The cultural heritage of Iraq is primarily Arabic,
although long before the advent of Islam in the 7th century ad, the area known
as Mesopotamia was the center of the Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations. The
Arabic influence is represented today in much of the surviving antiquities,
including the Kazimayn Mosque, begun in the 11th century and completed in the
19th century; Baghdād’s Abbasid Palace, built in the 12th century; and the
Shrine of Sāmarrā’, constructed in the 9th century. Iraq is known for producing
fine handicrafts, including rugs and carpets.
Modern Iraq is an important cultural powerhouse of the
Arab world. Iraqi poets have been in the forefront of contemporary Arabic
culture. In the 1920s and 1930s Ma‘ruf al-Rusafi, Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi, and
Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri became prominent among the poets of the Arab world.
All three wrote in the neoclassical style, with beautiful rhymes and strict
rules of meter and verse. Rusafi wrote poems about the suffering of the Iraqi
people and their struggle toward independence. Jawahiri drew close to the
Communist Party in the 1940s and expressed strong anticolonialist sentiment in
his poetry. The early 1950s saw an explosion of poetic and other literary
creativity in Iraq. Most prominent among the new generation of Iraqi poets, who
engaged in blank or free verse poetry as opposed to the neoclassical style, were
Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati. Both dedicated much of their
poetry to Iraq, its society, and its politics, and both engaged in
symbolic-mystical writing, borrowing mythological themes from their country’s
ancient pre-Islamic history. A prominent female poet of the same generation is
The quality of Iraqi poetry seems to have deteriorated since the 1970s, when government control of culture became near absolute. Poets who chose to remain in Iraq were forced to write verses in praise of Iraqi dictator Hussein. However, many Iraqi poets also compose poetry in colloquial Arabic that many people enjoy. Their poetry is easily understood, even by people who cannot read, as it is only recited, never written. It fills radio and television broadcasts and has enthusiastic listeners.
The most famous novelist in Iraq during the first half of the 20th century was Dhu al-Nun Ayyub, whose stories evolved mostly around social issues. Iraq has produced a number of good playwrights, such as Khalid al-Shawaf, who wrote in the 1940s and 1950s, and ‘Adil Kazim, who wrote in the 1960s and 1970s. From the late 1930s to the late 1960s most of Iraq’s greatest writers were inclined toward the political left, some of them close to the Communist Party.
Much like its poets, Iraq’s painters and sculptors are
among the best in the Arab world, and some of them are world-class. The first
generation, active since the 1940s, includes Fa’iq Hasan and Isma’il al-Shaykhali.
Their paintings are figurative works in the impressionist style. Other important
artists of this generation are Jawad Salim, Nuri al-Rawi, Mahmud Sabri, and
Tariq Mazlum. Jawad Salim was deeply influenced by Pablo Picasso’s cubist style
as well as by ancient Mesopotamian art and the Soviet style known as socialist
realism. To a younger generation, active since the late 1950s, belong Diya al-‘Azzawi
and Hamid al-‘Attar. Baghdād is rich in open-air sculptures and monuments
designed by many of these great artists and financed by the former regime. Some
of the monuments glorify Hussein, others glorify the former ruling Baath Party,
but many are dedicated to the Iraqi people and the rich history of the country.
Iraqi architecture is best exemplified in the sprawling metropolis of Baghdād. The city’s architecture is almost entirely new, with some islands of exquisite old buildings and compounds. There are many colonial buildings dating back to the period of British occupation and mandate (1917-1932). A few buildings date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Ottomans controlled the area. Some traditional private homes built in the 18th and 19th centuries have been preserved. These buildings include the shanashil, a porch with netlike woodwork screens overlooking the street. Most of the public buildings in contemporary Baghdād are modern. Government offices are usually far from aesthetic, but there are a few beautiful modern hotels, some of which draw their inspiration from Babylonian and classical Islamic architecture. There are modern art galleries, museums, and public libraries, their designs mostly inspired by Islamic architecture. Some old mosques in the Baghdād area are impressive, in particular the gold-domed mosque in the suburb of Kazimayn, the burial place of two Shia imams (spiritual leaders).
Iraqi singers enjoy great popularity in the Arab world.
Jewish singers and musicians made an important contribution to Baghdād’s culture
from the 1920s to 1951, when most of them left the country. Among them were the
brothers Saleh and Da’ud al-Kuwaiti. In the 1940s and 1950s the four most
important types of music in Baghdād were Maqamat, Monologat, Pestat, and
Budhiyat. Maqamat, a form of classical Arab music, is a kind of high-pitched,
sophisticated Arab blues, accompanied by ‘ud, violins, and drums. Monologat
consists of nonclassical songs that include elements of humor and cynicism.
Pestat is popular poetry sung to music. Budhiyat is a hymnlike type of music
reminiscent of Buddhist chanting.
From the late 1940s to the late 1970s tastes in music shifted from traditional Maqamat to a mix of Maqamat and songs based on lighter, more popular Arab music. Uniquely Iraqi styles blended gradually with other Arab styles, mainly under Egyptian influence. Nazim al-Ghazali, who was popular in the 1950s and 1960s, was the main representative of this trend, although most of his songs were in the classical Maqamat style. Beginning in the late 1970s a combination of Arab and European music was introduced, creating Arab pop music.
Important singers of the late 20th century include Ilham al-Madfa‘i, Kazim al-Sahir, Sa‘dun Jaber, Fu’ad Salem, and Haytham Yusuf. Ilham al-Madfa‘i, who lives in the United States, usually accompanies his singing with a Spanish guitar. His main contribution is in modernizing old Maqamat songs. Kazim al-Sahir, who lives in the Persian Gulf area but visits Iraq often, combines traditional Arab and modern Western singing styles. Most of his songs are personal, but some of them are political, notably “Jerusalem,” “Risala ila al-‘Alam” (“A Message to the World”), and “Baghdād.” The music of the late Nazim al-Ghazali is still popular, as are the songs of his wife, Salima Murad (or Salima Pasha).
Bedouin songs, accompanied by a simple string instrument, the rababah, are popular in the countryside. Since the late 20th century, Bedouin music, songs, and dance have also been popular in Baghdād, owing to the rural background of the former ruling elite.
The leading libraries of Iraq include the University of Al
Başrah Central Library; the University of Mosul Central Library; and the library
of the Iraqi Museum, the National Library, and the University of Baghdād Central
Library, all in Baghdād. Public libraries are located in most of the provincial
Noteworthy museums of Iraq include the Iraq Museum, which contains relics of early Mesopotamian cultures; the Iraq Natural History Museum; and the Iraq Military Museum. All three museums are in Baghdād. Other museums include the Babylon Museum, at the site of ancient Babylon, which exhibits models, pictures, and paintings of ancient Babylon; and the Mosul Museum, containing exhibits of Assyrian art and other antiquities.