Golden Memoir

By Nadia Tobia, Architect
June 2020

 

Day trip to the gold shops in Al Nahir Street; As a teenager in the 1960’s in Baghdad, I frequently accompanied my mother to the Old Baghdad Centre visiting the many attractions on Rashid Street and Al Nahir Street, this article is a golden memory of these trips. The map above traces our route.

Part 1: Getting There 

Waiting at the door is a 1960’s Chevrolet taxi with its driver Saleh (Abu Ali) to take us from Sadoon Park to Old Baghdad Centre. Today we drive through Nidhal Street, passing by the White Palace to Tayaran Square where the Armenian Church (St Gregory the Illuminator built in 1950’s) stands high at one corner. Al Urfali Bakery is on the opposite corner, where Lahma Bi Ageen’s homemade mix is brought in to be baked (flat bread with a toping of ground meat and vegetables). Along Al Uma Gardens we drive, passing Tahrier Square with its new (opened 1961) gigantic monument Nasb Al Huriya by architect Rifat Chadirji and sculptor Jawad Saleem.  Then we turn right to the famous Rashid Street; a five-minute drive North West, between the two continuous colonnaded shaded sidewalks to Orosdi Back which is located beside Sayed Sultan Ali Mosque (built 1892). Always is the starting point to our journey.  The taxi ride is around 250 Fils; if we take the red public bus the fare is 15 Fils. The Iraqi Dinar is 1,000 Fils and one Dinar is 3.3 $US (in 1960’s). An alternative would be Nafrat, a shared van from Al Andalus Square.

White Palace at Nidhal Street, 1940's

Tayaran Square

Rashid Street, front left Orosdi Back, looking at Hafidh Al Qadhi Square.

We enter Orosdi Back, which is the first department store in Baghdad. The store has a variety of lovely imported merchandise displayed beautifully. The name goes back to the two families who owned it, and who were- Austro Hungarian Jews.  The store was established in the early 1920’s at Al Nahir Street, and moved to the Rashid Street location in the 1950’s.*

It was bought by a group of Iraqi businessmen in 1960. They Established a public company called Iraqi Stores Company / Orosdi Back, where the general public were able to buy shares. The group included Munther Fattah, Mahdi Rahim, Ismail Damerji, Clement Shammas and Lutfi Al Obaidi among others.  The first general manager was Clement Shammas followed by Ali Hayder Al Rikabi.******.  The store was renovated under Suad Al Omari’s direction. From the many developments that Al Omari introduced are the new coffee shop overlooking the Tigris river, the production of fashionable furniture and establishing a dress making atelier for women’s clothing. At that atelier Ferial Al Kalidar started and then became the renowned head of the Iraqi Fashion House.** In 1964 the government nationalized the Iraqi Stores Company / Orosdi Back.

Suad Al Omari

Next we visit the Brazilian Café where we buy Turkish coffee ground to take home. The cafe is famous for its delicious Marron Glace and Cassata ice-cream and is a well known place for intellectuals to meet.  We next peek in the close-by sport shop Pioneer. Opposite Orosdi Back, on Rashid Street, is a small shop selling juice, a dark brown extra large blend of cupcakes and muffins, and Baqsam a type of dry, big and thick cookie that goes very well with tea; even better is to soak Baqsam in the tea! There are three famous types: long ovals with a smooth surface, short wider ovals with simsim (sesame) seeds on top, and the rough-textured sweeter variety that looks like a thick slice of loaf. The best baqsam bakery in town is Alsayed Baqsam Shop on Rashid Street but much further north of our path.

South of the juice place is Kushmush Numan stationery store specializing in architectural and art supplies such as Rotring drawing pens and zipatone sheets which are more precious than gold sheets. Today, we walk north on Rashid Street, passing all sorts of shops such as the toy shop Razouki and Al Wattani Cinema, into Hafidh Al Qathie Square (the square is named after the prominent Baghdadi businessman and merchant Hafith Al Qathie).  As we walk, we look down at the pavement to avoid cracks, running water, and stepping into dirty spots. We reach an interesting shop called Novex, whose owner is from the Hasso Family, Fuaad Hasso. The shop carries imported houseware items, such as beautiful European brands of coffee and tea cups sets, home accessories and elegant clothing. We go back to Rashid Street passing Abdulnoor eye glass shop and into Al Nahir Street from the point where Ahrar Bridge starts.

