A morning in the desert between caves, castles, and cloisters; an afternoon at the shrines of Kerbala.

The Saudis have Mecca and Medina, but the Iraqis have Kerbala and Najaf.  And in Kerbala they have two of the most important shrines less than 200 meters apart from one another and several smaller shrines strewn across town.  The importance of these two shrines becomes clear when you start to count the number of Iranian pilgrims there at any given time. They come by the busload and so do the Saudis who have a direct highway going to Kerbala.

But going just to these shrines would have been too easy.  It would have been what I had done if I were on my own.  But we had to cram in three more sites in the morning to make it another one of those overwhelming, tiring, full days…   Of course, these sites were wonderful.

First, there was a fabulous desert landscape with a few natural, porous, limestone outcrops.  Way back when people had carved Caves into these outcrops drawn by the security the high-up location afforded and by the nearby waters of the river Euphrates.  It must have been a side-arm, since all of this today is dried up.  The view from up there was wonderful and worth the climb in the hot sun.

Then there was Ukhaidir, a 9th century desert palace, or fortress, or was it a hideout?  In any case, it should not be missed! It is a huge cubical construction with tower-like bastions of half-circles interspersing the nearly 200 meter long walls which are visible for miles in the flat desert landscape.  Heavily, but tastefully restored, it really gives you an idea about medieval palace architecture.  A walk along the upper turrets allow views into all the inner courts and helps to sort out the maze you experience while walking at ground levels. A most curious feature at this palace, which has two mosques, is that both have mihrabs (niches) which according to Geoff, are oriented neither toward Mecca nor Jerusalem.  This is nearly unheard of as far as I can tell.  Mihrab’s  are not put in randomly or without thought.  How this happened is anyone’s guess.  A brand-new and empty visitor center nearby is ready to swing into action.  The problem is just that there are not yet any tourists aside from Geoff’s small groups, that is.

A curiously labeled Al Caesar’s Church was our final desert stop.  Only a few years before the war excavations had started here and all the evidence indicates a hasty abandonment of the site:  Piles of pottery were unearthed and heaped together.  The site is incredibly vulnerable to visitors as no paths have yet been constructed.  We literally moved along on top of the ruins loosening clumps of dry earth.  My stomach cringed at the realization how vulnerable sites like this without proper care are.

Back to the Kerbala Husaynia Shrine:  It is dedicated to one of the early Imams.  And there is the Mashad Al Abbas. These shrines have been attacked, flooded, destroyed, rated and bombed for its importance in the Shia religion.  Aside from the Abbas Shrine, there are smaller shrines dedicated separately to the two hands of Abbas which were chopped off in succession as he was trying to fetch water for the dying Hussein.  There is so much people-watching to do; and so much atmosphere to be soaked up!  It was all ruined by the extra guards who came with us who did nothing but draw extra attention.  They herded us into the shrine and then we had to walk together.  A group of ten foreign visitors taking pictures at a holy site is a huge nuisance.    So we were soon forbidden to take pictures at all.  If we could have just split up and gone about our business we would have been greeted with friendly curiosity and all would have been fine.  Despite this frustration, and despite the low time – this was a Sunday afternoon, just about the opposite of busy – the shrine was filled with people who often came in groups all the way from Iran. They gathered around their leaders, clearly identifiable as Iranian mullahs by their brown overcoats and their white, black, or green turbans, and read, chanted, or hit their chests in outwardly signs of mourning over the dead imam Hussein.  I could have sat there for hours just watching what people do.  The sick are brought here, the old and the young.  People often stay for days come to the shrine for hours of prayer, but also picnics, play time, and socializing.

Security is fierce.  We passed multiple check-points to get into Karbala.  We passed three check-points to get near the shrine, and then we had to pass a few more to make sure especially the women among us would wear proper hijab.  Luckily, the women in charge of this are experienced and turned my forever slippery scarf into something that really looked like a hijab and hid all of my hair.  It’s not easy…

After the organized shrine tour visit, we convinced our guards – if you started counting, there were about seven guards for the 7 of us – to let us go for a while.  I desperately needed to go shopping for some souvenirs and it was just great to breathe a bit of fresh air.  I would have never thought that of all places in Iraq it was Kerbala, a site quite often picked for sectarian violence, and the shopping area around the shrine where I was allowed to roam freely, even if only for ½ hour.

Good night.


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