I've flown from Basra in the south of Iraq, to Erbil the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. And beam me up Scottie.
Modern buildings English signage, neon lights, western style restaurants. The scenery in the north of Iraq is almost green. Khaki to sage maybe. And there are mountains, gorges and amazing views from on high. Clothing is more relaxed than in the south, with many woman flaunting their hair. Folded foothills with herds of sheep, arable land, potatoes, tomatoes and millet. Geese and turkeys meander across the road with the goats.
Some things don’t change. The buildings may look new. Most of them are, as the area was ravaged by Sadaam Hussein. But much is faulty or simply not finished. The hotel in Erbil, stinks of kerosene. Fire alarms chirp relentlessly in hallways.
There’s still plenty of litter, especially plastic. Water bottles are ubiquitous throughout Iraq. They're delivered to the table with gay abandon, alongside any meal. The menu is almost identical to those in southern Iraq. Mezze and kebabs, kebabs or kebabs. I’ve picked up a horrible bug and vomited all day.
And, here, in Kurdistan the striped Iraqi flag is emblazoned with a yellow sun. And everyone is still very friendly. ‘Welcome to Iraq’.
Now the group are six. All but two of the old crew from my Iraq tour have have left and the new folk know each other already, so life is much quieter for me on the bus. I still have guide Ana. Our Kurdish guide, Omar, and driver Mohammed, are two cool dudes. Like all Kurdish men, they are incredibly dark and hirsute and pay great attention to their hairstyles and clothing. But they have no idea where the monasteries we are due to visit around Erbil today are, as they are Christian sites and therefore unimportant. They have to ask for directions at the checkpoints. There are still a lot of those.
The roads are either smoothly busy highways or hair-raising single carriageway routes, badly in need of repair. There’s a continuous game of chicken on the latter, as cars zoom across to our side of the road, not caring that there is a minibus careering towards them. And on the better routes we still have to U turn across countless dual carriageway barriers, as there are no overhead slip roads and very few crossroads. Traffic lights and roundabouts are almost non-existent.
So car buying in Iraqi Kurdistan go car shopping is a problem. A hardy vehicle, maybe with 4WD for rough roads or a sleek saloon for in town and the major highways? The latter might be an Obama. The Kurds can't pronounce western marques very easily, so they've given most of the major makes nicknames. An Obama is a Chrysler. A Toyota Land Cruiser is a Wanawsha. She's a sophisticated Kurdish actress and singer. (It used to be called a Monica, after Monica Lewinsky.)
All the petrol stations here are individually owned, with different names. And for the first time, an encounter with the traffic police. They don’t have them down south and we can tell they mean business by the sour look on their faces. It seems that, heat notwithstanding, buses are not allowed to have curtains. Ours are all removed and a fine is duly issued.
The roadside stopping areas feature gaudy to kitsch stalls with lurid coloured drinks. The lemon and lime glows so much it could be radioactive. And the bus also smells of the gas it runs on. My nose streams the whole time.
The Kurds have had a rough time of it. Geographically, Kurdistan (with its language and distinctive culture and dress) roughly encompasses the north-western Zagros and the eastern Taurus mountain ranges. It includes regions in four countries: south-eastern Turkey (Northern Kurdistan), northern Iraq (Southern Kurdistan), north-western Iran (Eastern Kurdistan), and northern Syria (Western Kurdistan).
The Kurds have been consistently denied the opportunity to form a united independent country, although this was referred to in the Treat of Sevres, when France and Britain divided up the spoils, as the Ottoman Empire was disbanded, after World War I. The British took over Iraq including Kurdistan, The main excuse given for not following through was instability. There has been ongoing rivalry and conflict between various Kurdish tribes and political factions. But the discovery of oil was also, almost certainly, a factor.
British rule saw the beginning of a series of wars and insurrections by the Kurds, which lasted until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. First, in 1919 Mahmud Barzanji attempted to establish an independent Kingdom of Kurdistan, with himself as monarch. Then, there were several rebellions led by various members of the Barzani family. (no relation to Barzanji). culminating in two Iraqi- Kurdish wars (1961-1970) and 1974. In fighting - between the two Kurdish factions the KDP and the PUK did not help. (these erupted again in the 1990s).
After the Kurds supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam's Ba'athist authorities reinforced large-scale displacement and colonization projects in North Iraq, aiming to shift demographics and thus destabilize Kurdish power bases. This was followed by a genocidal campaign, ( Al-Anfal), with an estimated 50,000–200,000 casualties. A chemical attach on Halabja resulted in the creation by NATO of a no fly zone and resulting autonomous state.
There has been continuing turmoil, civil war, disputed land areas (with Iraq) and ISIS to deal with but Kurdistan has maintained its autonomy. Many Iraqi Kurds today take the view that they are safer within the protective confines of Iraq, where they are able to exist as an autonomous state.