Al Nahir Street which predates Rashid Street means River Street and runs parallel to the river Tigris.  The area by the river near the bridge has a small cluster of heritage houses including one that belongs to Sir Sassoon Eskell.  (This location is not his renowned “dream house” which is on Rashid Street south of Orosdi Back). Eskell (1860-1932) was the first minister of finance in the first Iraqi government in 1921. Another house further to the north is located in the Dalla Complex which contains the house, several shops and workshops, where Yousif and Mas’auda Gailani reside, Mas’auda’s mother is from the Dalla family.

Immediately after, we see the rows of silversmith shops on both sides. Most of the owners are Subba (Mandaean) who make and sell their own items.  My favourite is, the niello silver bowl designed in the shape of a traditional Tigris River vessel called “guffa”, which was a cargo and passenger boat. Engraved around the guffa are various patterns and scenes, one of which is the Ctesiphon Arch (circa 3rd–6th-century Sasanian-era), located 32km southeast of Baghdad.

Niello silver ball in the shape of guffa. Image: Estuary Auctions Catalog 2019, UAE.

Guffa in Tigris River. Image: Courtesy Yaqthan Chadirji.

Ctesiphone Arch

We take a side detour; passing by Beit Lynch, the company offices and warehouse of the British merchant establishment and the residence of one of the owners Malcolm Campbell (1902-1977) and his second wife Iraqi Armenian Saghik Hawakim.

The commercial company was established in 1841. Stephen Finnis Lynch (1819-1896) along with his brothers Henry Blosse Lynch and Thomas Kerr Lynch were the founders. They also formed the Euphrates and Tigris Steam Navigation Company in 1861, between their companies they were engaged in importing and transporting goods in Mesopotamia.***

Stephen married an Armenian woman, Hosanna Hatchick whom he met in Baghdad in the mid 1850’s.  Stephen Lynch was Malcolm Campbell’s grandfather through his mother, Caroline Lynch/Campbell.***

The establishment closed its doors in the 1970’s with Malcolm Campbell being the last family member in Iraq and subsequently the building was sold to Al Buniya family.

The company name changed a few times from Lynch Brothers Ltd, then Stephen Lynch Ltd, and then Abcar Lynch Ltd in the mid sixties.  Beit Lynch building extends from Rashid Street to Al Nahir Street. The building included spaces rented out to retail shops.

Malcolm Campbell - Image Courtesy Gillian Campbell daughter of Malcolm Campbell

In the vicinity is another British business, the Mackenzie Bookshop, established in the early 1920’s by Kenneth Mackenzie (early 1880’s – 1928). It used to be in the Sarai building with the name “Government Bookstore”, moved to Rashid in 1925 and was named “The Book Shop Mackenzie and Mackenzie Properties” and after a few years it moved into one of the Lynch buildings with a new name “Mackenzie Bookshop”. After Kenneth’s death in 1928 it continued its operation by his brother- in-law Donald Mackenzie (Kenneth’s wife’s last name was also Mackenzie) until his death in 1946. Subsequently the ownership was transferred to Iraqis.**** Meckanzie Bookshop was also run by an Iraqi called Karim Murad who worked with the Mackenzies and he continued to run the place. The shop was so much associated with his name he became to be known as Karim Mackanzie.*****

Ali Abu Tahin, That's How Mackenzie Bookshop was Established, Al Mada Newspaper, 2012

Biet Lynch Building, Rashid Street

Middle Gillian Campbell, left Winnie Ohanessian Kassabian niece of Saghik Hawakim, right Nadia Tobia, Canada, 2020.

The area around Beit Lynch is packed with many interesting shops, businesses, and medical clinics such as Dr. Yousif Akrawi, Dr. Fathil Ajaj, Dr. Ibrahim Hayali, and Iraq Pharmacy its owner Fareed Saffar, Fetto Pharmacy its owner Anwar Fatto, among others. A common feature for doctor’s offices on Rashid Street is the narrow dark stairs leading to first floor clinics. Within that mix is located the well-known Naif Bihno, a lingerie and sewing materials shop and two well known photographers, Arshak Yanikian and Babil, whose windows are decorated with black and white photos of distinguished figures.

