A visit to Salman Pak, a rebellious Sunni town with a Shiah shrine, a Sheiks’ meeting, and a Sassanid arch.

Geoff called Salman Pak a “nasty town with lots of Sunni rebels”.  Indeed, there were more security check points than ever.  Instead of the usual police escort, we were given an army escort.  These guys are even more heavily armed than the police, but had as much fun as the escorts before, to take us around.  A recently bombed small local mosque is left as a ruin to remind the locals of an important cleric who died in the bomb-blast.  I did not catch his name.

What is of interest to visitors is the largest brick arch in the world, known as Ctesiphon. This iwan (arch) was the reception hall of a Sassanid king in the 3rd century, adjacent to a palace of which little remains today. The dimensions of 25 meters width, 30 meters height, and 43 meters depth (75/90/140 feet) are impressive.  To imagine a mirror arch 100 meters (300’) across from it is nearly impossible.  The brick façade imitates a three story building.  Indeed there are rooms inside the side wings, but only small, dark storage rooms.  Judging by the amount of sandbags, barbed wire, and ammunition shells in them, this site was a recent, active battle ground.

Before visiting the Ctesiphon, we stopped at the local mosque, which is famous for four important Shiah shrines.  I can’t keep the names of these holy men straight, but one of them was the barber of Mohammed, originally a Persian who became a follower of Mohammed and then was buried here.  Since he had direct contact with Mohammed over many years he is highly revered.  Security was intense.  All of us women had to put on the Iranian-style chador and made quite a sight tripping around.  We constantly had to pull the chadors back up as they slide off our heads as we were taking pictures.  We were a sight that did not go unnoticed.

The chief of the mosque called us into his office and one of his assistants, a dentist who spoke excellent English, explained at length what they were doing there.  After we were given a welcome speech, we were offered water and tea and finally we got an invitation to lunch.  But not, until we had circled a huge conference hall which was filled with at least 50 sheikhs from the surrounding villages.  They had come together today for their second conference on discussing sectarian violence.  That was impressive.  Independent from any government directives, these locals are organizing these meetings in order to get a grip on the ongoing violence in their province.  This area is particularly sensitive since this important Shiah shrine is located in a Sunni town and revered by both sects.

We were invited to circle the conference and to take as many pictures as we wanted.  These poor sheikhs!  They did not know what hit them when we entered and started to take pictures.  They were like sitting ducks and could not even object to this.  It did not feel right, but we were invited and so I took a few pictures, too.  I think the mosque chief thought we were all journalists.  This must have looked like the publicity stunt of a lifetime to him.  I hope these villagers will make progress.  Only if mediation initiatives like this are supported from the bottom up, will there be a chance of peaceful coexistence.  No government decree or law can achieve this.

It was particularly wonderful for us to engage with some people at the mosque.  We have been living in such isolation except for the few tea stops we make here and there.  It was a great change.

We were given two hours of free time today!  I was able to write.  I hope we can continue some of this.

In the evening we went for a special fish dinner at a restaurant near the Tigris river.  My stomach had been restored and I was able to eat again.  It was delicious.  Live carps are held in tanks and prepared on the spot – that is a euphemism for catching, killing, bloody slicing and frying them.  Down to the wood they use for the fire – only from orange or lemon trees, this is an art.  The dinner is hugely expensive and was a one-time special treat for us since we will have one of the group leaving in three days and we had two special visitors with us today:  A photographer from Sweden and a journalist from Holland.  The restaurant had a game room, two outdoor pools, a wonderful outdoor section in a wooded park setting, and an indoor dining room.  Unfortunately, we had to move indoors since it started to rain.  Perhaps, better so as a tank was patrolling the Tigris every five minutes.  That is a bit distracting when you sit 10 feet from it trying to carry on a conversation.

Good night.

No Comment.

Add Your Comment