A Sneak Peek At The Soon-To-Reopen National Museum Of Iraq

National Museum of Iraq
The National Museum of Iraq is as battered and defiant as the country it represents. Battered because it has suffered looting and neglect, defiant because its staff fought to protect it. Now they’re rebuilding and the museum will soon reopen.

I got a sneak peak while visiting Iraq and was overawed. I knew I would be. Here is the treasure house of the dawn of civilization. Giant statues of Assyrian guardian demons stand next to cases filled with wide-eyed Sumerian statues pleading with their gods. Detailed bas-reliefs from excavated palaces show scenes of war and hunting. Cases full of cylinder seals show scenes of Babylonian life in miniature.

My favorite was the writing. The first scribes developed a simple system around 3300 B.C. or even earlier. Clay tokens represented objects such as sheep or jugs of beer. These were often sealed in clay envelopes with an impression of the tokens on the outside, thus creating the first contracts. Soon tablets were used with a system of writing that was mostly pictorial – a bull’s head represented a bull, etc. As the needs of the developing civilization grew more complex, so did the system of writing. The pictures morphed into almost unrecognizable collections of lines, and words for abstract ideas appeared. The writing was done with a stylus on soft clay to make a series of wedge-shaped impressions called cuneiform.

Looking at these ancient texts was hypnotic. The same process we’re engaged in right now, with me writing and you reading, was going on 5,000 years ago in a vastly different culture. We don’t have to know each other or even be in the same country to communicate. It was an incredible innovation that opened up countless possibilities for the human race.

As I studied the galleries I was amazed that anything survived the chaotic days after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. The Coalition troops hadn’t been given any instructions to protect the museum, so looters broke in and ransacked the place. Museum staff came back in force and drove them off, a brave act considering the looters were armed. Eventually the museum workers convinced the U.S. Army to post some guards.

It was too late. Thousands of priceless artifacts had been stolen. Some were later recovered but most have disappeared into the private homes of “collectors.” Luckily, the museum staff had hidden some of the best artifacts in secret locations. They told no one, not even the Coalition, about their existence until the situation had stabilized.

%Gallery-170304%Now workers are busy finishing up the displays. Twenty-two galleries have been completed and there are five more to go. Some rooms survived the war relatively intact and will look familiar to those who were lucky enough to visit before the war. Others have been completely remodeled. The museum officials didn’t allow me to photograph those. It seemed an odd restriction. Wouldn’t they want people to see their hard work? When traveling in Iraq, you get used to random rules. You just have to shrug your shoulders and move on.

In one room I found a member of the staff restoring an Abbasid sarcophagus made of teak. As I studied the intricately carved designs he explained in perfect English that he was filling in the cracks and chips with a paste made from powdered teak and “micro balloons,” tiny polymer spheres that act as a chemically inert adhesive. I asked if I could take a picture of his work and he said no.

“That’s the museum’s rule, not mine,” he said apologetically.

He and his coworkers have done a good job. The difference between the traditional galleries and the remodeled ones is astounding. The new galleries have better lighting and signage and show off the museum’s artifacts to much better advantage. All the galleries, both new and old, have signage in both Arabic and English.

The National Museum of Iraq is due to have a grand reopening in two months. As with everything in this struggling nation, the date is subject to change due to security issues and funds not getting to the right place at the right time. The work is almost done, though, so one of the greatest museums in the Middle East will almost certainly reopen in 2013 to teach a new generation of visitors about the wonders of Iraq’s past.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Ghosts Of A Dictatorship: Visiting Saddam’s Palaces!”

All photos by Sean McLachlan

Join Sean McLachlan For A Reddit AMA On His Trip To Iraq

When Sean McLachlan approached me early last year with the idea of building some Iraq coverage I thought he was crazy. Iraq was a warzone. The security situation in the country was far from stable and I wasn’t about to send a freelancer, husband and father headlong into the country in the name of a few adventure stories. I said no.