Erbil, (Kurdish name Hawler) is the largest town in Iraqi Kurdistan and its capital. Some sources claim that this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It dates back to the fifth century BC, which is ancient. but apparently there was no urban life until 2300 BC. (The title is hotly disputed but generally thought to belong to Byblos.) Its story is told in one of the museums in the citadel, perched above the modern city. This in its turn, is home to surprisingly western style restaurants, cafes and bars. We're also able to photo bomb some pre wedding photographs.
Lalish Temple is the holiest pilgrimage site for the Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority of northern Iraq. thought to be Zoroastrian descendants. (Some consider them to be the original Kurds.) The Yazidis were persecuted over long periods for their religion. (The last time was the 2014 genocide by ISIS.) Consequently, many Yazidis now live as refugees in Germany and other European countries. The shrine is built around the tomb of Sheikh Ali (12th century AD) but Yazidis claim that the original building is several thousand years old.
At least once in their lifetimes, Yazidis are expected to make a six-day pilgrimage to Lalish to visit the tomb and other sacred places. Many of the visitors are garbed in their best clothes, Bejewelled, with hooped earrings. Sadly, I send most of my time there vomiting in the latrine block, but I do get to see some impressive turret like towers and doze in the guest room. Children in frilly party frocks queue up to converse, even though I have my eyes shut. And I get to meet the Yazidi leader, who is visiting with his family. ‘UK good.’ he says.
St. Matthew’s Monastery (Mar Mattai) dates back as far as 363 AD. The monks lived in caves then though. It’s a veritable fortress. high on the hills above a vast plain and it’s prettier up close than it looks from a distance. It belongs to the Syriac Orthodox Church (an Oriental Orthodox church that branched from the Church of Antioch) and the Liturgy is sung in Syriac (a Neo-Aramaic language; it has its own alphabet).
Another monastery is to be attempted briefly, before we reach Dohuk, but the checkpoints have again flexed their muscle. We’re not allowed that way. It’s closed. It’s certainly beyond dusk now, but the monastery is not supposed to shut for another 30 minutes.
Like Erbil, Dohuk, the third city of Iraqi Kurdistan is bathed in gaudy lights . A line of them run up a long slope, marking the gondola track. It’s been inhabited for thousands of years: Kurds, Assyrians, Yazidis and Arabs. The governorate currently hosts over 300 000 internal displaced persons in refugee camps, mostly Yazidis and Assyrian Christians (since the ISIS advance).
Our hotel vies for bottom of the gradings in accommodation on this trip. The cistern is faulty and tries to fill all night, the extractor fan rattles and the fridge whines. When I turn the valve to replenish the cistern the bathroom floor floods with water. Mysteriously, the toilet paper is mounted by the sink on the opposite side of the bathroom to the toilet. But it’s better than a tent.
A brief stop at Dohuk Dam, for a walk across the 60 metre high wall. It's an earth-fill embankment on the Duhok River just north of Duhok. Here, the soldiers demand the selfies, but we’re not allowed to include their equipment. And there's a view of the lake from above.
Back to the Assyrian Christian village of Al Qosh we were going to visit yesterday. Today, after some debate they let us in. There’s the Monastery of Rabban Hormizd, founded in 635, the tomb of Jewish prophet Nehum, a Chaldean Catholic Church and a delightful little open-air museum.
Up the windiest of hairpin bends, above Al Qosh, this monastery has another spectacular setting. though it's so well camouflaged, built out of stone from the mountain that I can't make out the actual building, until we've almost arrived. There's a warren of caves for the monks, up scrambly precarious paths and a church that’s locked up.
The monastery is named after Rabban Hormizd (rabban is the Syriac for monk) of the Church of the East, who founded it in the seventh century. He was venerated as a saint by the Chaldean Catholics - another Syriac branch of the Church of the East, the result of several schisms of the Catholic Church. It has its own patriarchy and the site, served as the patriarchal residence and burial site from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The building was revived as a monastery and seminary in the nineteenth century.
Al Quosh is, unsurprisingly, a very Christian village. There's even a house completely covered in nativity frescoes. The museum comprises rickety old buildings, a delightful little domed church, sundry wheels and more great views across the valley.
Charsteen Cave is attained via another up hill scramble. It’s the site of a Zoroastrian fire temple, for the deity Anahita, dating from the first millennium BC. It has four carved stone pillars surrounding a fire altar. Fire, water, soil, and air, were the four sacred elements in Zoroastrianism. Perhaps more interesting is the visiting class of excitable. teenage schoolgirls. Selfie, Selfie.
On, to the ancient Assyrian city atop a high plateau. It features the Great Mosque of Amedi (built in 1177), the Bahdinian (Mosul) Gate, the cemetery of Bahdinian princes (they ruled the area from 1376 until 1843) and the Bahdinian madrassa.
