A lot of sightseeing in Baghdad, going to the market, being refused at a shrine.

Yesterday afternoon and today were filled with visits of mosques, shrines, a madrassa (school), a khan (rest house) a pre-Islamic site and the Baghdad Museum.  I could not have done 1/3 of this in a full day with public transportation. But wherever we go, we are driven around by Imad in our minibus, guarded by strongman Omar and Captain Kasmir from the special forces, guided by Mohammed from the Tourism Board, and led by Geoff the tour organizer from Great Britain (just in case you needed to know).

I am completely disoriented and usually have no clue where in Baghdad I am or where we are going.  Part of this is deliberate and sometimes not even Geoff knows what’s next.  Because everything is paid for I have no idea what local money is worth and what it can buy.  In many ways, I feel like a child.  I just follow the parent and do as I am told.  But it’s the only way to travel at all and I am grateful for everything I am allowed to see.

All the sites we saw today are culturally significant but since I have hardly any time to write and even less time to access the internet to post a blog, I will as always focus on the experiences and observations rather than the historical data which can be obtained from various sources.  I am carrying my computer everywhere and use time in the bus or waiting at check points to make progress. But this pace is intense.

To go anywhere, we need an official letter of permission from the Ministry of Culture.  This has been obtained by the Iraqi Tourism Board, under whose auspices we travel and it is the job of our guide and interpreter to have these documents at hand.  Our first visit was to Tell Harmall, a dusty site which upon first inspection looks like a few concrete benches of no interest.  An area of about one square kilometer has been fenced in, indicating that there is potential for future excavation.  The fact that this was a major administrative center for the local rulers in 1800 BC comes as a surprise.  Significant clay tablets in cuneiform have been found here which are now housed at the Baghdad museum.  You sense little of this today.

We have our main guide, named Mohammed, but on this visit his backup Talal filled in, and Talal did not have his act together.  We were here but the letter we needed was at the hotel…  A stubborn older man, the keeper of the site refused us entry.  He finally got talked into letting us visit while we waited for the arrival of the letter but he held us hostage until the arrival and approval of the document.

The concrete “benches” were rebuilt walls of a small settlement, offices, and some temples.  It was completely over-restored and had none of the flair of an ancient site left.  Some beat-up old plaster lions looked hopelessly out of place inside the compound.  They were flanking the entrance to a former temple.  Part of another temple had been partially rebuilt, but it was just a square with nothing noteworthy except the distinct exterior which is recessed in certain parts for better drainage, or reduction of sun-exposure, I assume.  The view from the rooftop was a worth-while spot mainly for its nice breeze. It is 30/86 degrees here.  No more worry about cold.

A pleasant contrast was the14th century Madrassa al Mustansir, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools of Islamic jurisprudence in Baghdad.  Rooms are arranged in two levels around a huge courtyard with the typical four iwans (arched niches), and a roof top with lines of domes which offers great views into the adjacent souq/bazaar and across town.  Parallel to the building runs the river Tigris which cuts Baghdad in two halves.  My first encounter with the Tigris!  For some reason, the Euphrates has always held a greater mystique in my mind than the Tigris.  Last year I was nearly in tears when I laid eyes on the Euphrates in Syria.  The encounter with the Tigris was much less emotional, but nonetheless powerful.   Foremost it was a hazy experience.

The madrassa has been restored and is well kept – empty as far as I can tell.  We had the right letter in hand and all went well.  The view from the roof was great, but no matter how high up you are in Baghdad, your view is limited by the incredible amounts of dust and pollution.  Buildings only one or two blocks away appear blurred, gray and hazy.  The sun, even though it was shining, never made it through the layers of dust; the sky was brown at all times.  One of us is already coughing…

For the first time, our guards felt secure enough to take us through the Souq.  Busy markets are often the targets of suicide bombers, but it has been quiet here for a long while.  Still, armed guards are everywhere and perhaps the most striking moment of the day was when the sea of people in the center of the market parted to make way for two tanks which approached in slow motion rotating the big guns that are mounted on their tops slowly 360 degrees as they moved through.   It felt like giant aliens were invading looking at us human imps through the shaft of a gun.  The shops and the people were dwarfed by these tanks and we were just feet away from them.