Our detour ends  at the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce (late 1960’s) on Al Nahir Street by Architect Hisham Munir. Its location is almost a land mark; where silver shops end and gold shops begin. This transitional area from silver to gold, is mainly clothing shops, with a side street of shoe shops such as Harrak, Garabet and Yaravant.

We continue our walk; we pass a few Simitt and hot peanut stands, which are popular features in the area. The Iraqi Simitt is different in taste, shape and colour than similar products in the region, the closest is Montreal bagels. The taste remains engraved in your memory. The Simitt stands are not fixed in their location, as the vendors move along Al Nahir Street all day.  Abu Al Simitt (the person selling) carries the Simitt in a big round tray perched on his head. The tray carries around twelve to fifteen layers of Simitt, arranged in circles on the edge of the tray.   Hot peanuts are toasted on the spot in a metal round container with a mini chimney. The toasted peanuts sold in cones made of newspaper and the Simitt, are always eaten on the spot and never make it home!

Location map see index below

Baghdad Chamber of Commerce, Al Nahir Street, by Architect Hisham Munir

Baghdadi Samitt

Location map index:

1) Orosdi Back 2) Sayed Sultan Ali Mosque 3) Brazilian Cafe 4) Pioneer Sport Shop 5) Kushmush Numan 6) Ahrar Bridge 7)Novex 8) Hafith AlQathi 9) Sasoon Eskell House 10) Silver Shops 11) Doctors Offices, 12) Beit Lynch 13) Baghdad  Chamber of Commerce 14) Al Ward and Kharoufa Shops 15) Malallah Shops 16) Askar, Sha’o, Khathouri and Jawad Shops. 17) Gailani Dalla house and complex. Note locations are approximate.

Part 2:  Arriving at the Gold Shops

Along the two sides of Al Nahir Street and its side streets and alleys are the many gold shop locations.  In general, the buildings hosting these shops are one and two stories, not much of architectural importance or features, most in poor condition. The buildings facade’s are characterized by window displays one after the other.  The street has nice, friendly scale to it; when walking you can see both sides and one can easily move around. The street is not designated pedestrian-only, but few cars use it. There is no landscaping, greenery, plazas, cafes, street furniture or art. In spite of the fact the street is close to Tigris River, there are no vistas or views to the river and one does not feel the river at all.

The window displays of the shops are simple and unsophisticated, with items placed in groupings by the shop owners. They favour hanging items from plastic cones stuck on the window glass. The few larger shops in the area have the most organized and attractive displays.

Popular Jewellery Trends

The historic and geographic influences on trends and designs of gold jewellery are obvious and intriguing. It is a wide and detailed subject starting from the influence of the Sumerian and Assyrian civilizations, as well as the regional trends from Turkey, Syria, and Iran and as far as India.

When walking along Al Nahir Street, we notice popular trends and fashions such as:

Khalil Malallah Goldsmith, Mina - Bracelet, 1980's, Image FEEFAA org

Askar Goldsmith, Chains - Qardon, 1960's, Image FEEFAA org

Heritage - Khazama - Nose Ring, Image FEEFAA org

Mina Work: A beautiful and colourful type of work particular to Baghdad is called mina (enamel). Only few of the shops specialize in creating that kind of work and mostly of a Subba origin. Other gold smith shops carry the mina pieces but likely they outsource the work to the specialized craftsmen.

Mosul Goldsmith Work:   Handmade gold pieces of traditional designs, mainly items reflecting Mosul city and its regional culture. The work is well-crafted by experienced goldsmiths who have migrated to Baghdad from Mosul.  These items have few stones – gold was the predominant material and purpose. They include repeated designs, with variations and new additions depending on the goldsmith himself. Such items include sabah, mantashi, hujil, necklaces and bracelets with gold coins and many others.

Gold Chains: A very popular and common item among all goldsmith shops and cultures, of which there are many designs and variations. Customers love buying chains. However, the king of all chains is the Qardon, which by some strict standards and rules is 2 meters long!.

