I’m reading a lousy Iraqi novel called Papa Sartre (a 2009 translation of the 2001 original); it’s only 178 pages long but feels like War and Peace, and I’m skimming more and more as I zip through its repetitive and heavy-handed mockery of schemers, ne’er-do-wells, and fake philosophers. Why do I keep reading, you ask? Because I’m fascinated with Baghdad, as I am with all ancient cities, and it’s rare to read fiction set there. Alas, although there are descriptions of Baghdad streets and neighborhoods, it’s impossible for me to add them to my mental map of the city because I’m unable to locate them on an actual map: where is al-Saadun Park, where is the Sadriya neighborhood? And why are there no decent maps of Baghdad? It’s the only great city I know of for which maps are (as far as I can determine) unavailable. Even my beloved Map Room at the NYPL came up nearly empty; I copied a 1951 Arabic map that is nearly useless even if you can read the Arabic, and have collected various tiny maps in newspapers and magazines over the years, but on the whole I might as well be reading about an imaginary city. (You’d think the publisher could have included at least a sketch map showing where the various settings of the novel are.)

Excuse me, I’m venting. What I came here to say is that I eventually ran across one of those nuggets that keep me reading, a reference to “the Orosdi Back department store.” That was such a, well, Levantine-sounding name that I had to investigate it; my preliminary guess was that “Back” was a mangled version of the common Ottoman honorific Beg. But no, it’s an Austrian Jewish surname; you can read about it here (scroll down to “A GREAT DEPARTMENT STORE”):

Three years after they opened their first European store in Vienna’s 1st district Leon Orosdi and Hermann Back opened their store in Egypt circa 1896. While the Vienna store disappeared the one in Cairo is still with us today albeit under a defunct state run ownership/management.

Some older Cairenes may still remember Orosdi-Back, that famous turn-of-the-century department store which early on added the Turkish-derived a.k.a “Omar Effendi” to its name. The six-story rococo department store designed in 1905-6 by Raoul Brandon (1878-1941) stands at the corner of (Sultan) Abdelaziz and Rushdi Pasha Streets, a powerful architectural testimonial to the Cairo that was. In its better days when it was still a private sector company the globe above the building was seen kilometers away as it shone its powerful beam each night beckoning wide-eyed patrons.

In 1909 Hermann’s son Philippe received a minor ennoblement from emperor Franz-Josef, a belated recognition for Back’s sponsorship of several archeological excavations in Egypt as late as 1907. By then the Frenchified Orosdis and Backs were more prone to be seen in Bagatelle, Paris then in Leopoldstadt, Vienna. Armed with their wealth eventually the Orosdi-Back descendants made into the old European aristocracy changing their religion in the process.

But the Cairo store was only one of their far-flung chain, as you can see from this summary of a monograph, European Department Stores and Middle Eastern Consumers: The Orosdi-Back Saga by Uri M. Kupferschmidt (İstanbul, 2007):

In “another age of globalization”, the Ets. [i.e., Etablissements] Orosdi-Back were a trading company which stepped into the new business opportunities of the Middle East from the mid-19th century on. The Ets. Orosdi-Back became best known for their department stores in Istanbul, Cairo, Beirut, Tunis and Baghdad.

Adolf Orosdi, a Hungarian army officer, who had found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, opened a first clothing store in Galata in 1855. With the Back family, equally of Jewish Austro-Hungarian descent, Orosdi and his sons began establishing similar stores elsewhere.

In 1888, when their siège social was registered in Paris, they already had outlets in Philippopoli , Bucharest, Salonica, Izmir, Cairo, Alexandria, Tanta, and Tunis, as well as purchasing missions in industrial and commercial centers in Europe.

