Day 12 Al-Tar Caves & Ukhaider
We patiently waited in the foyer for our police escort to finish their breakfast in our restaurant and in the end K had to send our driver upstairs to get them. We could have been there all morning, as no urgency was displayed.
We stopped at a tiny shrine on our way to the Al-Tar Caves. Ali moved a boulder here and found spring water in an area where all other water is brackish and bad. We were denied access (non-Muslims) but were able to get a glimpse of the shrine.
The caves are fantastic. They date from Neanderthal times, dug out and settled around 3,000 BC. Few of the 200 caves have been excavated, apart from a small Japanese dig in the 1970’s. Our escort wandered around the site taking photos of each other, seemingly enjoying their day out.
We drove through a flat, grey desert littered with rubbish and building rubble. Hundreds of trucks full of sand thundered up the roads, bound for export to Saudi Arabia to be used in construction work.
We spent over an hour at Ukhaider, the desert fortress reconstructed under Saddam. It’s 160metres square, possible built around 630 AD but no one knows for sure. We wandered through numerous rooms and had great views from the roof. We’ve been the only tourists/ visitors at every site so far and it’s quite eerie sometimes.
Caesar’s Church is also in the desert, a 3rd – 5th century Christian monastery in ruins. The last dig was abandoned because it became too dangerous and the area has been used as an Al Qaeda training ground, so we had be careful of the armory shells and bullets on site. No one touches anything metal here.
G is concerned that the church is decaying rapidly and is in far worse shape than his last visit 3 years ago. Large spoil heaps are scattered around, full of broken pottery and glass but the best items have long been looted. The church was once surrounded by a Christian town and legend tells that it was founded by the monk who told Ali about the sweet water spring nearby. I want to stay all day but the temperatures are too fierce to walk around without shade in this lovely place.
We drove back to Karbala through god forsaken tips of towns, building rubble, dirt, car tyres, burnt out cars and tangles of electrical wiring fed from overhead cables or small generators. Our escort dumps us back at the hotel.
The rest of the group decides to go out (sans escort) to visit Ali’s tomb. It’s supposed to be a spectacular site but I really can’t face wearing another burkha in 40 degree heat and have some fanatical cleric berate me for showing my fringe, so we agree to meet up at the hotel for dinner at 7pm. We waited until 7.15 and none of the group showed up so we ate alone in the dining room, surrounded by 20 plates of cold food, as the staff insisted that it had to be served even though there was no one to eat it. Bizarre. The group arrived at 8pm, having taken hours to get through security at the shrine and remained hungry.