Mohamad Ali Harissi, AFP
Last updated: 5 August, 2011

Baghdad’s Shorjah market is Ramadan centre, 700 years on

A year after it reopened, following rampant violence, shoppers flocked to Baghdad’s Shorjah market as they have for centuries to buy goods for the holy month of Ramadan.

Soaring prices and scorching heat, however, along with the bloodshed that engulfed the capital in recent years, have hit at the tradition and, consequently, the family businesses that depend on it.

“Ramadan starts from here,” said Abu Issam — literally, father of Issam — while gazing at cases of rice and spices in his shop.

“Shorjah was a haven for people from all Iraq, especially during Ramadan,” added the 70-year-old, who has worked in Shorjah for five decades, as his son Mohammed tried to turn on a ceiling fan that dates back to 1934.

“But today, the market lives in a time of security challenges and high prices that are controlled by importers, who raise them at the beginning of Ramadan every year.”

Ramadan, the holy month during which Muslims abstain from food, drink and sex from dawn to dusk, began this week.

Evening iftar meals, when the fast is broken, are a time of special dishes and family gatherings, and for more than 700 years, since Shorjah was established in the Abassid era, Iraqi families have stocked up on goods there before the start of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

The market is the oldest commercial hub in Baghdad and is located in the historic centre of the city, bustling with shoppers and merchants hawking their wares as donkeys and horses drag carts of produce along Shorjah’s narrow, pothole-lined lanes.

All manner of goods are sold in several sections located across around a dozen khans, or age-old resthouses that have been converted to shop fronts.

In deference to Baghdad’s version, markets that have popped up in cities across Iraq have also taken the name Shorjah.

The activity in the capital’s market marks a major departure from just a handful of years ago, when sectarian violence in Baghdad forced roads leading to the market and its main thoroughfare to be closed from 2007 until last summer, when they were finally reopened.

Following the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Shorjah was the site of heavy fighting between American and Iraqi forces, and then between US troops and Iraqi insurgents who hid in the area.

Shoulder-high concrete blast walls still line both sides of the market’s main road, Al-Jumhuriyah street, to protect shoppers from the ever-present danger of bomb explosions.

And despite the reopening of the roads surrounding Shorjah, a city-wide overnight curfew and city-wide checkpoints have made pre-dawn shopping impossible.

“In the past, we used to visit each other early in the morning, before the fast began,” said Shihab Ahmed, a teacher.

“But now, we cannot do that because of the curfew and the general security situation.”

Starkly illustrating the danger, one man with hearing aids declined to talk because his hearing was severely damaged by an explosion in the market.

Another shop owner declined to give his name, for fear of assassination.

He lamented the scalding heat, topping 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), had kept some shoppers away, with Ramadan this year encompassing peak summer in Iraq.

Other market-goers bemoaned rising prices in recent years — food prices in Iraq doubled between 2004 and 2008, compared to 73 percent increases globally, according to the United Nations.

“Prices have risen a lot, and are rising more now with the beginning of Ramadan,” said Ahmed Assim al-Dabbagh, a university professor.

“But despite that, Shorjah remains a commercial symbol — it has beautiful traditions and memories.”

Through it all, however, Abu Issam and his son have worked in Shorjah, making ends meet and tying their fate to the rise and fall of the market.

“I have worked here since 1956,” he said.

“I used to buy and sell rice and cereals — I have not changed my work yet.”