Sean persisted. As the military presence in Iraq ratcheted down and the dust from the conflict began to settle, he pointed to an increasingly secure infrastructure and a series of avenues in which a completely safe visit might occur. Iraq was still dangerous, no doubt, but it was possible to go on guided, armored tours to the safe portions of the country and cover some of the cultural angles. We didn’t want to be on the front lines anyway – the story of tourism in Iraq is about the people who have weathered the storm, and the millennia of history still ingrained in the region. Finally, with the blessing of Sean’s wife, an ironclad tour company, and a half dozen international wire transfers I signed off on the tip.

The series, “Destination Iraq,” is running on Gadling right now, and will continue through the week after Thanksgiving. Sean is back, safe and sound and with dozens of stories (and just a few more photos) in the hopper, and we couldn’t be happier with the coverage.

As part of the series I’ve asked Sean to do a Q&A (or Ask Me Anything) over on Reddit to answer some questions about the trip. How’s the food? Do planes still have to land in a corkscrew pattern at the airport? Who’s your favorite pro wrestler? Everything is fair game.

Join us at 11AM ET for the live session. Sean will be answering questions for a few hours and should have some great insight into what it’s like to be a tourist in the newest destination in the planet: Iraq.

[Photo credit: Sean McLachlan]

10 Minutes Of Terror On Vacation In Iraq

Iraq, Samarra

I’m in Samarra, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, the birthplace of the insurgency and a hotspot for sectarian tension in war-torn Iraq. My heart is racing and my mouth is dry. This is the most frightened I’ve been in months.

But I’m not scared of the Sunnis, I’m scared of plummeting to my death.

I’m climbing one of the famous spiral minarets of Samarra, a pair of towers with a narrow staircase snaking up the exterior. They were built in the ninth century. The taller one is 52 meters (171 feet) and the shorter one is 34 meters (112 feet). I’m on the shorter one. It doesn’t feel short to me.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a fear of heights, a phobia that years of rock climbing never cured. That doesn’t stop me from going up one of the most famous monuments of Islamic architecture, though. I’m a sucker for medieval buildings.

Up I go, step by step. They’re steep, a bit uneven, and they relentlessly narrow as they rise higher. You can see just how little room there was between me and the abyss in the above photo. That’s my foot at the lower right, and beyond the step you can see our bus, which comfortably seats 20 people.

The stairs are wide enough, I tell myself. I’ve climbed narrow spiral staircases hundreds of times and have never fallen off.

But there was no risk of death on those, a little voice tells me.

“Shut up,” I reply, and keep climbing.

%Gallery-170252%They tell me the muezzin who ascended this minaret five times a day to give to call to prayer was blind. He’d keep one hand on the wall and climb without seeing how high up he was. I can’t decide if that’s a good hiring decision or a bad one.

I keep both my hands gripped on the aging, crumbly brick. I’ve been climbing for what seems like hours. Surely I must almost be there?

“Go back!” someone shouts from below.

You’re kidding me, right?

“Go back, there’s no room!”

From around the corner comes another member of our group, a Norwegian sailor who has no fear of heights. When he sees me he stops.

“Go back,” I say.

“Don’t worry, I’ll pass you,” he replies.

“That’s a really bad idea. Go back.”

He comes close. I flatten myself on the wall as he reaches around me, grabs the edge of the brick, and eases past. You can see his brave/foolish move in the photo gallery, as well as the beautiful panorama that awaited me when, a few steps later, I reached the top.

It was worth the climb. Even more rewarding was that sharp-edged feeling I had the entire time going up and the adrenaline rush of the even more hazardous trip down. Colors and sounds were vivid, every step a crucial moment – every moment a lifetime of excitement.

Want to get high? Skip the drugs and grab your fear by the balls.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology, and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “A Sneak Peak At The Soon-To-Reopen National Museum of Iraq!”