We walked through the coppersmith market.  Lots of stalls were selling household items, but several stalls were filled with metal antiques.  The most prominent item was a long-snouted pitcher, typical for the region to serve tea, but there were whole tea sets, plates, lamps, bowls, tools, and a lot of junk.  What caught my eye was a 70-80 year old tin plated copper bowl in which women would take their cosmetics to the hamam.  I just had to have one…

Our final destination was an area with several important shrines dedicated to people like the favorite wife of the caliph, or the son of the 7th Imam.   After visiting dozens of shrines of holy men in Iran, I was surprised to see the sites in Baghdad in shambles and neglect.  It’s not a matter of war damage or lack of money.  Trash can be picked up in a few hours …   I don’t know what it signifies.   The Shrine of Sitt Zubayda, the favorite wife of Harun Ar-Rashid was perhaps the most interesting architecturally speaking as it is the first which displays a unique beehive shape which can be found from then on out all over this region going as far as Iran.  This was the first shrine I have ever seen dedicated to a woman.  I was tempted to adopt her as my new imaginary travel companion, but then, I know nothing about her.  I dismissed the thought.

The next shrine made no particular visual impression – it was the standard green silk cloth over a tomb display.  But it was dedicated to the Prophet Yusha (Joshua) who supposedly was the companion of Moses, as well as a descendant of Abraham.  We all were utterly confused by the explanations and the dates we got.  They seemed to be a mixture of folklore, religion and tradition, and folklore dominated without a doubt.  According to the shrine clergy this prophet is featured in the Torah as well as the Koran and is therefore important to both religions.   None of us had ever heard of Yusha…  If anyone of you out there can help, that would be great.  If not, there goes another item on the “to do when home list”.

And finally, we were going to visit the shrine of the  Son of the 7th Imam.  Our papers were in order, but as we found out, if the man on site does not want any infidels in his shrine, he can overrule any paperwork.  Geoff was stunned.  He had always been granted access to the shrine before.  But no arguing helped.   He went as far as to open the shrine door and from the outside we were allowed a quick glance each, lining up single-file.  Oh well…

Another surprise awaited us after that.  As we had entered this shrine area with our usual paperwork, we had to exit it through a different gate and the soldiers on duty there, also wanted a letter, but we no longer had one…  There went another 15 minutes of making phone calls, circling our bus, inspecting it from below with a mirror device and flexing some muscle of authority.  Ultimately we were let go.

And that’s how the day went.  I will write about the museum tomorrow.  After a big and wonderful dinner we stopped at a liquor store  – yes, there are some of them around!  Whoever wanted got a beer or wine or else for the evening.  But no public consumption is permitted anywhere.  I was happy to have a beer before the end of this very long day.

Wake up call tomorrow is 4:30 AM!

Good night.


I completely forgot to mention the visit to the Mirjan Mosque and the adjacent Khan Al Mirjan, both from the 14th Century.  The Mirjan Mosque almost fell victim to modern construction until one recognized that it represents one of the most intricate and most important examples of decorative stone ornamentation on its main gate and interior.  Many parts of this decoration have been dismantled to be displayed at the Baghdad museum.  Today, the interior of the mosque looks rather shabby.  To get a glimpse of the exterior ornamentation one has to go to the now “back” of the mosque and look passed a trashy 6 feet lower courtyard and through the leafs of a tree planted in the middle of the court…

The visit of the Khan was special for its history.  From an ancient guest house or caravanserai it had been transformed into a museum of Islamic Art.  Under Saddam however, it became an exclusive luxury restaurant and night club frequented particularly by his sons and cohorts.  Today, it is a dark and wet place with a stench, used by some soldiers informally (or illegally?) as a retreat.  It is abandoned and neglected, but has potential to be refurbished into a magnificent hall someday.  The barrel vault architecture is magnificent and fully intact.


2 comments so far

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  1. Greetings Elisabeth, I am so pleased that you were able to make your visit to Iraq after all that planning and preparation. Now that I am back in touch after several pressing family crises have been competing for my attention (all three and 8/9ths grandchildren are fine, Mashallah) I will read through the last few weeks’ entries with great fascination. Your visit to the shrine of Sitt Zubayda sounds fascinating and I will certainly see if I can find any reference pictures but you seemed to have failed to do justice to the Bibi Pak Daman, the shrine of Ladies of Purity, in Lahore. Remembering that we visited it in the depth of winter at a time of great political unrest in 2008; I realised that we, or at least I, failed to take on its significance in illustrating the reverence held for educated women in the early days of Islam. Sigh. Best of luck with the remained of your travels, I look forward to seeing such photos as you can post on your return. Much love, Nicola

  2. ET,
    I started to do some research on the Prophet Usha.
    In the old testament he was called Joshua, born in Egypt, he led the Israelite tribes in the conquest of Canaan after the death of Moses. Some Muslims view him as a prophet other as a great leader and a saintly man.
    I will post some links and more info later when I have some more time.

    Of to the GYM before they close!!!
    Enjoy your trip in Iraq!!!