Our hotel, on a windy road in a mountain resort, has great views across to Amedi, but old sheets on the bed. The replacement sheets are also dirty. Apparently, Iraqi tourists don’t expect to sleep on clean linen. The manager says he’s been busy working all day . No soap no toilet paper. And a hole in the floor toilet, shared with Aussie/American Diana. It’s an ideal place to have another upset stomach.
The Shanidar Cave is fascinating for its antiquity. It was home to nine Neanderthal skeletons, astonishingly ancient (between 65000 and 35000 years suggesting very long continuity of use), found here in the 50s and 60s; parts of two of them are in the Iraq museum in Baghdad. One of them had healed bones, another was buried with flowers.
Barzan is the home of the Barzani family, Kurdish leaders mentioned above. This is where the fabulous mountain scenery and gorges of Kurdistan begin. Dore Canyon, with its famous bends, snakes along to the small town of Soran. Barzan is also home to two imposing monuments of the Barzani victims of genocide, in the Anfal campaign during the 1980s. They're on hillsides with magnificent views.
The Rawanduz area features more incredible peaks and a canyon with precipitous drops and numerous view points. Some spots are marked with memorials and statues. Hopeful stall holders brandish scoops of honey. Though I'm going to have to crop the litter lining the edges out of my pictures.
Down below, running through mountains that were once considered impregnable, is the Hamilton Road: built by Archibald. Hamilton, a New Zealand born engineer. in 1928-1932. It ran from Erbil to the Iranian border. and has since been replaced with a modern road - Kurdistan’s Scenic Highway. Todays it's quiet and overgrown, except for the a group of Iraq picnickers, complete with fan assisted barbecue.
Korek Mountain Resort, in the Rawanduz area, was built in in 2011. A hotel, villas and a couple of restaurants. We take the gondola up, to explore. It’s supposedly popular with Iraqis from the whole country (Arabs like to come to experience snow in winter), but today it's fairly deserted. At the top, far reaching views of the mountains, rugged and barren and a postage stamp of ski slope.
Waterfalls in the Middle East tend to be resorts rather than tranquil places for relaxing. Cafes, illuminations and food stalls feature and Rawanduz's offering, Bekhal, is no exception.
Shaqlawa is another popular, if gaudy hill station resort, famous for fresh air, honey and nuts. It sits at the bottom of Safeen Mountain. The winding main street is lined with food and souvenir stalls: lokum, dates, figs and brightly coloured sweets.
Lake Dukan is an artificial water reservoir, also used for irrigation and hydropower. It's prettily blue, surrounded by some spectacular arid mountains. Assorted motor boats are lined up along the rocky beach, their owners idling under a canopy. Negotiations for a short ride come to a swift halt when it becomes clear that they won't interrupt their slumbers for under a hundred USD.
The Red Prison (Amna Suraka) once served as the headquarters of the Ba’ath (Saddam's) regime. It was used as a prison and place of torture for the Kurdish population. Today, it is left preserved as a museum and memorial to the thousands of Kurds imprisoned and killed there. The centrepiece is the astonishing Hall of Mirrors, which contains over a hundred thousand shards of glass. One for every victim of Saddam’s reign of terror against Kurdistan.
Like all these places, it’s almost unbearable. Yet another reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. Row upon row of photographs of those who have died either from the Kurdish genocide perpetuated by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath movement or later by ISIS.
The torture chambers are particularly gruesome, with no holds barred descriptions of the types of torture, the scenes bizarrely depicted with plaster cast mannequins.
The schoolgirls visiting here wear belted trousers and tucked in white blouses so the shape of their bottoms is exposed. Some also daringly flaunt their ankles with cropped legs. Their chatter and smiles not entirely appropriate for the occasion mitigate the horror somewhat.
The Road from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah is poor. Ostensibly, because the two cities hate each other and want to prevent interaction. Sulaymaniyah is the cultural capital of Kurdistan, but the smaller city of the two. It's the home of poets, writers, historians, politicians, scholars and singers, such as Nalî, Mahwi, and Piramerd.
Sulaymaniyah is also full of bustle and character. And the bazaar is another fascinating wander. The men, out for their pre-weekend relaxation, wear the traditional Kurdish costume, baggy boiler suits cinched in at the waist with patterned cummerbunds and embordered round caps or turbans. They don’t flinch at all at the approach of the camera and wave benignly over their tea. 'Hello. Where are you from?'
In the evening, the whole of the city turns out to wander around, eat from the many fancy food stalls lining the main thoroughfares, sip coffee and people watch.
At Halabja, there’s another memorial for the 5000 victims of the chemical bomb attack perpetrated on the town by Ali Hassan al-Majid under the direction of Saddam Hussein, on March 16th 1988. He earned himself the nickname “Chemical Ali”.
It's a fitting and sobering end to our trip in Kurdistan. Next up, Socotra.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.