Day 7 (continued) Mar Matti
We then drove past more militia outposts, up 3,500 feet to Mar Matti Monastery. Founded in AD363, this makes it the oldest Syrian Christian monastery in existence. From its fortress walls, you can see across the whole plain for miles.
Our escort refused to stay outside and once again the younger men behaved as thought they’d never been in a monastery before.
We were welcomed by their marvelous abbot, amongst crowds of Christians seeking refuge from Syria and Mosul or just waiting to be cured by St Matthew.
Our obviously heavily armed police escort caused an immediate stir and children quickly moved away from them, apprehensive and fearful. These people have seen far too much violence and we’ve shamefully brought a reminder into their safe haven. However, we were given warm greetings by everyone and the older female children spoke excellent English and much enjoyed the chance to practice it on us (much to The Captain’s annoyance).
The actual church was not as impressive as Mar Benham but the saint’s tomb, at the side of the altar, is elegant and beautifully carved. Beside the altar, was a stunning jeweled bible.
The Captain then decided to tell us about his lost love, forbidden to marry her by his father, and his bitterness at how his country was now ruled by foreigners (Iranians, Syrians and Turks). He has attempted to leave Iraq several times and go to America, Poland or Germany and he now wanted to go to the UK (hence his badgering me). He also talked about killing 5 men with a single bullet (the one man killed by the bullet blew up his 4 companions with his rocket launcher) and also how he shot down a helicopter. There is no pretense or talking this up; our Captain is a dangerous man.
The drive back to Erbil was on a busy main road, shared with literally hundreds of petrol tankers and thousands of HGVs traveling at excessive speeds. It strikes me that we are more likely to be wiped out in a traffic accident than an ambush. Our escort ( and our dangerous Captain )left us and we made our own way through the queues of cars and convoys of armoured vehicles.
Checkpoints are every 20k and we were closely questioned, even though we had our government minders with us. This whole area is a time bomb and I can’t see it settling down, as the Government contends. There’s too much hatred and distrust.
The evening’s levity was provided by A, who turned up for dinner dressed as a Kurdish man. The hotel staff thought it was hilarious (luckily!) and queued to have their photo taken with him; however locals in the street were not so happy. We went back to last night’s restaurant for dinner and were horrified when the owner made the customers leave their tables for us. This isn’t right. Our Government minders are obviously used to getting this treatment and take whatever they want. The street kids begging at the tables were visibly scared of them.