Kurdistan & Iraq 2013
This journey required a great deal of thought, pre planning and trust in our group leader. There was no “gun ho” attitude or war zone addiction, just a determination to visit some of the greatest archaeological sites in the world at a time when Iraq was quieter (I could not guarantee that it would be safer) than it had been for many years. As it turned out, we couldn’t have chosen a better time because Iraq is now (September 2015) being torn apart by genocide, religious zealotry and hatred, and the wonderful historical sites are being looted, bulldozed and defaced as I type this.
The blog is transcribed from my daily diary, written daily as events occurred in 2013.
Day 1 Diyarbakir, Turkey
Our International group met up in Diyarbakir, as we intend to cross into Iraq via the Kurdish border and then eventually travel down to Basra.
My partner and I are joined by two friends (D & F) who last visited Iraq while Saddam was in power, plus one American (A), one Mexican (M), two Australians ( B & J) and our group leader ( G). G is extremely experienced and has been leading groups through Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan for nearly 20 years.
We arrived to heavy smoke across the city, due to a nearby forest fire. No one seems fussed about this, so I assume it must happen on a regular basis. We booked into the Hotel Kaplan, which has clean, modern, air conditioned rooms with fridges and showers. Perfect for our short stay.
This morning we had a personal safety briefing from G. I’m surprised because G normally assumes that his clients know what they’ve signed up for and I wondered (wrongly) if this is a bit over cautious. We’re told that the city is pick pocket heaven, where small children wander in groups, surrounding people to snatch cameras and valuables. 3 out of 4 of G’s previous groups have been robbed in the past few years and he doesn’t want us to add to the statistic. The hotel staff reinforced the warning when they saw me starting to walk out of the hotel with a camera around my neck and warned me to put it away.
The excellent tourist information centre was easily located near our hotel and we leave with a free city map and a local guide book. Very impressive.
We hadn’t gone 100 yards before a gently spoken man introduced himself and asked if he could accompany us. We’d found ourselves a local guide without even trying. Knowing that we’d obviously been targeted as tourists, we remained warily friendly and accepted his offer to show us around for the morning. Our new companion spoke excellent, Dutch, French and German and told us that he used to teach English. We spent the next few hours wandering through backstreets and alleys that are reminiscent of old Damascus. Granted, there was one annoying detour into a “cousin’s” souvenir shop where the obligatory orange tea was served, with a soft sell of carpets but everyone stayed friendly and chatty, even when we extricated ourselves without buying anything.
Our guide took us to the Sheik Mutahhar Mosque, with its 4 column minaret and then onto Cahit Sitki Taranci Museum, an old style Turkish house that once belonged to a famous poet. Pro PKK graffiti is everywhere.
Several times we were stopped by men asking where we are from, then introducing themselves as Kurds and welcoming us to “their country”. We were told that American troops had flown into a nearby air base and that people were very worried about what will happen next. We are in the shadow of the American threat to bomb Syria in retaliation for the sarin gas attack last month.
We gave our new friend some money to thank him for his time and then walked through the old walled city to the Safa Mosque (at prayers so we didn’t go in), and onto the Behramsa Camill to view their spectacularly beautiful original Iznik tiles.
We then found our own way through the narrow lanes to the ancient Assyrian church of the Virgin Mary and were greeted by the parish priest, who kindly showed us around. The church started out as 3rd century roman, and has recently been restored. The attached 200 year old Marian church is built with roman brick and re used columns. The intricate wooden alters are painted with faded icons and burnished with gold. This is a truly lovely place. The priest sat with us in the peaceful courtyard and told us about his dwindling congregation which is now down to only 40 people. He is struggling to teach the Aramaic bible to the remaining children. The main bulk of his flock now live in America and Europe. Though they send money, the church is very poor and it’s struggling to survive. After declining coffee and leaving a small donation, we set off to walk the rest of the walls and visit the fortress.
While stocking up with water in town we met an ex BBC cameraman who now owns a restaurant and a ladies clothing factory. It seems to be the norm here. Making money outside the country and then returning home to set up a small business or two.
We were distracted by the sound of Chinook helicopters and heavy military aircraft flying overhead. I can understand why the townsfolk are worried.
Day 2 the Turkey / Iraq Border and Dohuk
At 6.30 am we started our drive to the border. A mini bus taxi collected us and took us to Cele where we changed to a taxi which is permitted to enter the Turkish / Iraqi border.
The land is parched dry but very fertile. The wheat, melons, cotton and tomatoes being grown by the well maintained roadside is interspersed with dozens of army barracks and checkpoints along the Syrian border. There are watch towers every half kilometre but we saw no sign of movement. We saw small groups of women and children being loaded into the backs of lorries – refugees fleeing Syria. The barbed wire stretched for miles and miles but no sign of soldiers. Odd.
We easily crossed the Turkish border but the Iraqi / Kurdish side proved more problematic. Immigration control would not let M into the country because Mexico refuses to recognise Kurdistan. We were not willing to leave M in no man’s land, so we sat outside Passport Control in 38 degree heat for 2 hours before the officials took pity on us and allowed us to sit in the air conditioned hall. They kindly fed us tea and cold water, embarrassed by the impasse. Finally G managed to convince the boss of the boss of the Control Point, (rousted by phone from his lunch in some distant town) that the Group visa should take precedence over individual permissions, and the politically charged situation was diffused. We were then hurried on our way to pick up the taxis that will take us to Dohuk
Dohuk is a busy city, exhibiting its investment potential with expensive buildings, new luxury cars and impressive road infrastructure. We spent a few hours wandering through the market and finding an excellent fast food restaurant. A full dinner of soup, yoghurt, salads, falafel wraps and water costs the equivalent of $4. The city is dry and all the hotels forbid alcohol on the premises, which is not a problem for us.