Iraq (Kurdistan)

19 May 2013

Erbil city center viewed from the Citadel
Quick refresher:
When the British and French carved up the Turks' Ottoman Empire (unwisely aligned with Germany in WWI), Kurds were divided among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Over the decades, Kurds often had their language and culture repressed by these governments. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was particularly brutal toward the restive Kurds.

After driving Iraq out of Kuwait, the first Pres. Bush helped with a partially protective "no fly zone" against Saddam in 1991, giving Kurds some autonomy. The second Pres. Bush became a greater hero by overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

The Kurdish Regional Government now rules peaceful northeastern Iraq. Yet, in disputed, dangerous, nearby oil-rich areas ― in infamous places like Kirkuk and Mosul ― Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Kurds and others battle for supremacy.

While those struggling cities were at times only 40 kilometers away from us, they were a world away from the tranquility of the solidly secured Kurdish areas.

Our Expedition:
For eight great days, I traveled around the region with six smart, seasoned Brits using a UK company called Explore!, guided by superb Hellen and Reb, driven by Aras. (See local agency here.)

People were friendly, grateful to the US and UK for overthrowing their tormentor Saddam Hussein ― and surprised and pleased to see US and UK tourists. We've been told we're among fewer than two hundred actual tourists to visit here in the past decade.

Whatever the exact number, this place is a revelation: Nothing like I expected.

Lufthansa to Erbil. ● Handsome, efficient, gleaming, new airport. ● Neatly landscaped, smooth highways into the city center. ● Construction everywhere you look. ● Astonished already but sleep is required after long flights (Djibouti to Addis to Frankfurt to Erbil).

Next day: Shock and, yes, awe, in Erbil (aka Arbil or Irbil or Hawler), the capital and largest city (1.5+ million) of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

We stroll from our hotel, past lots of construction, to the charming historic city center where the ancient Citadel is being restored and down below the fountains are soaring. People are smiling, curious, somewhat shy, and welcoming.

Beautiful new square with many fountains at the base of the historic old Citadel.

Explored the labyrinth of the Qaysari Bazaar amazingly
without harassment from even a single aggressive seller.

Walked over to large, lush, manicured Minaret Park (small fraction of it shown above). It's more elegant than any US city park I've seen.

Left: A Kurd from Syria playing a long-necked ud (Arab lute) in Minaret Park.
Right: When friendly locals shyly asked if they could take a photo with the visiting Martian, I always reciprocated.

Most mosques here were fairly small and not ornate. However, the Grand Mosque in Erbil is spectacular, but just compare the 2009 photo someone uploaded with the one I took (2013) for proof of Erbil booming.

In the pleasant Christian suburb of Ainkawa, we visited St. Joseph's Catholic Church (much larger than it looks here).

Lalish near Ain Sifni is the center of the persecuted Yazidi religion whose theology I will not attempt to recount except to say it involves God turning the world over to seven angels especially one named Melek Taus, the peacock angel. Maybe several hundred thousand people are Yazidi (aka Ezidi) but estimates vary widely. Pilgrimages to Lalish are a key Yazidi ritual.

Chief sheik at the Lalish center of the Yazidi religion.
Perhaps as homage to the peacock angel, these sashes adorn temple pillars.
A steady stream of friendly pilgrims visit Lalish.

The major city in the far north is Dohuk. It has at least 300,000 residents but, like the rest of Kurdistan, it's booming, especially as Christians flee to this safer, more tolerant area.

Nowhere were Kurdish flags larger or more pervasive than in Dohuk. Iraqi flags were never seen except on a few national government buildings.

Beautiful lake formed by the Dohuk Dam.

The Azadi (Freedom) Memorial to the struggle of the Kurdish people.

A Dohuk church we visited that I believe is an Assyrian (aka Chaldean) Church.
And my barber smiling on the left, an Assyrian Christian who moved his family to Dohuk.

Large, vibrant souk in Dohuk selling everything except a cotton t-shirt saying "Kurdistan."

We drove up to Zakho, a thriving town of a quarter million on the Turkish border profiting from the large and growing trade with Turkey. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is apparently "business friendly," encouraging local entrepreneurs as well as encouraging foreign trade and investment.

Zakho is famous for its ancient, handsome, stone arch, Dalal Bridge,
probably a Silk Road route and dating back centuries B.C.

Also driving in the area, we passed one of Saddam Hussein's
many palaces surrounded by high walls and now deteriorating.

The small town of Amadiya is perched on a mesa and surrounded by mountains. The area is a popular cool tourist destination for Iraqis wanting to escape the summer heat.

Scenes from walking around Amadiya:
Free hot bread offered to visitors; young love;
and schoolboys showing off English skills.

Gali Ali Beg Canyon and Hamilton Road
Driving for hours up and down and around a scenic mountain valley produced many great photos, but I'll limit to a few here.

Stopping at a riverside cafe produced a meet and greet with friendly erstwhile Peshmerga (Kurdish freedom fighters).

View of Sulaymaniyah from Azmar mountain.

In the southern part of Iraqi Kurdistan, Sulaymaniyah (many different English spellings) is the main city, approaching 1.5 million.

With major universities, including a prestigious new American University of Sulaymaniyah, it is considered the most relaxed and cosmopolitan Kurdish city.

Pottery at the Slemani Museum

Here and in Erbil we visited two small and perhaps impressive museums for connoisseurs of the inevitable rows of ancient pottery.

I'm sure the collections are swell, but I've seen too many old pots in my travels. Happily, our stops were not too long but seemed to satisfy the vase aficionados.

Cranes everywhere for the building boom which includes amusement parks.
Even small towns have a new Ferris wheel in their amusement parks.
Sulimaniyah will soon have the largest wheel and coaster in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Hardly the dirty, dusty, decaying sight you might have expected.
(Photo taken in Sulaymaniyah)

Bullet-cratered "Red Security" building where suspected opponents were tortured
under Saddam. With the Allied shield, Peshmerga fighters ousted Saddam's henchmen.

Halabja features a museum and memorial to the 5,000 men, women, and children who were killed here during Saddam Hussein's 1988 poison gas attack, said to be the largest chemical weapon attack against civilians to date. Thousands more suffered horrible complications and subsequent painful deaths.

Ahmad Awa
Well-dressed lady on a swing at the Ahmad Awa picnic area.

The gorge by the resort village of Ahmad Awa is a popular picnic destination for residents of the region and even those as far away as Baghdad. It is also only a kilometer or two from the Iranian border.

This is where the three young Americans were hiking last year when they strayed over into Iran. We skipped the perilous hike but did have a leisurely picnic surrounded by many dozens of Iraqi families and friends.

Back in Sulimaniyah
With key leaders of the Gorran Party.
A reform party ― called Gorran (Change) Party ― seems to be a promising and healthy development in Kurdistan. One evening by chance we got to spend some time with one of the top Gorran leaders, Mam Rostam (top left in photo on the right).

Our final evening in Iraq news came that Jalal Talabani, the ceremonial President of Iraq and an influential Kurd from the Sulimaniyah area, was recovering from a stroke. Well, the city erupted in delight:

Horns honking and flags flying, plus some fireworks and celebratory gunfire!. A dramatic end to our exciting, surprising, convivial, illuminating excursion around Iraqi Kurdistan.

Finally, my favorite photo of an Iraqi sunset (from Minaret Park in Erbil)