10th blog, trip to Dohuk over Thanksgiving weekend. Posted December 3, 2009
We had a wonder-filled trip over the Thanksgiving holiday, so this will be a longer blog than others. First a few words about why we had a long weekend, then some information about the trip.
On Thanksgiving Thursday, we joined with 35 other American ex-pats for a Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkeys. There was lots of food and good company, but no cranberries, sweet potatoes or pumpkin pie. It was a truly festive dinner but could not take the place of dinner with family.
On Friday after Thanksgiving, this part of the world began a 4 day holiday called Eid al-Adha, or Festival of the Sacrifice. The sacrifice commemorated is that by Abraham after he was told to sacrifice his first-born. In the Islamic world, the son that was taken to be sacrificed by his father was Ismail, not Isaac, because, they say, Ismail was Abraham’s first born. Like Jews and Christians, they proof-text this to scripture; in their case, the Quran. It is an important holiday for Muslims, at least as important as Christmas for Christians. There is frenetic purchasing of food before the holiday, and then on the holiday itself, things shut down. One of the traditions is the slaughtering of a live goat on the first day of the holiday. More on this in a few paragraphs. Even on Monday, November 30, the fourth day of the holiday, many stores were closed and construction work on the apartment block near our home was limited.
Because of Eid al-Adha, the university was closed for four days, Friday through Monday, so we used the first three days of the holiday period to go on a road trip to Dohuk, a city that is about a 5 hour drive to the north west of Sulaimani. I cannot tell you the number of miles or kilometers because the normal means of calculating this, either by map or by average miles per hour don’t work here. At times the driver of the huge Ford Expedition in which we were riding was driving at 85 to 90 miles per hour, at times he was going 30 to 40 miles per hour on mountainous curves. For the first fifty or so miles we were on a smooth four lane highway; the rest of the trip was on two lane roads that though paved were very rough. For once I appreciated the beast of a vehicle that was carrying us as its suspension and tires soaked up some of the bumps. It was still very rough. Three other persons were part of the group: Jonathan and Carol, a married couple, and Randall, also married but here in Iraq on his own while his wife is remaining behind in Georgia. Jonathan made arrangements for our hotel in Dohuk, and for our itinerary; I made transportation arrangements. Jonathan is my office partner and is a remarkable scholar of ancient Christianity in the Middle East and can read Hebrew, Syriac, and Aramaic. It was his knowledge of the area that led him to want to make this trip to places we did not know existed. We are in his debt for his knowledge and for allowing us to be part of this experience, something we would never have known to want to do were it not for our being here.
On the trip north, we saw so many sites that destroy any preconceptions of Iraq as a flat, sandy, dry and arid place. As you can see from the first photos included with this blog, the lands between the road and the mountains are flat, and the soil rich. On this trip we literally drove along hundreds of miles with rich farm land of this type, that does not require any irrigation. We now understand why the Kurdish area is considered the bread basket of Iraq and of this region. The season for growing grain crops is winter, and in fact we saw several farmers planting winter grain crops that will ripen by early June. Our travel partner, Jon, reminded us that this part of the Middle East was where historians speculate that the first ever human effort at farming -- that is deliberately planting seeds and harvesting the product of this work -- took place, thus revolutionizing human existence from hunting and gathering to settled agricultural villages. See next two photos for representative scenes that were part of this trip.
The weather was delightful as we made our way north through numerous villages. In several, we observed groups of men and boys in the process of slaughtering and cutting up goats for the Eid holiday. I would like to have stopped to take pictures, but felt that doing so would be intrusive, thus no pictures.
Dohuk city feels as big as Sulaimani, and also less torn up by the construction of roads and infrastructure. Like Suli, Dohuk is built at the base of a mountain range. See photo below, which also shows evidence of intense Kurdish nationalism with the flag painted onto the hillside above the city. We had a very good hotel that cost $50 per night and included a wonderful breakfast buffet.
After a short rest in the hotel, we set out for the village of Lalish that lies about 30 miles south of Dohuk. This village is the global center for a religious group called Yezidis. The Yezidi religion is a blend of pre-Christian, Christian, and Islamic elements that would take too long to explain. (Do an internet search and you will find several references.) We were treated very warmly and were welcomed to tour the sacred temple where our guide was a young local man who had good English skills.