Felameng, 19 - 20 Century, Image FEEFAA org

Coins Jewellery: Gold coins are popular in bracelets, necklaces and pendants. A bracelet may contain overlapping coins on top of each other, or necklaces made from rows of coins Maqlad. The coins are also added as decorative items on a wide range of jewellery pieces.  Used most often are the Othmani Qastantine coins from the 1920’s. European coins are used as well.

Religious Symbols: Religious items are always popular. A book symbolizing the Holy Qur’an, Arabic calligraphy of Allaha and the prophet Mohammed, protective phrases and the star and moon-shaped jewellery, are designed in a variety of styles and techniques. Crosses in different designs, and in particular Salib Al Hai, is popular.

Pearls and Turquoise: The two are widely used and perhaps more than other precious or semi precious stones; they are added to the gold pieces in a variety of ways. The socio – economic purpose of buying gold jewellery is not affected by these two items.

Heritage Pieces: Handmade gold pieces are mostly old items for resale, such as Khazama nose ring, headdress pins, and ankle bracelets and many others. These items are sometimes re-purposed, or divided into several pieces to gift to a number of family members.

Felameng: Highly sought after are the Felameng pieces, a thin rose cut diamond in handmade gold jewellery in a 19th century Othman designs. Although the origin could be Turkish or Syrian, or can be also an Iraqi Felameng, confirmation on this subject is hard to find. These items are scattered in various gold shops along Al Nahir Street, though their availability is limited.

Emerging Trends: New designs created by some of the shops, items imported from other countries, or items made upon the client’s request following a certain image from a magazine or copying a friend’s piece. Popular imported jewellery are Italian and Lebanese pieces, they are seen as more refined, current and contain more precious stones. The new style of Takhum jewellery is a matching earrings, necklace, bracelet and ring, made of diamonds and precious stones, are emerging and  popular for families of the bride and groom as wedding gifts, called Jihaz.

Khathouri Goldsmith, Qobcha - Brooch, 1980's, Image FEEFAA org

Sha'o Goldsmith, Coins - Bracelet , 1980's, Image FEEFAA org

Jawad Goldsmith, Ring, 1960's. Image FEEFAA org

The Goldsmith Shops:

There are many gold shops in the area; some make the pieces themselves, some own and manage workshops while others specialize in certain techniques and provide their expertise to goldsmiths upon request.  Most of the prominent gold smith shops are located in the south part of Al Nahir Street (before the bend in the shape of the street).

Khalil Malallah (1912 Samawa – 1989 Baghdad), a well-known goldsmith shop, specializes in creating elegant handmade golden “artworks” of coloured enamel, the Mina Work.  These colourful items stand out brilliantly. His son Khalid Malallah is a goldsmith himself and joined his father until he opened his own shop nearby in 1983.

Hashim Al Ward is one of the prominent goldsmiths, who originally had a shop in Al Kahdhimiya gold suq and moved to the Al Nahir Street. The shop is one of the large shops in the area that produces handmade gold pieces with more work with precious stones as well as mina work. Al Ward is well known for his iconic gold Chenar leaf, that he uses in a variety of jewellery pieces.

Kharrufa is originally from Mosul city and the work is representative of traditional Mosul gold jewellery and work with precious stones.

The three have relatively larger shops with the most modern interiors and attractive displays. Al Ward and Kharrufa were opposite each other on a side street of Al Nahir Street leading to Rashid Street, while Malallah was located on Al Nahir Street.

Yousif Askar (1922 Iraq – 2020 USA) and Salim Sha’o, are both very important goldsmiths from Mosul and come from a Syriac families; both learned their trade from their fathers Yacoub Askar and Abboud Sha’o. They are well known for their hand-made work of traditional items and work mostly on commission basis.  Both are very serious artisans, and have small shops with few or no display items. Most of the time there are no other people or customers inside the shop. There is an unspoken, friendly competition between the two men; clients  or families choose one and continue to commission items from the same one and not from the other.

Among this distinguished group is Khathouri Buni Al Taweel, also from Mosul, but a smaller operation. He is famous for a beautiful handmade brooch of gold and pearls called Qobcha meaning button.  It is said he has made the buttons for his wife’s coat.

Further down the street one goldsmith shop that stands out is Jawad. The shop is known for more contemporary styles and the ability to try new designs or duplicating a unique piece, even from images found in magazines. Jawad is talkative and lively; his relatively small shop is always full of friends and devoted customers.

