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‘He alluded to the city of Najaf as ‘he’, as though it were some strange kind of being’

Najaf aerial shot2

Edward Lewis explores the city of Najaf in Iraq

Originally published in AR July 1945, this piece was republished online in April 2016

From childhood the notice ‘Trespassers will be Prosecuted’ has had for me a stimulating if occasionally sinister fascination. Let the landlords sneer. Were it not for that inviting warning there would be many fine buildings and refreshing gardens which I should never have troubled-to investigate. But I was always conscious, while opening closed doors and escaping murderous owners, that the climax was still to come. So it was with a feeling of the ordained that on entering the mess tent one morning I beheld the following prohibition pinned to the Adjutant’s blackboard: ‘G.H.Q. Paiforce, Baghdad. All ranks to note. Owing to the disturbances resulting from the Rashid Ali incident, it is necessary to remind all units that the town of Najaf is strictly out of bounds’.

Troubles of this kind were not uncommon at the time, but there were some special and understandable reasons for making Najaf into a Forbidden City. Not only is it a sacred place of importance in the Mohammedan world, but also, amongst its inhabitants are said to be some remnants of the Assassins, one of the most fanatical of the old Shiah sects of Islam, and in the city’s black past strangers of different faiths have sometimes received ill treatment at their inhospitable hands. During the last war, a Christian political officer was murdered there, and a section of Colonel Wilson’s force, stationed nearby, narrowly escaped massacre. The incident may have been due to some isolated and individual piece of tactlessness, for I remembered that since then British soldiers and other European visitors to the famous Tomb were known to have received a much more tolerant reception than some other sects, themselves Moslems, notably the hated Sunnis, age old rivals of the Shiahs in the main divisions of the Prophet.

‘The personality, or as we usually prefer to call it, the character of cities, is a human subject which has still not received all the attention which it deserves’

I had hardly therefore finished reading the unusually stimulating officialese of the warning notice before my arrangements for visiting the Forbidden City, partly from sheer force of trespassing habit, were already complete in my mind. To put the finishing touches to them, I consulted Abud Khadem, my foreman bricklayer, and a man of discretion. To my surprise, Abud seemed curiously unwilling to discuss the subject of the Forbidden City, and was only prevailed upon to do so under friendly pressure. I then noticed that he used the Arabic personal pronoun ‘huya’, alluding to Najaf as ‘he’, as though the city were some strange kind of being. I found this anthropomorphic attitude not without interest, and it certainly did not lessen my curiosity or my resolve to see this particular piece of trespassing through to the end.

The personality, or as we usually prefer to call it, the character of cities, is a human subject which has still not received all the attention which it deserves. We think we can afford to take Abud’s attitude with a smile, while admitting that there may be some understandable everyday causes which gave rise to it. But this kind of personification is not altogether unknown even to ourselves, particularly in literature. Seaside lodging houses, for instance, have been convincingly described as ‘flat chested’. We have also actually spoken, not only during the blitz, of ‘the spirit’ of great towns. Are these mere phrases, or do we sometimes, without knowing it, give more credence to them than as serious students we would care to admit? Since we wear our houses and our cities like clothes, is it really so inconceivable that in some fantastic and special circumstances of psychology, setting, and design, the individual personalities within them, once rich and warm, might fade into a collective mask, or even completely vanish, like the bones and flesh of an invisible Superman, leaving the external vestments to strut about by themselves? That moment, in our excited imagination, would be the one in which the city itself took on its own personality, living and distinct, to amble through the green countryside with friendly, seven league slippers, or with big black boots to stalk and terrorise, like Najaf, the distant city of the desert.

