Lost Treasures of the Riverbank

THIS is Beit al Yehud (the House of the Jews) by the artist Lorna Selim – one of the wonderful old wood and stone structures that once lined the banks of the Tigris in Baghdad . In an earlier post we told how Lorna had contacted us and kindly sent us a previous picture she’d painted of a typical Baghdad qasr (castle, or palace) dating from the era when Violette spent her childhood in such a one, built by her father.

Is this Violette’s qasr?

We are going back to a time when up to 40 per cent of the population of Baghdad was Jewish  [Ottoman Yearbook, 1917] and Jews  were dominant in all walks of life – from commerce to culture, governmental positions and every element of artistic endeavour. The wealthy families of the day all aspired to live on the riverbank in the (comparative) luxury these ‘castles’ afforded, away from the crowded and unhygienic alleyways of the old city’s downtown areas like Hennouni.

Hennouni – the old quarter

The Iraqi qasr was a masterpiece of architectural design,and the area of Karrada, where the family home was situated, was one of the most sought-after locations. Some of the old photographs on our video give an idea of their imposing presence – until, of course, everything changed in the Saddam years.

In the late Sixties such old properties were thought worthless; the land value outstripped the value of the buildings themselves, which were crumbling and in sad need of repair. Their owners, nearly all Jews, had fled. With no respect whatever for heritage the city began tearing them down and replacing them with modern constructions of dubious architectural merit.

The Babylon Hotel

Violette’s qasr vanished, and the Karrada site was redeveloped to become a hotel – the Babylon – a modern monstrosity directly across the Tigris from where Saddam Hussein decided to build his bunker and command HQ.  Today it is in full view of the new American Embassy in the Green Zone.

Karrada itself, where Gertrude Bell used to take country walks amid ‘exquisite gardens with their ripe oranges hanging from the trees and the green barley springing under golden mulberry bushes,’ has become home to the University of Baghdad.

Lorna Selim was an artistic witness to this wanton destruction, and rather as a court artist today manages to portray judicial  proceedings  (whether cameras were allowed in those days, or even thought necessary, is a fair question) she turned her skills to good use. As a house was being demolished she would quickly go to the site and bring out her sketchpad. She then went home to paint the base and outline, fully intending to return and fill in the details later.  Only by then it was too late: the house was gone. Her daughter Miriam tells us: ‘I recall reaching locations by six in the morning to get the early light and the empty streets as well as the cool morning air. By 8am it was insufferably hot and we would go home and she would be lost for the rest of the day in her studio.’ Lorna had to seek out details of other nearby properties that were the same to seek out details, or work from memory in order to finish her paintings. The results are probably the sole visual trace left of the beauty of the riverbank in those distant days, from which we can only imagine how rich was the life shared by the community fortunate enough to reside there.

Here, thanks to her, are some more of her excellent drawings, (c) Lorna Selim, from which we can see the intricate way in which she developed  her final work such as the oil  painting of the  Beit al Yehud.   This was in an area Lorna calls Sinak.  She says: ‘I never took any photographs of the houses as I wanted the paintings to be my own interpretation of what I saw. I do regret that now, but I was right at the time.

‘The paintings were made between 1963 and 1970. Most of the houses were in poor repair or were falling down as I sketched them.’

Demolition in progress: the beginning of the end

We still don’t know if the original painting she sent us was the qasr at the centre of Memories of Eden, though she adds: ‘I believe it could well be. I stood on the suspension bridge* to sketch it, so I can place it exactly on a map which compares with the map in the book.’

Our thanks to Lorna for allowing us the use of her Copyright work.

*Built much later

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Lost Treasures of the Riverbank

THIS is Beit al Yehud (the House of the Jews) by the artist Lorna Selim – one of the wonderful old wood and stone structures that once lined the banks of the Tigris in Baghdad . In an earlier post we told how Lorna had contacted us and kindly sent us a previous picture she’d painted of a typical Baghdad qasr (castle, or palace) dating from the era when Violette spent her childhood in such a one, built by her father.

Is this Violette’s qasr?

We are going back to a time when up to 40 per cent of the population of Baghdad was Jewish  [Ottoman Yearbook, 1917] and Jews  were dominant in all walks of life – from commerce to culture, governmental positions and every element of artistic endeavour. The wealthy families of the day all aspired to live on the riverbank in the (comparative) luxury these ‘castles’ afforded, away from the crowded and unhygienic alleyways of the old city’s downtown areas like Hennouni.

