2011
04.07

SYNOPSIS:

About the Baghdad Museum, the spiral minaret at Samarra and about our group.

NOTE:

Posting pictures is currently impossible.  We have no wifi and I have to share two lobby computers with the 14 of us and the computer is on a dial-up excruciatingly slow pace.

If there were just a few things I could have picked to see in Iraq, the Baghdad Museum and the spiral minarets of Samarra would have been among them.  I got to see both within two days!

You may recall the absolutely shameful war episode of the looting of the Baghdad Museum of Art and Archaeology which followed the invasion of Iraq.  In the midst of the war chaos, the museum was left unprotected and looters vandalized the entire museum.  Priceless objects got stolen; others were broken, even offices were turned upside down.  Thankfully, some of the objects were recovered and returned; nonetheless, the museum has been closed ever since and still is not open to the public for an indefinite amount of time.

Geoff with his connections got one of those magic letters which gave us a special permission to see whatever possible.  We had to pass an army check-point and then enter the museum via the dimly lit, administrative wing, passing office after office of people sitting behind desks doing who knows what.  The whole place radiated a dusty air of neglect and progress towards reopening the museum seems to be made at a snail’s pace.  Two galleries were open:  The Islamic gallery and the Assyrian gallery.  We were allowed to photograph, but the low light made it impossible to get good photos of objects without a tripod.  All objects are documented anyhow, so I focused on taking pictures of the overall impression the museum currently makes.  The museum is huge and houses a world-renowned collection.  We only had access to a small fraction of it, presumably the parts in the most presentable state.

To prevent further looting or a bomb attack, there are now check points around the museum, and tanks are permanently placed at the two entrance points, the visitors’ and the administrative ones.  By the way, all the check points are manned by Iraqis.  In my ignorance I kept looking for American troops, but in Baghdad, they are long gone.  In theory, the Americans have handed back control of almost all of the country to the Iraqis already.  The reality is probably a bit less optimistic, but in Baghdad there is no longer a public sign of the American presence.  To my surprise, the reaction of locals, when I identify myself as an American – which I can do since January 10 when after 26 years in the country, I got the American citizenship – I have gotten only warm welcomes, at least so far.  Sometimes I say I am German and the welcome is much more neutral.

Everywhere we are received warmly and with curiosity.  Our group is a colorful mix of nationalities.  The British dominate, not surprisingly since Geoff, our leader is British and some of the GB people have either been on tours with him before, or know somebody who went.  Geoff is not one to toot his own horn; in fact it is almost impossible to find him online by just using keywords like Iraq travel and such.  I think he likes it that way.  But then we have a Chinese-American woman, a Norwegian, an Italian, and a British guy with Indian heritage, and me, the German-American, to round out the picture.  The hit in our group is definitely the Chinese woman.  She is my roommate.  For some reason the Iraqis treat her like the Iranians treated me last year:  as the most interesting curiosity with whom they all want to be photographed.  Some day down the road, I will do a more in depth introduction of us all.  Believe me; a trip like this brings together quite some characters.

Today we started our northern loop.  Final destination should have been Mosul, but Mosul is still a hotbed of war and conflict and it is simply impossible for us to go there.  It is surprising how close to it they will allow us to travel.  But our security guards may also change their mind at a moment’s notice.   We have to take residence in Arbil, a town in Kurdistan, and make a day trip to at least one of the most important sites in the area.  Three major sites, two of which are UNESCO monuments that would be a must on anyone’s tour will not be accessible to us:  Niniveh, Hatra, and Ashur.  We will have to do with Nimrud.

On the way to Arbil you pass Samarra which until recently was a hotbed of sectarian violence, and Sunni guerrilla warfare.  The town has changed hands a few times and it is one of the sites where the Americans were still fighting until recently.  We got the full works of security checks and in addition to our two armed guards were outfitted with an army convoy of two cars with four soldiers each, sandwiching us between them.  Traffic had to stop and move out of our way and the soldiers got a real kick out of posing for us in between their more serious mission of checking each monument for potentially hidden bandits.

If it were not so serious, it could have been hilarious.  Before we were allowed to enter any monument – these are desert castles, mosques and minarets in the middle of hilly, sandy nowhere – these machine gunned soldiers would jump off their vehicles and run through every part of the monument with their guns pointing into every corner to make sure no enemy was hiding inside.  If we wanted to venture from the cleared path we could, but they would precede us again, making sure the area was clear.  In between, the picture taking sessions were to the amusement of all of us with our Chinese woman in highest demand.  After spending hours with these soldiers, the parting moment was a big waving session back and forth.  They had escorted us through one of the more dangerous provinces and brought us to the safe border of Kurdistan.   Kurdistan is one of the most prosperous and peaceful parts of present-day Iraq despite all the unresolved issues between Kurds and Iraqis.