Their business gradually evolved from wholesale to retailing, in particular through grands magasins, which differed from the bazaar. […]

Advertising nouveautés and articles de Paris, Orosdi-Back sold fashionable clothing and bonneterie, but also travel and household goods, toys etc. For decades they also had a large share in the marketing of fezzes. The consumption of foreign commodities gradually began to trickle down to the middle classes. Most etatist regimes therefore did not liquidate this class of foreign stores but nationalized them for their own economic purposes. In Egypt, the Omar Effendi chain, which carries the name of its origin in Istanbul, was recently re-privatised and purchased by a Saudi firm.

What fascinated me when I unleashed Google Books on “orosdi back” was how omnipresent references to the stores were in descriptions of Near Eastern cities from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. Books on Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut, Smyrna, Aleppo, and other cities often mention that you can get Western articles at Orosdi-Back, and the Salonica branch is mentioned in the wonderful Mazower history of that city (I wrote about it here and here, and the renamings I ranted about in the latter post still make my blood boil: “How I hate those modern names, the Street of the 37th of Octember, the Avenue of Marshal X, the Boulevard of Our Glorious National Uprising!”). Now it’s forgotten. Sic transit…


  1. I don’t know if these are any better than the ones you’ve found, but…
    This one is the one that passes as “detailed,” apparently: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Baghdad_nima_2003.jpg
    There appears to be one for sale from Germany: http://www.geckomaps.com/ (click on ‘Irak’ to the right)
    Excerpts of it appear here: http://www.brainworker.ch/Irak/bagdad.htm
    It looks pretty detailed.
    Here’s a hodge-podge.
    Is it weird that there are no maps? Google Maps has great satellite imagery, if only they’d add street names and such.

  2. Hold on. Here’s the German one. I found it through the Perry-Castaneda Library map room.

  3. Thanks, the German one is the best I’ve seen yet; I actually found Sadoun Park. But it still shows street names for only the large streets and avenues. I have an Istanbul Atlas that shows every alley.

  4. Baghdad maps from LOC: NIMA ref. no. K942SBAGHDAD Bethesda, MD : National Imagery and Mapping Agency, c2003 (this looks a lot like the Wiki one); Bethesda, MD : National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, c2006 (more recent, but I don’t see the Green Zone marked). This is kinda fun but OT, collection of 3D building (and bridge) models in Baghdad with links to google earth (where you can see photos people have put on the satellite image, sometimes with descriptions of Baghdad neighborhoods or recent events).

  5. Perhaps the various regimes have been too paranoid to permit the publication of any such maps, on the theory that house-to-house fighting becomes difficult without a map.

  6. The reason might also be financial. There used to be quite a nice map of Jordan that could be downloaded from the spooks’ government website; now you have to pay for it.

  7. The story of the Orosdi-Back family (Back married Orosdi’s sister) and of their chain of enterprises is really fascinating. Egyptologist Győző Vörös has recently published a monograph on their son Fülöp (he always used the Hungarian form of his name as he was a great patriot and also a Hungarian nobleman with the title “Surányi/de Surány”) at the centenary of his excavations (1907-2007). He was the first Hungarian archeologist to make excavations in Egypt, and the seventy cases of treasures he brought home and distributed among Budapest, Vienna and Krakow contributed to the foundations of the three respective important Egyptian collections.

  8. Baghdad maps from LOC
    Yeah, I’ve seen those, but again, they have only major streets. All these maps remind me of Soviet city maps: they give you the general idea but are useless for detail.
    Perhaps the various regimes have been too paranoid to permit the publication of any such maps
    But it’s been almost seven years since Saddam fell; publishers had excellent Moscow maps out almost immediately after the fall of the USSR.

  9. Studiolum: That’s very interesting. So what kind of name is Orosdi?

  10. Amman has been politically stable, more or less, since the 70’s, and while you will find maps with detail, only the names of the major streets are given. The name of the street where I lived, Omar al-Khayyam Street and the street of a very popular internet cafe, Mango Street, are not on the maps. Likewise with the American embassy, although other embassies appear on maps. To add to the confusion, there are popular names used for areas, bus stops, and traffic circles that are called something else in some official ministry office somewhere. Wadi Sacra, a huge landmark where several bus routes pass through, and where the Palestinian demonstrations always used to go, leaving from the al-Husseini mosque in the city center and passing under my balcony, is not marked; Decoleeya is named for a ministry building with plants hanging from the sides; the Medina traffic circle is officially called al-Nasser of the glorious defender of something-or-other. And forget mail delivery. You’ll be lucky to receive two thirds of what is sent to a P.O. box.