Hennouni – the old quarter

The Iraqi qasr was a masterpiece of architectural design,and the area of Karrada, where the family home was situated, was one of the most sought-after locations. Some of the old photographs on our video give an idea of their imposing presence – until, of course, everything changed in the Saddam years.

In the late Sixties such old properties were thought worthless; the land value outstripped the value of the buildings themselves, which were crumbling and in sad need of repair. Their owners, nearly all Jews, had fled. With no respect whatever for heritage the city began tearing them down and replacing them with modern constructions of dubious architectural merit.

The Babylon Hotel

Violette’s qasr vanished, and the Karrada site was redeveloped to become a hotel – the Babylon – a modern monstrosity directly across the Tigris from where Saddam Hussein decided to build his bunker and command HQ.  Today it is in full view of the new American Embassy in the Green Zone.

Karrada itself, where Gertrude Bell used to take country walks in the 1920’s amid ‘exquisite gardens with their ripe oranges hanging from the trees and the green barley springing under golden mulberry bushes,’ has become home to the University of Baghdad.

Lorna Selim was an artistic witness to this wanton destruction, and rather as a court artist today manages to portray judicial  proceedings  (whether cameras were allowed in those days, or even thought necessary, is a fair question) she turned her skills to good use. As a house was being demolished she would quickly go to the site and bring out her sketchpad. She then went home to paint the base and outline, fully intending to return and fill in the details later.  Only by then it was too late: the house was gone. Her daughter Miriam tells us: ‘I recall reaching locations by six in the morning to get the early light and the empty streets as well as the cool morning air. By 8am it was insufferably hot and we would go home and she would be lost for the rest of the day in her studio.’ Lorna had to seek out details of other nearby properties that were the same, or similar, or work from memory in order to finish her paintings. The results are probably the sole visual trace left of the beauty of the riverbank in those distant days, from which we can only imagine how rich was the life shared by the community fortunate enough to reside there.

Here, thanks to her, are some more of her excellent drawings, (c) Lorna Selim, from which we can see the intricate way in which she developed  her final work such as the oil  painting of the  Beit al Yehud.   This was in an area Lorna calls Sinak.  She says: ‘I never took any photographs of the houses as I wanted the paintings to be my own interpretation of what I saw. I do regret that now, but I was right at the time.

‘The paintings were made between 1963 and 1970. Most of the houses were in poor repair or were falling down as I sketched them.’

Demolition in progress: the beginning of the end

We still don’t know if the original painting she sent us was the qasr at the centre of Memories of Eden, though she adds: ‘I believe it could well be. I stood on the suspension bridge* to sketch it, so I can place it exactly on a map which compares with the map in the book.’

Our thanks to Lorna for allowing us the use of her Copyright work.

*Built much later

Vive le Québec libre!


Just back from Canada, and a fantastic time in Montreal (first visit). What great people, what a fine city. And we were so lucky with the weather — it only rained one day.


Our event, in Westmount public library, was 100% over-subscribed. A fantastic success (but so very sorry for those who were disappointed and had to stand outside in the corridor). The slideshow was the highlight,  a much-improved version of the small sample you can see here on the right and on the website.  There were many interesting questions about the book and old Baghdad. The books we shipped over for the talk all sold out, so now we are making arrangements privately to have a further small supply available. Watch This Space for details, or if you don’t want to wait for a copy please get it from Amazon (how to, on the right). 


Westmount is a lovely leafy suburb, and the library, built in the days of Queen Victoria, has undergone a massive facelift: a triumph of modernisation while maintaining the best of the old, such as the room in which we held our soirée, and the delightful greenhouse in the grounds.

As for Montreal itself, we liked: the broad streets with their trees and flower beds; the sense of space inside the department stores; the politeness and helpfulness we encountered everywhere; the life-size moose cut-outs lining Sherbrooke Street (they were just being installed, complete with a little name-plate that was still blank, prompting Tony to say they had to be Anonymoose); the Musée des Beaux Arts where they had two great shows: Cuba and Yves Saint Laurent (whose death we read about on our return home).  We disliked: the two taxes that are added to every marked price, putting it up by 15%;  the cost of wine in restaurants; the way pedestrian crossings at traffic lights are not always consistent. Some have a brilliant idea, a pictogram giving a countdown from 15 seconds to zero so you know how quickly you have to walk; at others you just have to wait until the traffic stops on red. As visitors we found this confusing. Not to mention how, to someone with a wonky hip, 15 seconds to cross a boulevard seems a bit ungenerous.

