Mainly a day in transit back to Baghdad with one highlight:   The palace of Saddam at Tikrit.

We tried, but we were turned away by a general of the army in charge of the area around Ashur.  Ashur is the city with the most important temple dedicated to Ishtar.  It also is one of only three UNESCO sites in Iraq.  The fact that the Americans are still in the area tells you that things have not been sorted out there yet.  The army general would not say more than:  “It’s very dangerous.”  Geoff tried to get a more specific idea of the dangers, but it was no use.  The answer was no.

We had no choice but to continue to make our way back to Baghdad without much sightseeing.  In Tikrit we stopped for a cup of tea and to find out if possibly we could visit Saddam Hussein’s Tomb, not that there was any real hope…  But perhaps, because the local authorities did not want to completely disappoint us, they offered to escort us for a stop at the palace of Saddam.

After Saladin, the notorious medieval conqueror and opponent of Richard the Lionheart, Saddam Hussein is probably the next most famous son of this city.  It looks like he pumped millions of the American tax dollars into his hometown as it is littered with sandstone villas and ostentatious buildings wherever you look.  The palace in Tikrit was one of his largest palaces built on a hill which used to be the ancient acropolis and a center of early Christianity.  With gorgeous views of the Tigris and sitting on top of the town, he must have felt rather good about himself.  This is the palace in which he liked to receive guests.  We were told that he did not pay the contractors properly who built his villa, and in revenge they connected his air conditioning to the sewage water which forever gave him bad smells.  :- )   Revenge is sweet.

The palace is guarded and boarded up these days as it was hit in the allied bombings.  But many of his other buildings and palaces all over the country have been appropriated by the current government.

Right down the road from Saddam’s palace was a mosque built over a very interesting spot:  The former Church of the Middle East and seat of the bishop until the early Ottoman period.  Little was left, but parts of it have recently been restored.  There is no more interior, just a number of arched rooms which now provide the foundation for the later mosque.  Iraq used to be a Christian center in Byzantine times as most places in the Middle East.  But with the Arab invasion many Christians converted to Islam to avoid the payment of the jizya taxes and the second-class citizenship which would have come with the status as non-Muslims.  For most churches of that time there isn’t a trace left.

In Tikrit, when we stopped for tea, we were, as usual surrounded by locals in no time.  We like photographing them as much as they like to photograph us.  One of the shop owners said:  “You are the first normal foreign people we have seen in this town in ten years.”   I can’t exactly say that the nine of us are “normal”, but we knew what he meant.  That is quite incredible.  Everyone in Iraq is surprised to hear that we are just tourists.  We are not journalists and we are not paid to be here.  We, in fact all paid a lot of money to come.  “You are very brave to come.”  That is another sentence I have heard a few times now.

We were on the bus almost the entire day.  After using up my computer battery writing and working on pictures while riding the bus, I was so car sick that I could not even eat dinner any more.  In fact, everything went backwards last night (if you know what I mean).  I won’t be able to continue like this.  I have reached in four days a point of exhaustion which I have not even come close to in two months on my own.  I realize how important my travel rhythm is for my well-being.  Group travel is excruciating, at least at this pace.  It does not leave much room for private activities, and to work at the expense of sleep or car sickness is unsustainable.  One other person, of all people the youngest in the group, also has reached a low point.   We mentioned to Geoff, that an occasional hour of downtime really would not hurt.  Let’s see if anything will change.

It is Thursday, a quiet day after noon as most business shut down early in anticipation of Friday.  Our guards felt secure enough to take us around town to step out at a few city monuments, such as the one where Saddam used to be, or a famous one related to Ali Baba.  They also took us to the river to have a glimpse at the famous Green Zone where kids were playing soccer.  We were allowed to roam for a bit and to watch the sunset.  It felt good not to be cooped up in Baghdad all the time.

Everyone enjoyed a great dinner at an outdoor restaurant with pools, colored lamps, and music.  I watched them eat… The atmosphere was wonderful.  A wedding party came for dinner, people were smoking the water pipe.  You really would not believe you were sitting in Baghdad.

But it is this sense of security which can make you complacent and think that all is well.  It only appears that way and for most of the country it really is due to the incredible number of soldiers on guard.  But the situation is not yet stable.  Things can change from one minute to the other.  Let’s hope that we will not be in the middle of it.   We have many people looking out for our well-being.  That is reassuring.

Good night.

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  1. I can hear you sigh as well but you are young, and let’s hope that some day you may even be able to return and see Asher . I can understand how disappointed you were to have taken such a risk and then missed seeing it. Hope tomorrow is a better day for you.

  2. It must be frustrating to be so close to these historical sites and yet cannot see them. I can hear you sigh from here!