‘Hour after hour, across the maddening flatness, the lorry sways and jolts. The silver light glare shifts and shimmers through a golden pepper of sand clouds raised by the wheels and the wind’

We Westerners think we can approach such manifestations of urban personality with calmness and detachment. We pride ourselves on being able to analyse the nature of their influences, the causes which created and maintained them, and the technical and aesthetic means by which they were brought about. The poor Shiah Arab, we declare, has none of these advantages. He must propitiate his awful city until time or revolution or both cleanse the system of which it is a part; only then will its supposed self, so real and so evil in his childlike eyes, pass from it as a nightmare, and the city of reality, calm and serene in the morning, be left, objectively, for study and delight. But I doubt whether Europeans are in fact so different from the Shiahs. Can we ourselves remain immune? That was the question which I asked myself, and which I was to put to the test, as I first gazed on Najaf, from a distance of nearly fifty miles, across the deadness of the sand. There was no doubt, I tried to argue, that the influence of fear which so palpably emanated from Najaf, even from such a distance; and which is felt no less by the European than by the Arab, must be due in the first place, not to the undefined nor to preconceptions arising from historical gossip or the tales of travellers, but entirely to the weird nature of the approaches, weird enough even for that land of grimness and desert. From Karbala, the last outpost of civilisation proper, the pilgrim track sweeps onwards into nowhere. Hour after hour, across the maddening flatness, the lorry sways and jolts. The silver light glare shifts and shimmers through a golden pepper of sand clouds raised by the wheels and the wind. Water mirages smile and mock. The appalling infinitude of space in its bare elements, unmoulded and uncompressed, surround our microscopic selves. The immediate scene never changes. Yet the lorry, with its tail of sand, is evidently moving. It has become a comet in a sandy universe. Mr. Ford, in cosmic mood. We laugh, and as we laugh, a single vivid flash, infinitely far away, on the uttermost edge of the flatness, like some semaphore of Allah, proclaims the Golden Dome of Ali, the sign of the Forbidden City.

Najaf interior

Najaf interior

Now time no longer drags. It speeds. At last there is a fixed point by which to check movement. Soon we can make out the strange and solitary hillock of dark rock on which the great building stands. From afar, it seems to be drawing us towards it, irresistibly, hypnotically. The tall and glittering minarets are beckoning fingers of brass which will suddenly curve downwards and clutch our tiny body into themselves. Struggling to keep such absurd impressions within reasonable bounds, I tried, coldly, to consider how illuminating it might be to make a special study, from the subjective viewpoint, of the whole question of approaches, as distinct from actual settings, on the judgment of the aesthetic effect of cities in general. My thoughts returned home and I recalled how once, after a long voyage up the Thames in spring time, past tree banks in the sunlight flashing and green, we had come suddenly on red brick Maidenhead, and a friend in the boat, exclaiming with delight, had held forth upon the aesthetic qualities of the old town in terms which at the time seemed to me wildly exaggerated. I also remembered a twenty mile drive across the primeval Westmorland fells, with an unexpected descent into the snugness of Kendal, and being persuaded, for at least five minutes, that the very second rate spec. builder’s stone housing of l750 was better than the best of Bedford Square. Again; I could not help wondering whether, if we had not driven into Lewes through those long perspectives of Sussex down land, we should have thought so well of the old fortress when we reached it, or if, as holiday students, we had not flowed out to Siemenstadt along the silver, southbound Autobahn, we should have rated even that immense achievement of Gropius as highly as we did? It is problematical, but this at least is certain, to digress for an instant to the topical, that as it is the clear function of the secular or prefabricated dwelling to supply as much ‘commodity, firmness, and delight’ to the square inch as is humanly possible, so it is of the religious centre to create the appropriate atmosphere, whether of detachment, exaltation, or terror.

