Day 18 Al ‘Azir, Kut, Baghdad
It was a long 500 mile journey back to Baghdad, handed over to a series of police escorts through flat, uninspiring landscape.
We broke our trip at Al ‘Azir to visit Ezra’s tomb (one of two – the other one is in Jerusalem) and we were bowled over by its quiet simplicity. The tomb is plain, draped with a green cloth, in a mosque, with extremely old tablets hanging above the door. We were greeted and made to feel so welcome that I didn’t mind donning the ubiquitous black burka, offered with a smile. People were praying inside, yet no one glared at us or seemed at all hostile.
Strikingly, there is a synagogue attached to the shrine, still standing despite threats by the Shia to bulldoze it. The whole community rallied to stop them and are proud to have one of the few surviving synagogues in Iraq.
We marveled at the preserved inscriptions in the synagogue and the intact women’s gallery. An extremely vocal roost of bats (3-4 dozen) were annoyed at being disturbed and scolded us continuously as we stood gaping. We then spent some time posing for photos with the locals, including our police escort and then we were sadly hustled away. What a wonderful, special place.
2018 Jan Update: It’s been reported that Ezra’s tomb and synagogue have had significant changes made since this visit. First Daesh took over the area and after they converted it into just a mosque. I have been unable to source any photos and it is unclear if the synagogue still remains undamaged.
Further Update Feb 18: Everything is fine at the shrine and synagogue. A friend has reported that they visited last month and, although the synagogue is being use as a storeroom, it is intact and has not been vandalised.
Our escort was very alert, and cleared the area in front of us as we walked back to the bus, flanking us as we walked. Again, they are so professional, we were very impressed.
When we arrived at Kut they kicked it up a notch, making sure they could see all of us at all times, concerned for our safety. This is the first time they’d allowed tourists here to visit the Commonwealth War Graves, so our escort was extra alert. We were led to the “English Cemetery”, where the First and Second World War Graves are in a side street off the market. Our escort moved as though in a conflict zone, one running point and the others walking backwards beside us to watch our backs. Patrols have been fired on here, so we well understood the precautions and were grateful for their presence
The locals took us the cemetery and helped us find the gatekeeper to unlock the gates and search for the destroyed, smashed grave markers. It’s such a sad place. Overgrown, with a heavily graffitied stone cross. The custodian was introduced to G and handed over his letter from the War Grave Commission who appointed him in 1983. He immediately asked us for money, assuming we were from the UK Government. There have been promises to move the bodies to the Baghdad War Cemetery but nothing has happened. This needs to be done urgently because the site is a miserable disgrace to their memory, little more than scrub-land. G will report back to the Commission when he gets back to the UK.
2018 Update: The cemetery has now been fully restored by the Commission. New tombstones are in place and all of the vegetation cut back.
We stopped at a service station for chai and F & D and I were invited into the kitchens to watch them making the best flat breads we’ve ever had. We were asked to have our photos taken with the bakers in front of large, roaring clay ovens, then the waiting staff asked us to pose and then the owner wanted one too.
After 11 hours, we arrived back to Baghdad and booked back into our original hotel. It was much welcomed after the past few days and I was particularly glad to see women working behind the desk. Baghdad looks far better now we’ve had other places to compare it to. Children were playing in the playground and there were less police / military on the streets, so last week must have been a precaution to the 9/11 anniversary.
There’s been a big bomb at the Samarra Mosque today, with 18 dead. We saw the Mosque in the distance when we climbed the ancient minaret. Poor, poor people having to live like this all the time.