One incident along the way was strange.  We had been on the road for a few hours and really, really needed a bathroom and we also wanted some tea.  We passed up one place after another always being told “it was not safe”.  Finally, we made a stop, all lining up single file in front of the one awful squatter toilet and expected tea to be ordered.  I was first and got my business done when outside the call came, all back into the bus immediately.  I hurried up and off we sped with our two escort cars front and back.  What just happened?!  Nothing looked unsafe to us, yet the soldiers as well as our own guards could not get out fast enough.  We finally figured it out.  We had ended up in a neighborhood where the ethnic and religious background of our escort and the locals did not match…  That was all, but that is all it takes, at times.  This was an interesting interlude.  A few miles down the road we finally found a comfortable traveler’s restaurant with wonderfully clean toilets and very friendly Kurdish waiters.

The Jami al Kabir Mosque as well as the palaces of Samarra go back to the caliph Al Mutawakkil, and are roughly 1200 years old.  They stand out for their unique spiral shape which ultimately must have been based on the indigenous ziggurat temples of the past.  They were not as tall as I thought they would be, but they are impressive.  The older one, from 848, with 52 meters, is the taller and therefore wider one of the two.  We all were able to go up.  Ramps even though unsecured, are a comfortable 5-6 feet wide.  But on top we barely had enough room to stand and no railing, no nothing separated us from the edge.  You can fall right off the ramp or off the top of these things and I realized very soon that my stomach was fighting with all the butterflies I get when dealing with unprotected heights.  I had to sit down to feel safe on the top.  One push – of course nobody would push – but one push or one trip and you would be off to certain death.  The view from up there though was spectacular and allowed you to see the full scale of the mosque.  It was absolutely huge.

From the moment we arrived with our escort, a reporter and a camera man were following our every move.  National (or was it just local?)  TV had gotten wind of the fact that there was a group of foreign tourists in town and they had their fun with us.  Geoff had to give an interview, I said one sentence, and we all were harassed with constant filming.  Even the soldiers who were supposed to protect us started to take photos of us with their cell phones and asked to pose with us.

Not far from the Jami al Kabir you can find the Quasr al Khalifah, the palace of the caliph Al Mutasim from 836.  The palace stretches over quite an area, but we did not have time for an in-depth visit and focused on the most famous, octagonal central entertainment quarters.  Not much is left but since this main hall was ingeniously built underground, it is quite well preserved with even some original stucco decoration in situ.  Four iwans for musicians and dancers are centered on a huge water pool.  Two stories of rooms enclose the entire area and were most likely used for entertainment and sleeping.  The underground location assured cooling and privacy.

Twenty  km away is a smaller mosque/minaret compound, the Abu Dulaf Mosque, from 861, which in its layout is clearly derived from the earlier one.  But the minaret is at least 1/3 smaller, therefore slimmer and therefore equipped with a ramp no wider than three feet and narrowing down towards the top.  It sounds like nothing.  Two to three feet is enough width for any person to walk.  But try this for 199 steps and up to that height in heavy wind and this is scary!  Several of us attempted the climb.  Most of them turned back.  Four of us continued, two of which were scared of heights, myself and Roberto, the young Italian guy.  All you can do at the top is turn towards the monument with your face and step up sideways, not thinking of what is behind you.  I thought I was going to faint!  But I needed to know what this was like up there and what the view would offer.  Don’t forget the big dangling camera I was dealing with which all of a sudden seemed to be the biggest object in the world making my climb even more scary.  But I made it along with the Chinese woman, and the Norwegian guy who is absolutely fearless and even poked his head over the ramp – just looking at him made my stomach turn.   The view was breathtaking and I am so glad, I did not chicken out.  I just wish how to conquer those butterflies…

It was an adventurous day.  Good night!

ADDENDUM:

I just found out that the Jami Al Kabir minaret just a few years ago had a tip, most likely similar to the smaller one.  There, when you reach the top, you are standing inside a cylinder on the final steep steps.  It gives you a tremendous sense of security and allowed me to photograph without worries of falling off.  The top of the Jami Al Kabir was knocked off by snipers just a few years ago!  What a shame.

2 comments so far

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  1. I am continually amazed by your adventures. What a day, for sure, and I am surprised you only had butterflies.

  2. I know you’re on dial up but I am reading with total awe, your description of climbing the minaret at the Abu Dulaf Mosque made my stomach drop!! Wow I would have tried but I would have fainted…I was dizzy just reading it…Thrilling adventures.