Najaf, which fulfils the latter function with a gruesome success, is the Terror City par excellence. Terror, yes! With slow and dragging steps, the various architectonic elements, arranged and designed with such unscrupulous purpose but sensitive understanding by those old architect priests, crawl upwards, as on a scaffold, to their irrevocable climax. At the bottom of the staircase come the Toulk-Al-Mowt, Belt of Death, the countless tombs and graves of centuries of pilgrims, grey haired men and women from Baghdad, Mosul, or Basra, from furthest Persia, India, or Africa, who in a last act of submission have dragged their dying bodies across the waste of sand to share their final resting . places with the Venerated and Feared. Very slowly, like a hearse, we drive through the vast cemetery. There is no set road, we have to thread our way among the mounds and stones as among littered skeletons, sometimes conscious, amid the oppressive silence, of a black clad figure flitting from tomb to tomb, or peering at us angrily through cracks in the walls of dirty yellow mud. Abud the Sunni, apprehensive not only of the intangible dangers, warns me not to spend too long on my inspection, nor to linger at the holy places so as to attract a crowd. But there is no time for talking. Already we are at the base of the rock. It towers above us like some devil’s Gibraltar. An opening appears, and grinding into bottom gear we climb, the groaning engine echoing from the sides of the cutting. The first crest is reached. A jumble of mud hovels, filthy, windowless, and blank, confronts us. They speckle the black walls which now bar the lorry completely. We stop and get out. At first there seems to be no further way up, even on foot. But then, among the crumbling dwellings, we see some slits. They lead to alleyways, tunnelled and stenching through the mud caves and cliffs, upwards towards a pinpoint of brilliant light which must be the building we have come so far to visit.

‘Massive and mountainous blocks linked with precision joints; laboured from distant quarries by the old Shiah masons; white and shining-like the icy robes of the impassive priests who stand on guard’

Slowly, and somewhat painfully, we clamber and toil to its foot. Suddenly, out into the blinding glare! Aesthetically, and from close at hand, first impressions of the great Shrine are completely satisfying. And this is as it should be. For the longer the introduction, the firmer must be the statement, the more solid the climax. Preparation cannot exist for its own sake, or it becomes meaningless and perverted. It must make way for something larger than itself. It must whet the appetite, or tremble the nerves. If the emotional effect takes the form of desire, then desire must not merely be satisfied, but expectation exceeded. And if fear is aroused, its culmination must be terror. All these principles the unknown architect obviously understood, and was able in his own dark yet brilliant way to apply. If the desert is the strategic preparation for the climax of Najaf, the actual layout of the Mosque is the tactical one. The immediate basis of it is a kind of market place in which we now find ourselves, a gash in the place’s wrinkled body. But the human scene, if human it can be called, is dominated by the Portal of the Mosque, gaping above the hooded figures like a hungry mouth. Yet the huge opening, sensuous yet stern, with its thin but brilliant line of blood-red mosaic, is dwarfed by the fortress face in which it is set. Massive and mountainous blocks linked with precision joints; laboured from distant quarries by the old Shiah masons; white and shining-like the icy robes of the impassive priests who stand on guard. Beyond their statuesque figures the immense forecourt, a wide space of freedom against the fettered huddle of alleyways and hovels, opens out like the sudden swish of a fan in a closed and airless room. Crouched in many attitudes upon its stone flagged chessboard of pink and white, are the multitudes of the Faithful, dinning the air with the hum of their prayers and imprecations, and in supplication extending their massed arms towards the menacing inner Shrine itself.

Most of the great sacred buildings of the East make use of the spatial preparations and excitements of contrasting forecourts, corridors, and colonnades. They are elements which suit the climates and frame the climaxes. I have not, however, visited more than a few of them, nor seen, except in books, the noble temple enclosures of the Buddha. But I should be surprised, even so, if there were many rivals to the supreme tragedy and simplicity of Najaf. The colossal, merciless prison square of courtyard and column, unyielding in its line and rhythm; the hard desert flatness of the stones themselves, which by contrast throw up the central verticality of the inner building in a fountain of pillars climbing to fantastic pointed arches, only to break and fall again in a spray of pendant vaulting of brass, hanging silver chains, and innumerable drops of diamond glass, white, emerald, and ruby, into the splashed chalices of glowing oil lamps which light for Ali the solemn entrance and inner darkness of his tomb. Out to the wide spaces of the great forecourt, and those four lofty minarets, now seeming to watch over the inner sanctity like stiff and slender sentinels.

