About Assyrian Nimrud, two Syrian orthodox monasteries, a refugee camp and a few more escorts.

A capital city under Ashurnasirpal II in the 9th Century, the Assyrian city of Kalkhu, now better known as Nimrud, had been excavated by British archaeologists in the 19th century.  Many priceless relief panels were taken to the British Museum.  Some fragments, substantial in comparison to other sites, are left in situ.  What sets Nimrud apart from other ancient sites is that in the 20thcentury Iraqi archaeologists worked there and in 1989, made the incredible discovery of several queens’ tombs overlooked by the British and filled with gold objects which are now at the Baghdad Museum (not looted, fortunately).

What can be seen today is not that much.  A maze of square rooms are arranged around an open court. They used to function as the throne room, library, banquet hall and residential quarters.  It takes a lot of imagination to see that. Two gates are left with the familiar  and impressive giant composite stone guardians that can also be found at Persepolis, for example.  An unexcavated ziggurat, a hill next to the palace, allows a wonderful look into the surrounding areas.  The current archaeologist of the site accompanied us and pointed out a few things.  There were two wells, for example, where human bones were found.  But was it suicide, ritual, burial, or something else – nobody could agree.  There were a number of genie figures (winged and bird-headed humans), and humans depicted.  Were they gods, hunters, the king, angels, or what – again, nobody could agree.  As so often, I will be much better off filling in the historical details from credible sources rather than relying on miscommunication based on language or lack of knowledge.  What a trip like this is about is to see what is in situ and to take pictures.

This was our main stop.  Along the way, we visited two newly restored Christian monasteries; the monastery Deir Mar Behnam from the 12th century and the monastery Deir Mar Matta from the 7th century.  Both places go back all the way to the 4th century.  At Mar Matta, a hermit monk (Matta, or Matthew, or Matthaus) had a loose group of followers who occupied a rocky mountain and similarly to the Sumela monastery in Trabzon, Turkey, ultimately, a monastery was built way up clinging to the walls of the mountain.  A cave marks the site of his retreat and the church is built over his tomb.   At Mar Behnam the spot is marked where Behnam, his sisters, and over 300 Christian converts were martyred.

What was more impressive than the cloisters was to observe an area where Christians and Muslims are still mixed.  It is hard to discern what the relationship is on a daily level.  But here are some incidental observations which might shed some light on the issue.  First of all, the area around Deir Mar Matta is filling up with Christian refugee towns.  The refugees obviously have some money as they were able to build concrete row houses and a church.  To call it a camp is a bit of an overstatement, but permanent houses, stores, and a church should not detract from the fact that these people all were forced to leave Mosul.  I asked Mohammed the guide and the guides on site if there were any problems between Christians and Muslims.  No, I was told.  All is fine.  No problems at all.  Yet, each side has a fully armed militia protecting their religious sites.  Mar Benham was surrounded by an old stone wall, now topped with barbed wire.  On the exterior there are road blocks and in the near distance, I saw the area of the cloister that faced the fields surrounded by trenches!  Obviously, there are no problems between Christians and Muslims… ha!

We traveled through sensitive territory today, the border region between Iraqi and Kurdish control, and were given our front and back police escort again.  We are getting used to this.  But it is hair-raising to see one of the guys on the open truck in front of us swiveling his mounted machine gun in all directions when going through a town, pointing it at people on the street, school kids or soldiers alike.   Especially, when going through towns known for uprisings or tensions, the escort cars turn on their sirens and their warning lights, honk and wave all traffic out of the way as if we were on an emergency military mission and go at incredible speeds!  When we want more than 30 minutes at any given site, the escort gets impatient.  It is all based on the idea that the longer we stay in one place the more we could become targets for some local factions or nationalists who might like us to end up in the headlines.

We passed the famous battlefield of Gaugamela, where Alexander defeated the Persians under Darius.  We did not stop and there most likely is little to see today, except for soaking up the air.

Back in Arbil we made a stop at the Citadel, likely the only area of any cultural significance.  According to Geoff, refugees were squatting in the old brick buildings at the citadel, but were forced out under Saddam to make way for UNESCO funds to rebuild the area.  Magnificent old brick buildings are crumbling away up there.  But now, a $12 million restoration project is under way.  Arbil is a thriving, modern town in which we were allowed to go out tonight – if you had the energy.  I did not.  But we walked through a souq for a while without our guards and that felt nice.   I had some ice cream and bought a Kurdish flag as a souvenir.  It is wonderful to see the Kurds, especially the men, in their traditional baggy pants, white shirts, and sash around their waste.  Some were very stylish, others are clearly more work clothes.  But it is difficult to photograph people as the more traditional ones who would interest me as photo subjects refuse to be photographed when asked.

To let you know:

We have been out the door by 7 AM (or earlier) every day and we finish dinner around 9 PM.  I am beginning to feel the drain.  One of my main lessons in traveling for longer times is to pace myself so that I do not run body or mind into the ground.  7-8 hours of sleep are a must and I do no more sightseeing in a day than I can mentally comprehend and write about.  I am dealing with at least the double volume of sightseeing, only 5-6 hours of sleep, and not enough time to process…   When people snooze in the bus, I type my blogs and try not to get too motion sick.  Picture processing is out of the question right now – they are downloaded, but that is only ¼ of the work.  Internet access where available, is dial-up archaic…  I will keep as current as I can and I will need to wait for a fast connection to deal with any images.  Just so you know.

Good night.

2 comments so far

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  1. I am exhausted just reading about your adventures! I am in awe of you and truly appreciate all of the hard work. I will try to remain patient while waiting to see your photographs, they sound fantastic! Googling for images of your destinations is making do for now.

  2. I fully understand why you might be exhausted after reading of your adventures and I certainly believe that they must emotionally take a toll – like when traveling behind a mounted machine blazing your trail. Worry does take strange ways to hide itself. I get weary on travels just dealing with the language when we are trying to communicate with others. Do you hear or see anything that tells you what is going on in the rest of the world, understanding that their script is impossible to read. Our government did not shut down yesterday, thank goodness, and spring is coming to Ann Arbor. Take care – and grab some rest.