  11. So what kind of name is Orosdi?
    A coined name. It comes from the name of Oroszd (pronounce Orosd) village. The final -i in Hungarian makes the adjective form of geographic names (just like in Persian and other Iranian languages). Oroszd stood near to the village of Mohora, but in the 16th century it was destroyed by the Turks.
    Patriotic Hungarian Jews in the first half of the 19th century often changed their German-sounding family names to Hungarian-sounding ones that were derived from the names of perished settlements, thus differentiating themselves from noblemen who derived their names from existing ones. So did also the industrial entrepreneur Alfonz Schnabel who changed his name to Oroszdi at the beginning of the anti-Austrian war of independence of 1848-1849 in which he fought as a lieutenant. That’s why he had to go to the Turkish emigration where he was also the secretary of Lajos Kossuth for a while (and where he compiled a Turkish grammar for the other Hungarian émigrés). Later he converted to Islam and entered the Turkish army as a major. His Turkish officer’s salary made it possible to him to establish his first emporium in Galata.
    The origin of the name of Oroszd village is also interesting. The village was founded in 1112 by the Russian body guards of King Coloman’s (1070-1116) second wife Eufemia, daughter of Grand Prince Vladimir II of Kiev. The name of the village thus comes from “Orosz”, meaning “Russian” in Hungarian, provided with the today obsolete “-d” geographical suffix.
    Just for curiosity, the name of Mohora village, whose fields now extend on the place of medieval Oroszd, comes from Arabic, as it was a village of Ismaelite merchants arriving here together with the conquering Magyars. The medieval coat of arm of the village’s lords, first represented in 1418, still includes the bust of an Ismaelite.

  12. For conflict zones, another good resource is globalsecurity.org; they don’t make any, but are pretty diligent about gathering them. Not sure there are any that Perry-Castañeda (already mentioned) doesn’t have, though.
    At the time of the “surge”, the NYT put together a graphic affected neighborhoods. So the right skills are applied from time to time.
    if only they’d add street names and such
    Crowd source it.

  13. John Emerson says

    –Perhaps the various regimes have been too paranoid to permit the publication of any such maps.
    –But it’s been almost seven years since Saddam fell.

    Noted without comment.

  14. –But it’s been almost seven years since Saddam fell.
    And Lebanon has been in turmoil for the last 30 some years. Even Egypt has had its moments. No one country can be stable until the entire region is stable.

  15. Amman has been politically stable, more or less, since the 70’s, and while you will find maps with detail, only the names of the major streets are given.
    No offense to Jordanians, but Amman is hardly Baghdad. It’s been an actual city for, what, sixty years or so?
    Crowd source it.
    Thanks, that looks like a promising resource.

  16. Studiolum: Thanks, I love that stuff!

  17. Amman is hardly Baghdad. It’s been an actual city for, what, sixty years or so?
    It was one of the original Greek decapolis cities; the Greeks called it Philadelphia. From my bathroom window I could see the ancient temple of Hercules on the hill that was the Citadel (the same hill I climbed to witness a rather insipid sunrise on the dawning of the millennium.) Amman was the biblical city of Rabbath-ammon or Rabbah, capital of the Ammonite kingdom, often in competition with Jerusalem, and this was probably the same citadel where the biblical King David sent Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, to die in battle. Amman was cursed by several prophets, Amos (Amos 1:14), Jeremiah (Jer. 49:2, 3), and Ezekiel (Ezek. 25:5). Ezekiel’s curse is the most colorful:

    therefore I am handing you over to the people of the east for a possession. They shall set their encampments among you and pitch their tents in your midst; they shall eat your fruit, and they shall drink your milk. I will make Rabbah a pasture for camels and Ammon a fold for flocks. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.