Even though the shop is no longer in existence, we hear people referring to it frequently is the goldsmith shop of Vladimir Sigal (1896 Baku -1977 Montreal) and his son Isaac Sigal (1929 Baghdad – 2002 Montreal). The business was established in Baghdad in 1921. The Sigals were originally from Russia (Azerbaijan) and therefore their goldsmith work has a different style. Their shop address was in the Lynch Buildings.  The Sigal family emigrated to Montreal, Canada.

Goldsmith Yousif Askar - 1964 - Image courtesy of Ramiz Askar son of Yousif Askar

Issac Sigal Goldsmith, Pendant, Montreal, 1980's, Image FEEFAA org

Sigal Goldsmith, Receipt, Baghdad, 1945, Image FEEFAA org

Al Ward Goldsmith, Chenar Leaf - Pendant, 1980's, Image FEEFAA org

The Business

In all shops, prices are not fixed and no price tags are displayed. The customary way of doing business is by bargaining, though the items are weighed in order to arrive at the price.  Each shop has a manual weighing scale; it is fascinating to watch the weighing process and balancing the scale.

It is a common habit and almost shopping culture for customers to get familiar with one or two goldsmith shops and keep repeating the business at the same place. Word of mouth is powerful.

The gold used mainly is 22 karats known for its distinctive colour and softness.  Eighteen karats gold and lower is not used or very rarely. The items are usually not marked with gold measurement or the name of the goldsmith who made it. The karat is a measure of how much gold is contained in a piece. If a jewellery item is 22 karats, this simply means that out of a total of 24 parts, 22 parts of the piece are gold, and 2 parts are made up of other material.

The goldsmith industry on Al Nahir Street is strictly a male-dominated business; there are no shops owned by women, and none make or sell the jewellery, at least not in public.  Not until the mid 1980’s did some female members of shop owners’ families started to appear in senior managerial positions.

Manuel Scale

Part 3:  Extended Trip and Back Home

Our journey to the gold shops usually ends here, and we find our way home by taxi, or on some beautiful days, we walk further after the bend in the street. At that point the jewellery shops displaying semi precious stones and beaded items start increasing in number and we see fewer gold shops. At the bend or where the street curves is the distinguished fabric shop called Select.

At the north end of Al Nahir Street, we reach the Central Bank of Iraq and the financial district; this area houses a cluster of men’s fabric shops. We make sure to visit and check fabrics for our father’s suits, such as Makia fabric shop and others.

Our outing will end by buying some excellent delicious fruits from a curb-side shop where the dates and figs are excellent, and then we pass by the Kahi and Qaymer shop, where the product is already sold out by the time we reach this place!  Kahi is a very early morning sweet, a flaky pastry soaked in sugar syrup served with Qaymer the extra thick cream of Baghdad.

Sometimes our journey will continue further into the historic covered pedestrian alleys leading to several suqs specializing in particular merchandise: textiles, carpets and rugs, and further to Al Mutanabi Street or Al Safafir copper suq ending in Rashid Street. We hail a taxi to return home, although at this point Shorjah suq is close and on our way back, but that is for another time, it always has its own day trip.

Kahi and Qaymer

Riped Rutab Dates

Shorjah Suq, Baghdad

Sources:

* Dr. Sabah Al Nassery, “Orosdi Back Store in Baghdad” , 2016.

** Orosdi Back notes, by May Muzaffar, 2020.

*** Biet Lynch Notes by Gillian Campbell, 2020

****  Ali Abu Al Tahin “That’s How Mackenzie Bookshop was Established”, Al Mada Newspaper, 2012

***** Mackenzie Bookshop notes, by May Muzaffar, 2020.

****** Iraqi Stores Company / Orosdi Back notes, by Leith Shammas, 2020

Images that are not attributed have been sourced from the internet and are of unknown origin.

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About Nadia Tobia:

Nadia Tobia, an Architect born in Baghdad and is Canadian since the 90s. Graduate of Baghdad University, Iraq and University Collage Dublin, Ireland. She is a principal and founder of Tobia Architects Inc www.tobiaarchitects.com . She has worked extensively as a lead designer on large scale complex projects in Iraq, Canada, Ireland, UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and China and with the UN HABITAT for Iraq in Jordan..