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The cultural and intellectual golden age of Arabic/Islamic civilization, during the Abbasid caliphate, was followed by a long, gradual decline. Only in the 19th century did the cultural climate again show signs of life, as the result of increasing contacts with the West.

In the 20th century the growing urban middle class became increasingly affluent, as Iraq’s oil wealth grew dramatically. From the early decades until the end of the 1980s, Iraq’s entertainment industry boomed. This occurred not only during the period of the monarchy, but also during several following presidencies. While these governments all suppressed freedom of expression, they nevertheless considered national culture useful for promoting nationalist aspirations.

While Saddam Hussein had pan-Arab cultural aspirations, he also strongly supported a modern form of Iraqi nationalist culture. Despite political repression, the cultural atmosphere in the decades preceding Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was very international and open. The many Iraqi artists, academics, and business professionals whom the regime had enabled to study and work abroad contributed to this international atmosphere. Nevertheless, Baghdad’s artistic life has seldom had a substantial impact on the rest of the Arab world.

Traditions of the Jewish community and other minorities in Iraq have always left a distinctive mark in Baghdad’s cultural life. Influences also crept in from neighbouring Iran, partly because most Iranians shared their religious traditions of Shiite Islam with more than half of the Iraqi population.

Further Reading

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During the Saddam era, painting portraits of Saddam or adding them to national monuments seemed the only safe line of work for artists.
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Since Islamic State (IS) captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, the destruction of churches and centuries-old Islamic and non-Islamic sites, and the ransacking of museums and libraries at the hands of IS militants...

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