Back to that tiny doorway to the tomb, and from it for the last time upwards, in a funereal crescendo of scale, black and crouching figures, small opening, sinuous pillars, twisting pendentives, curling arches, to the pinnacle of Shiah and Islam, the jet black crescent which surmounts the Dome. The Golden Dome of Najaf, one of the seven wonders of the Arabic world, and surely of all the world, exerts over the layout and the mass a grim and absolute domination. It is not only by far the largest single element in the whole plan, but is in itself almost as large as all the many smaller individual and surrounding blocks placed and pressed together. In very size, greater than many domes more famous, it expresses the unwavering belief of the Shiahs in the divinity and supreme power of the Caliph Ali and his successors, with their ability and right, not only to foretell the future and guide the present in the paths of punishment and fear, but also to interpret the will of Allah in terms of an absolute and extreme stoicism. Through the centuries the Shiahs, shrinking in numbers but always held together as an intact sect by a ruthless theocracy, have walled themselves within an hereditary and mounting hatred of the outside world, and particularly of that Moslem majority which originally rejected and still rejects their interpretation of the Prophet’s teaching.

‘It is necessary to emphasise this Dome’s extraordinary and many sided dominance because there is no other which I have ever seen or could imagine which might approach its beauty and its power’

This stoicism, this priesthood, and this splendid if terrible Shrine, the palace not only of the dead Ali but also of his living-dead descendants, was, in effect, to atone for all that was squalid, brutal, or poverty-stricken in the ordinary life of the world. Jewels within, mud without. But whatever the social picture which Najaf presents, its holy building crowned by this gigantic dome, is not merely aesthetically, but also morally and psychologically, admirable and triumphant. Did the Shiahs ever feel any temptation to stray from the stony path, there was this great round eye of Ali, watching them and seeking them out, even in the darkest and deepest of their alleyways. It is necessary to emphasise this Dome’s extraordinary and many sided dominance because there is no other which I have ever seen or could imagine which might approach, much less challenge it, in its beauty and its power. Beside it, domes so interesting in themselves as those of Peter, Paul, and Mark, would be the merest inert lumps. But this sublime yet devilish structure possesses; for all its eternal qualities of repose, an instantaneous life and vitality of its own, a vitality which in the estimation of the dreading and worshipping Shiahs, personifies the stern spirit of the Venerated and Feared whose remains it enshrouds. This effect of personality, so obvious and so unarguable to the spectator, is perhaps more capable than any other feature of the Forbidden City of direct aesthetic analysis. It is due, of course, to its vibrant qualities of form; here is a living shape which has not just been set out mechanically with a compass, nor worked according to some formula of curves carefully combined, neither is it even a sensitive piece of modelling by some exceptionally gifted artisan proceeding on a basis of trial and error. It is none of these things.

The Great Golden Dome of the Shrine of Ali is in the most true and most complete sense a piece of sculpture, worthy to be ranked by the side of, or even perhaps above, the Pharaoh gods of Egypt, Michelangelo’s David, Epstein’s Genesis, or Mestrovic’s Bishop of Split. It is useless merely to describe the shape of it ; the dagger-like subtlety of the slight outward curve from its base, . the strong and crescendo swelling, the fierce vigour of the main bulge, the imperceptible diminishings above, or the feline grace of the final curving in and tapering at the summit; it would be just as trivial to dwell, with measurement and computation, important and interesting as it would be, on the dome’s huge volume, immensely greater than the base on which it stands, or on the hard and yellow richness of the golden bricks with which its surface is finished, in this climate and setting as impressive and inevitable as elsewhere they would be impossible and vulgar. All these things are details. What is essential is the supreme genius which has inspired into the whole, into the all-seeing eye of Ali, that flashing and profound quality of personality, Ali’s personality, beautiful, sometimes but always implacable, to reach out and dominate from afar the Faithful; and yes, the faithless too, with his unrelenting message.