    I’ve seen flocks of sheep being driven past the U.S. embassy, so it was probably a fairly effective curse.

  18. I forgot to mention Amman’s Roman theater, but that’s only a couple thousand years old.

  19. It was one of the original Greek decapolis cities
    I’m aware of that. I’m also aware, as I trust you are, that it was utterly destroyed in Abbasid times and was a heap of ruins until the the Ottomans built the Hejaz railway and made it a station, at which point it was an inhabited spot again. But it was not what you’d call a city; when Abdullah I made it his capital in 1921, he ruled from a train car. It only became a city after WWII. What all this means is that its ancient and glorious past has no relevance to current maps.

  20. John Emerson says

    The Greeks called it Philadelphia.
    This never turns out well.

  21. Incidentally, Hat, I’m reading Mazower’s Salonica now, having added it to my list after reading your earlier posts, and enjoying it very much.

  22. The Jordan/Transjordan area has had its ups and downs. While its economic prosperity has depended on its being able to balance itself between the various historical world powers, it hasn’t always been an administrative center, and there were some earthquakes that did some damage (Mamluke period?), surely it’s an exaggeration to claim it to have been completely uninhabited. After all, Amman is situated where major inland caravan trails between the Arabian peninsula and Damascus all merge, two western trails from the south come together at Ma’an to form the King’s Highway (the Via Nova Trajan of the Romans), then continue north through Amman. Also Amman is at the confluence of the Zarka branch of the Jordan River, and on a natural passage to points west of the Dead Sea. It also has a natural spring, or underground river, near what is now the governmental center of Ras al Ayn (“head of the spring”). In this part of the world, water means habitation. There was an influx of Circassians to Amman between 1878-1909; the Damascus/Medina railway was completed in 1908. T.E. Lawrence called Amman a village, but he never actually went there.
    When King Abdullah I started governing from Ma’an in the south in 1920, British envoy Kirkbride was unable to get money from his headquarters in Jerusalem through Amman then south to the then-administrative center of Kerak (near Maan) because the Amman-Kerak road was full of brigands. When Abdullah move his administrative center to Amman, he stayed in homes that were made available to him by Circassian muftis of Amman because Raghadan palace wasn’t finished until 1925. Fridays he spent barbecuing with his inner circle at Darat al Funun on Jebel Weibdeh, now an art space (the librarian there might also tell you about the emir’s dungeons and scorpions). The emir also spent much of the year living in a tent, bedouin style, in winter outside the village of Shuna in the Ghor valley (there’s a hot spring there), and in summer the plain of Madaba (another town with toppled Roman ruins — earthquakes? — and ancient wells with water still in them).
    Like Rome, Amman is built on seven hills. Modern Amman does not resemble DC with its planned grids as much as it resembles Boston with its glorified cow paths. Given the hill arrangement of the city, and the fact that it is built on solid rock (the water mains are above ground, and leak like a sieve on the one day of the week they turn the water on)I see no reason to believe the street plan of Amman doesn’t go back a loooong time. The first attempt at modern city planning was in the 1980’s, maybe around 1989; I know a “comprehensive plan” (like Chicago’s Burnham Plan or Metropolis 2020) was written for Amman, but I have never able to locate it.

  23. i was to propose that Orosdi is perhaps from Russian because we call them Oros too, but then thought it’s perhaps irrelevant
    here are some music i like for people who might be interested

  24. David Marjanović says


    Alfons. [ns] and [nts] are kept strictly apart in German.

    Just for curiosity, the name of Mohora village, whose fields now extend on the place of medieval Oroszd, comes from Arabic, as it was a village of Ismaelite merchants arriving here together with the conquering Magyars.

    WTF. Ismaelite merchants in Hungary in the 10th century.
    How many peoples arrived with the Magyars? Three? Five? Ten?

