Day 17 Basra Merchant Quarter and Mandean Church
Luckily the generator stopped at 9pm, so we got a few hours sleep before driving back to the original hotel. The rooms are clean but distressed – not in a fashionable way. Our 5 man police escort drove us around town, mindful of the two bombings they’ve had here this week. Everyone in the group, including our minders, is a bit subdued today.
Yesterday’s impression wasn’t just tiredness on my part. The town is in a terrible condition and the only places we saw without builders’ rubble or dirt were in the middle class areas where they pay for people to come in and remove the rubbish. The market was off limits. The traffic was so bad that our escort lost touch with us several times due to cars / taxis forcing their way in front in the coach.
The canal running through the centre of town must have been beautiful once but it is now an open cesspit that stinks with the sewage running untreated into it from the houses along its banks. There’s rubbish everywhere you look and no walkable paving- just areas which have been half laid and then left to form suicidal trip hazards in front of open storm drains.
The Captain had forgotten to alert the local tourist representative that we had arrived, so there was no one available to show us round and the Captain didn’t have a clue what we could see. Eventually we went to the old Jewish Quarter (known by the Iraqis as the Merchant Quarter) and were saddened to see the beautiful wooden houses (circa 1900) falling down, in a terrible state of repair. It’s heart-breaking. The intricate wooden balconies (like Istanbul), with their stained glass windows, are broken and the wonderful sliding door panels on the roof tops have been left to rot.
We entered one house that is supposed to be under renovation (its 5th renovation in 20 years) and we watched them ripping out all of the original wooden carved beams, ceilings and floors, replacing them with brand new wood. The glimpses of its former beauty made this sacrilege even harder to bear. D and F visited 10 years ago and were able to walk through the Quarter but it’s too dangerous for us to do it now and we headed sadly back to the coach.
The Mandean Church was fascinating. Followers of pre Christian John the Baptist, they are technically not “people of the book” (like the Yezidi), so they have to pretend to be Christian to be able to worship in Iraq. It’s likely that they originally came from Jerusalem and have a combination of Babylonian, Jewish and Christian belief systems. They speak a form of Aramaic and do not accept converts (both parents have to be Mandean). They are still persecuted and regularly attacked and many have emigrated to Germany, with only 5,000 left in the world. I fear for their safety in Basra. They have no militia of their own, like the Yezidi and are such an easy target.
Their softy spoken, modest pastor showed us around the immersion pool which makes up the main body of the church. Our police escorts were fascinated and wandered around with us, staring at the imagery. I’ve never seen a place of worship quite like this.
Basra is now infamous for kidnapping, so our escort was rightly insistent that we all kept together. No one could wander off to take photos, not even to the corner of the street. As the coffee shops on the Corniche were closed, we stopped for lunch at a street vendor and ate on the roadside, herded like sheep. We stood with 2 police at each corner and 5 surrounding us while we ate together. I’m not sure how they’d have protected us whilst they held falafel in one hand and a drink in the other, but what the heck, we were all hungry.