As book lovers we all owe a debt of gratitude to the Sumerians, the early inhabitants of the land now called Iraq, who invented writing 5000 years ago.
A true cradle of civilization, the land was successively occupied by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, Romans, and others, until it settled into the embrace of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, where it was to remain a sleepy backwater, the province of archaeologists and historians.
Iraq’s recent history has been tumultuous and tragic, but the seeds for this upheaval were sown a hundred years before when the British wrested control of Mesopotamia (as it then was) from the Turks at the end of World War I, established the territory of modern day Iraq, before the country gained its independence in 1932. Boundaries rarely taking into account religious and tribal loyalties.
From the earliest days of the British in Baghdad, we have a superb photographic record, namely Iraq in War Time (1919), by the great Arabian explorer, Harry St. John Philby. Philby served with the British administration in Baghdad from 1915 to 1917 where he reformed the administration's finances. In November 1917, he was sent as head of a mission to Ibn Sa'ud, ruler of the Nejd in central Arabia, He travelled with a small party by camel from the coast of the Persian Gulf to Riyadh. The book includes a fine photographic record of Central Arabia.
Six years later another fine photographic record is provided by Camera Studies in Iraq. This was the outcome of the work of a local photographer, Kerim, and published locally by the Hasso Brothers. This gives us a snapshot of Iraq between the establishment of its modern borders in 1920 and its full independence from Britain in 1932.
Philby was to convert to Islam in 1930. By instinct he was against the British Government and it is perhaps this that led him to publish a history of the great eighth century caliph of Iraq, Haru Al Rashid, in 1933, as a sort of celebration of independence.
Along with Freya Stark, the greatest British traveller in the region in the mid-twentieth century was Wilfred Thesiger. A book collector himself, books from his library have a certain magic. We are fortunate to have his copy of James Baillie Fraser’s Travels in Koordistan, Mesopotamia, etc., 1840. This recounts a tour from Persia to Shahrizor, Kifri, Baghdad, the Euphrates and back. It is one of the most important books on the region and would be desirable even without the Thesiger association.