  25. John Emerson says

    The early Magyars were pickup armies. They were constituted of Magyars, Cumans, and Szeklers, but at various times absorbed Rus, Englishmen, and any other unemployed knight. “Ismaelites” surprise me, but I’m pretty sure that Armenians were a factor during some periods (just as traders).
    Ronay’s “The Lost King of England” is a tremendously fun book about a claimant to the English throne, exiled by Canute, who ended up as a Hungarian noblemen, and then went back to England a little before 1066 to claim the crown and be killed.
    Ronay’s other books are about the historical Dracula and “The Tartar Khan’s Englishman”, about an Englishman in the Mongol forces captured by the Germans (at the battle of Leignitz I think).
    Ronay’s historical method is a bit conjectural but I recommend his books very highly for readers who can read critically and who aren’t outraged by a few long stretches here and there. He digs up a lot of wonderful stuff.

  26. John Emerson says

    TO DO:
    1. Claim English crown.
    2. Be killed.
    Done and done.
    It only took about a week or two.

  27. Great post!
    For medieval Baghdad, Guy Lestrange’s Bagdad During the Abbasid Caliphate, with many maps, is available in its entirety on Google Books.

  28. So it is—thanks! I xeroxed most of the maps years ago when I was focusing on medieval Islamic history, but it’s great to have the whole thing available from my desk.

  29. Except that the fold-out maps weren’t scanned properly (as usual) and the Internet Archive (which has a much better track record there) hasn’t done it yet.

  30. Crowd source it
    Here’s OpenStreetmap.

  31. Hi, just for the record, the Orosdi family name was originally Schnabel. They “hungarised” it when they arrived into the country, it seams for military reasons, as you had to have a hungarian name to be able to access some of the army ranks. And Orosdi is simply the hugarian translation for german Schnabel which simply meant “beak”.

  32. And Orosdi is simply the hugarian translation for german Schnabel which simply meant “beak”.

    Seven years later: No, it’s from the village Oroszd (see above). You’re probably thinking of orr ‘nose.’

  33. Stu Clayton says

    It still simply means beak ! After all these years !!

    Nevertheless, a Grünschnabel is an uppity greenhorn.

  34. For me, it means the man who invented Beethoven.

  35. (Wow, I hadn’t realized his mother died in Theresienstadt. No wonder he never went back to Germany or Austria.)

  36. He invented Beethoven and was invented by Zukofsky.

  37. Huh? I just read through that entire thread and found no mention of Schnabel. What was your point in linking it?

  38. Read the wiki page for Schnabel. I was just amused by the connection to a contentious person. And that was a lively thread.

  39. Ah, I see: “a number of his compositions (notably championed by the violinist Paul Zukofsky)…”

  40. I have admired Artur Schnabel’s recordings my whole life, and somewhere I picked up the information about his mother’s being murdered in the Shoah. (I knew he was Jewish, and for a European Jew of his generation, what happened to him and his family during the Nazi period is a natural question.) Beethoven is my favorite composer, and although his piano sonatas are by means my favorite part of his oeuvre, they are Beethoven’s most personal compositions, mostly written for him to play himself. In his youth, Beethoven was one of the preeminent pianists in Europe. Later in life, he was able to continue giving private piano performances even as he lost his hearing, and he kept playing long past the point at which his deafness forced him to give up conducting.

    Professionally, there is another Schnabl whose name comes up a lot, Martin Schnabl, the world’s foremost expert on string field theory. He was the first person to locate the interacting vacuum of bosonic string field theory.

  41. Stu Clayton says

    Many physicists believe that “the vacuum holds the key to a full understanding of nature”.[8]

    Rarely has so much been made of so little. But that’s happening more and more often, I get the impression.

  42. Aren’t mathematicians boiled their entire subject down to ∅?

  43. David Eddyshaw says
  44. One of my acquaintances, a big admirer of Tesla (a person, not a car), once related a story about him chatting with another person about his hero and explaining that, among other things, Tesla invented AC. The counterparty immediately seized on the familiar subject and said something to the effect that without AC summers are unbearable.

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