Established in the late Abbasid period around A.D. 750, Souk al-Shorja is Baghdad’s oldest markets, and one of the oldest in the world. It was first called Souk al-Rayahin, and then renamed Souk al-Attarin. Its part of the area’s historic heritage that includes the Abbasid Palace on the Tigris River, and also the Khulafa Mosque on the street al-Jumhuriya. The “Shorja” part of the name means “salty water” in Arabic. This refers to the well that was once located where the market is now.
Throughout history the marketplace has kept its distinctive style of shops and squares that are still to this day swamped with merchants and shoppers. Even the modern malls in the Iraqi capital cannot compete with the market. It’s littered with a set of overlapping souks, which are open air markets, and they preserve the traditional and popular character of the area. Shorja offers food stalls, as well as well as conventional household goods. It stocks specialized items for holiday’s and religious occasions. There are lots of traditional spice dealers who sell different kinds of spices, tea, sugar, grains and sweets.
The market has several entrances. You can enter via the Rashid street entrance that features narrow alleyways of no more than 3 or 4 meters in width. Some of the alleyways are part of the market and still use the same structure that they have for decades. Change happens slowly in the marketplace. The activities that take place in the marketplace are varied. Not just limited to wholesale and retail activities there are also various other transactions taking place involving the import and export of various types of goods. The market is packed with shopkeepers, traders, street vendors, owners of shipping companies and many observers and tourists. People go there to meet people and checkout what new goods are for sale there.
Walking around the marketplace its easy to see that there are many aspects of it that have been neglected. Firstly there is no security and in and around the market there is very poor infrastructure. This has given rise to accidental explosions, fires, and even floods. The Baghdad Mayor, Thirka Mohammed Jaber Alloush visited Shorja on the 1st April 2015, pointing out the lack of adequate services. She emphasized that the market needed attention and care, due to its significance as a historical landmark in Baghdad.
Reflection of Society
Shorja is more than just a marketplace. Its a barometer of political, economic and social stability in the country of Iraq. If there is a rise in prices at Shorja, this indicates a disruption in the political and security situation. Also the number of visitors and the expressions on their faces take the temperature of the social stability in the regions. In times that there is political and security instability, the market becomes a ghost town, and when everything is stable, its a bustling hive of activity. There was even a branch of the government that assigned the job to someone to send in a daily mood report of the people in the market.
Since 2003, due to the political and economic nature of Shorja, it has become a target for armed attacks, and bombings. The most recent attack came on 7th February 2015, when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Souk al-Arabi of Shorja. his resulted in the death and injuries of dozens of people. There was a similar incident on the 13th February 2014, which took the lives of 6 people. As the economic generator of Iraq, since 2003, the marketplace has become the most targeted by bombings.
Shorja Market Place is not just a commercial hub of activity, its an economic power that influences the political and economic decisions made in the country. Its widely thought that the previous government with the former Prime Minister Abdul Karim Kassem, was brought down by the merchants of the Shorja market. They opposed his favouring of the poor and supported the forces that ended up overthrowing him.
Even as far back as July 17th 1968, when the Baath Party had just taken power, they realized the importance of the Shorja market as a key economic and political influencer. The regime was known at the time to assassinate any merchants that opposed its policies, fearing their possible “bad” influence on shoppers. Further back to the 1950’s the Jew’s who were also involved as merchants in the market were forced out representing the economic activities globally at the time.
Saddam Hussein’s Reign
June 25, 1992 when Saddam Hussein was in power executed 42 merchants following a food price surge. They were arrested at their shops, and faced trial only a few hours later with charges of sabotaging the economy. Under Saddam Hussein the market was subject to the regular elimination of indigenous traders, and also the illegal confiscation of their money, and an attempt to blur the historical identity of the market.
The Future of Shorja
Now Shorja is recognised by the Iraqi authorities as being the microcosm of the over arching economy of the country, with officials who have regularly visited the market calling on the security to be strengthened at its main entrances. There has even been an effort made in the restoration of some areas that have faced years of neglect. The market is also exempt from any programmed electricity costs that happen in the area. Even 2007 saw the arrival of John McCain, as he attempted to demonstrate how safe the area had become. Overall things are changing, and more business is being done than ever before. This is maybe just the beginning of the turning of a corner in Iraq’s new history.