windows – also known as mashrabiya – date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, according to Abdelhaq al-Moudhaffar, head of the city’s Palace of Culture and Arts.
They spread to other cities in Iraq, including Baghdad, and across the Levant and to Egypt.
Part of a crumbling heritage: old buildings on the waterfront in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Photo: AFP
When lights are turned on at night inside the traditional homes, inspired by a mix of Indian, Persian and Islamic influences, a patchwork of orange, green, red and blue light is cast from the stained glass windows onto the streets below.
All the houses in the Old City, built by the commercial bourgeoisie and local aristocracy, were once adorned with shanasheel.
The wooden beams, coated with a natural wax to resist water and fire, made for strong homes.
Whenever King Faisal II, the last monarch of Iraq, visited Basra, he would stay with the governor on the river running through the city, now just a trickle of water where waste floats.
But with the fall of the monarchy, Saddam Hussein’s rise to power and Iraq’s multiple wars, the situation in Basra has slowly but surely deteriorated.
The 2003 US-led invasion was the coup de grace.
“The original inhabitants have gone, others have arrived. I’ve seen some dismantle the pieces of wood from their houses to sell them,” said Khalaf.
The newcomers have “changed the buildings, demolished them and rebuilt them with breeze blocks”, said heritage specialist Hashem al-Azzam.
“If there had been a mechanism for the renovations and financing, the shanasheel would still be in good condition,” he said.
Of all Basra’s traditional buildings and shanasheel – which allow inhabitants to see outside without being seen – “today about 400 are left more or less intact”, according to Qahtan al-Obeid, head of archaeology and heritage in Basra province.
Where there once stood a Jewish library, a women’s steam room and the home of a Kuwaiti sheikh, locals say, all that remains are crumbling walls, wooden beams eaten away by termites and dangerously leaning shanasheel.
Obeid said that decision-makers at the local and national levels were failing to prioritise “heritage preservation” in their budgets.
No budget for heritage
Endangered old buildings of Basra in southern Iraq. Photo: AFP
Like elsewhere in Iraq, power cuts in Basra are chronic.
The Old City’s walls, where engraved inscriptions still remain, are now covered by webs of electrical wires connected to generators at every corner.
Air conditioners have been installed in holes dug into the weather-worn stone facades.
Some buildings, however, have been restored and now house a handful of cultural institutions, such as the union of visual artists, or centres dedicated to heritage.
In another rare success story, the home of Basra’s most famous poet, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, has also been saved with funding from local authorities.
With the ravages of time, the house had turned into a ruin piled up with rubbish. “Today, all the architecture and wooden ornaments have been redone to the original design,” said Obeid.
He said the province’s antiquities department had been “there to oversee and provide technical support, but not to fund the renovation because it doesn’t have the funds”.