Day 7 Mar Benham
We were expecting breakfast at 6.30, ready for our 7am start but found the hotel restaurant was still a nightclub / disco from the previous night. Apparently girls and alcohol are available in the evening, which would explain the explosive verbal argument which woke us in the early hours. Eventually the waiter set up hot water for tea and started setting out a trickle of yoghurt, honey and bread. The egg and chips arrived just as we were leaving the room.
By 9am we were still trying to get out of Erbil. We’d waited 20 minutes to pick up our Kurdish guide/ Government minder (a hopeless individual who spoke no English and stared continuously at everyone without trying to engage in any form of communication), then drove to pick up water for the bus, then onto another shop to buy ice and then to the service station to get petrol. It then took a further 40 minutes to get out of the traffic clogged city to meet our police escort – two light armored trucks with 5 men in each, all heavily armed.
G and The Captain know each other from previous trips and there’s no love lost between them. The Captain greeted G by asking “the usual places?” and G responded with “Nimrud, Mar Benham, Mar Matti” before adding “and Mosul”. The Captain looks incredulous and then twigged when we started laughing. G had hoped to persuade him to let us drive round the Mosel city walls but as the day wore on it was obvious that the whole area is still far too dangerous to risk us and our escorts.
We drove unhindered along the main road towards Mosel at 100k an hour and everyone else on the road just had to get out of our way. No one was allowed to overtake us and when one car attempted to cut in front of the bus the lead vehicle pulled him over and got really heavy with him. The men in the back of the trucks actively moved their guns around if they thought cars got too close and, later, when we got to Nimrud they moved onto the site before us and swept the whole area, even above us. This is serious stuff. Anyone who thinks that this is an easy tourist destination is a fool. It’s a war zone, despite what the ministry of tourism has claimed, and troops, checkpoints and heavily armoured patrols are everywhere.
Mar Benham is breathtakingly beautiful. It’s in a mixed Muslim / Christian area, a 4th century fortress of a monastery now bristling with local militia (no photos allowed, obviously). The congregation is Syrian Christian, they worship in Aramaic and pilgrims cone from all over the world. St Benham is buried on site in an ancient tomb, separate from the main church. Door lintels are intricately carved with saints and angels, some defaced, and dating back to the 12th century. The saint’s tomb is underground, surrounded by carved script panels circa 1306.
The place is magical and our escorts wander around, amazed. Apart from The Captain, none of them have been here before and I suspect they’ve never been in a church before. The younger ones touch the carved surfaces and gaze up at the paintings, becoming more of a tourist than we are.
[ Since writing this, the Mar Benham Shrine has been blown up by Daesh in 2015 ]