Trying to describe this event is one of those occasions when words and photos simply fail to communicate the sense of awe we felt as we removed our shoes and entered their sacred space, and were led back in history. Parts of the building date to the 12th century C.E. and commemorate an important leader, Sheikh Adi, who is sacred to their history. As important as looking at the structure was seeing Yezidi men walk (barefoot) about kissing objects like trees and walls as all of this temple is sacred to them. In one of our pictures you will find a black snake as bas-relief on the wall next to the door. In their history, a black snake chased away Kurds who were trying to convert them to Islam, thus the snake is sacred.
In the Yezidi faith, light is important. Hence the conically shaped stone tomb coverings represent the sun at the top, with each of the twelve ribs representing both rays of light and the months of the year. Within the temple compound were a number of olive oil lamps that appear to be kept burning 24 hours per day.
We were treated warmly and after a tour of the temple were invited to share tea with a number of the men. One of the men brought his son, and allowed a photo of the two of them. What a beautiful child.
We returned to Dohuk in the dark on a rough and curvy mountain road, glad to return safely to our hotel. The next day, Saturday, we went to the town of Al Qosh, a Christian village. The town sits at the foot a mountain into which a group of extraordinarily ascetic monks under the leadership of Saint Hormuzd built a monastery in the 6th century. The road to the monastery goes up the side of the mountain in a series of switchback curves, but goes only so far, and from that point on we had to walk. To the left and right of the monastery are a series of natural caves in the hillside. Paths were built to the caves where monks would live for weeks at a time. Even today, you can see where they carved niches back into the rock walls of the caves. My friend and colleague Jonathan says that at its height, several thousand monks lived here. By the mid-19th century that number had dwindled to less than 100. See 3 pictures below, more on the picasa website.
At the base of the mountain is a more contemporary monastery founded in the mid-19th century where today a group of monks cares for boys in an orphanage attached to the monastery.
We met several of the monks, who happen to have good English skills, and also some of the boys who were very dear in their affection for us. All of them seem to have mastered the phrase “Hello Meester,” but like us and our use of Kurdish, they cannot go a lot further in conversation. All of the boys come from Christian families of northern Iraq and are there either because parents are dead or cannot afford to support them. As you might recall from reading the news, one of the communities that has most suffered in Iraq are the Christian communities because they do not fit neatly into either the Arabic or Kurdish communities, and they have been hurt by the sectarianization of formerly mixed towns and neighborhoods. Many Christians have simply fled Iraq. These boys represent the human side of these conflicts.
The village of Al Qosh is important for one other religious reason: it has for a long time been considered the home of the Old Testament prophet Nahum, who in chapter one, verse one of the book that carries his name says: “An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh.” Never mind that the editors of The New Oxford Annotated Bible suggest that no one knows for sure where the Biblical Elkosh is located. In these parts, it’s right here and has been here for centuries.
His tomb is contained in a Jewish synagogue that has fallen on hard times. 19th century European travelers suggest that by their time, no Jews lived in Al Qosh, but traveled there once a year from Mosul to commemorate Nahum. Since the founding of Israel in 1948 there are few Jews in Iraq, and parts of the building are in ruins. The tomb is tended by a local Christian family who allowed us in to see it, and who asked us to sign a guest book. See two photos below; more in picasa.
Our last venture of the holiday came on Sunday morning when we went to a Zoroastrian cave, called Chwarstoon Cave, situated in a mountain to the east of Dohuk, near a large dam of the same name. The Zoroastrian religion was founded in the 6th century BCE, and was popular in this area. Today, the cave has carvings into its wall that are thought to be associated with Zoroastrianism. The sides and roof of the cave are still coated with hardened soot that was the after-effect of the fires that were burned in the caves over many years. See next photo.
On Sunday afternoon, we returned to Suli by the same bumpy route. Along the way we re-crossed the Greater Zab river, where we had tea with some local folks and watched young boys bring in their catch of fish which they were offering for sale. If I liked carp, I might have bought one. The water of the Zab River flows west and south from this point and eventually joins with the Tigris River. Photo below.
All along this three day outing, we felt that we were somehow becoming a part of the history of this part of Iraq. It was around here that agriculture began, near here that the great Assyrian city of Nineveh was built, and through here that Alexander the Great marched his army and defeated the Persians at Gaugamela. It was an awesome experience.
This coming weekend we will be moving to an apartment complex much nearer the university than our villa. We are looking forward to the move as it will allow us much greater flexibility in our ability to walk about and be a part of the city. We can even walk to a Chinese Restaurant that has pretty good food. There may be a delay in our getting access to the internet from our home, so bear with us if we do not respond quickly.
We wish all of you, our faithful readers, a meaningful beginning to the season of Advent.