On the traffic front it appears Montrealers are quite well disciplined and patient, though it’s not what our friend David, who lives in the city, thinks. (He should try living in Italy or France!) Peculiar fact: vehicles in Quebec don’t have to have a licence plate at the front. This means cars look as their designers mean them to look — but I’m surprised the police have agreed to it. 

Following my architectural bent, it was gratifying to see buildings uncluttered with neon advertising slogans (banned, with one exception for a flour mill by the docks which escaped under the excuse of being an historic monument. A monument with neon? Go figure). The downtown skyline is quite restrained by North American standards, and of course the historic Vielle Ville just wows US visitors who think it is soooo European. It is, in a North American kinda way.  


But it’s underground, not overground, where Montreal shines. Did I read there are 33 kilometres of subterranean shopping walks and malls? They are stunning, all interlinked with the Metro, and perfectly clean and ventilated (air-conditioned, obviously; great carbon-footprinting). And absolutely essential in a place where cruel winters mean you poke your head out at your peril in January, February and March. It’s perishingly cold for much longer than that, too, with record snowfalls this winter. Ironically, says David, this is due to global warming.  Previously, the thermometer has stayed well below zero Celsius, too cold for snow.  By warming a few degrees it has brought prolonged periods of the white stuff.

Lastly, we were fascinated by Quebecers’ language skills, quaint in both accent and vocabulary.  With three million inhabitants Montreal is, I just read, the third largest French-speaking city in the world (after Paris and, surprisingly, Kinshasa). Their French is ‘old French’, with an accent that’s totally impenetrable. I think it comes from eating too much poutine, that quintessential Canadian comfort food guaranteed to give you a heart attack and two inches on the waistline (Wikipedia:  a dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds, covered with brown BBQ chicken gravy and sometimes other additional ingredients.) In Quebec French it’s pronounced putsɪn which gives you a clue to the rest of our problems, as we live in ‘old France’ itself, where the language has considerably moved on from Louis IV’s day. Hey, even down here in Provence where the accent is as thick as crème brûlée we can communicate perfectly well with the natives; there, it really does sound  foreign.

We enjoyed some rich moments, due partly to their knack of unnecessarily complicating matters. Where the French have WiFi (pron. ‘weefee’, and not to be confused with ‘wifey’) they have ‘Zone Internet gratuit’. A fridge is a réfrigerateur – not particularly surprising maybe, but over here it’s a ‘frigo‘. A bus-only lane  (marked ‘Sauf Bus’ in France) is ‘Sauf Les Autobus’ etc. You get it. I thought my judgement about driving conditions could be called into question, and there must be a massive road accident problem, when I saw car repair shops on every street corner… and then I realised a Dépanneur was a convenience store. A dépanneur here is someone who gets you out of trouble when your car’s broken down and is en panne.


But if the
poutine doesn’t get you, Colonel Sanders will.  Fancy a little PFK, anyone? You got it: Poulet Frit Kentucky.


Bon appétit!

Where is this?

OK, so I’m an architect-manqué. But tell me if you don’t also find this inspirational: the towering fluted columns appearing from great holes in the ceiling as though they’ve just been drilled down from the skies; the vast height creating such a sense of space; function and form in perfect harmony. Wow.

Yes, I’m back at Ben Gurion airport Tel Aviv again. I can’t get over how uplifting it is (no pun intended) after the miseries suffered by the travelling soul when passing through the pits of Heathrow and the likes. Inevitably, we’ll be seeing so much more of LHR on our TVs in the next few days as the new Terminal 5 opens for business. Keep this image in your mind as an example of how it should be done. (My thanks to Todd & Mary Rose whose photo can be found on picasaweb.google.com/…/9SVwuSPGIs0XJiTMfvwepQ)

Upwards and onwards indeed. Here are some more snaps I pulled in from the web. What’s your best/worst airport – architecturally speaking; we all have our horror stories about delays and discomfort?