[Both photos by Sean McLachlan]

Iraq, Samarra

Iraq Street Art: Beautifying The Blast Walls

street art, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
One of the first things you notice when traveling in Iraq are the blast walls. These giant concrete barriers are everywhere – in front of government buildings, schools, mosques and dividing Shia from Sunni neighborhoods. They remind me of the “peace walls” put up in Northern Ireland to keep opposing sides from killing each other.

Like the Irish peace walls, they’re ugly, and some locals have decided to beautify them. Iraqi street art has its own distinctive flavor. This Banksy style example in Baghdad sends a message any Iraqi can empathize with. Others are simple graffiti. Many more are officially sanctioned and proclaim the importance of education or rebuilding.

There are even some at the ubiquitous checkpoints, showing happy soldiers being nice to people. Some of the troops have even decorated the checkpoints with plastic flowers in a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to change the vibe. The plastic flowers are nice, but you’re still being stopped by Kalashnikov-toting guys searching for suicide bombers.

%Gallery-171121%I prefer the civilian art, especially the one shown below, showing a weird TV-headed figure balancing a heart and a gun. Check out the gallery for more!

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology, and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Ten Minutes Of Terror In Iraq!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

street art, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel

Visiting The Sacred Sites Of Shia Islam

Shia, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
“She wants you to take her picture,” a man said when the old woman in the black abaya came up to me.

We were standing in the mosque of Imam Husayn in Karbala, Iraq. This is one of the holiest shrines for Shia Islam. It was near here that Imam Husayn, son of Imam Ali, was killed along with his supporters by the Caliph Yazid. The Shia believe that Ali and Hussein were the rightful successors to the Prophet Mohammad. The Sunnis believe that the Ummayid Caliphs like Yazid had that honor. For the Shia, Husayn’s martyrdom has become a symbol of their oppression at the hands of corrupt governments.

I got that message loud and clear as soon as I raised my camera.

The woman tore into a litany about the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, describing his justness, his bravery, and his death at the hands of treacherous soldiers. I couldn’t follow it all but I knew the story, how a massive army surrounded Husayn and his few dozen followers in the desert, how the women and children begged for water and were shot with arrows. How the men fought bravely and were killed off one by one. The woman started crying, her voice breaking as it increased in volume.

I wondered who else she was crying for.

During the rule of Saddam Hussein – a Sunni – the Shia got kicked around. Many disappeared into his jails and torture chambers. Their neighborhoods always got fewer municipal funds. They were the last hired and first fired. Then Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.
The U.S.-led forces soon pushed the Iraqi army out of Kuwait and President Bush called on the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam. Shia, Kurds, and some Sunnis answered that call. The rebels took over several key cities and most of the provinces. Saddam had all the heavy weaponry, though. Saddam had the tanks. The rebels called on the U.S. for help.

The U.S. government launched some missiles, extended the no-fly zone, and said some very nasty things about Saddam, but otherwise did nothing.

Saddam’s reprisals were terrible. Nobody knows how many civilians were killed. The mass graves are still being discovered. There was more than just religious fervor coming out of that woman, there was a lifetime of suffering. I doubt there’s a single Shia in Iraq who doesn’t know someone who died because of Saddam.

%Gallery-171120%The old woman finished her testimony and she gestured that I could go. As I walked away I kept turning back to see her watching me, tears in her eyes.

It seemed that everyone in the mosque wanted to talk with me, and it was the same in the shrine to Imam Ali in Najaf. As I sat on plush carpets under exquisite tile ceilings, the melodious sounds of Arabic prayers in the background, people kept coming up to me. Some were curious and asked where I was from and why I was there. Once I answered these questions they had reached the end of their English. They welcomed me, smiled and moved on. Others had better English and stopped to chat.

Parents pushed their kids forward to practice their English lessons. Others wanted to know if I was a Bosnian, the only European Muslims they were accustomed to seeing. Telling them I wasn’t a Muslim didn’t seem to make me any less welcome.

Many of the people I met were actually Iranian. Their country has an even greater Shia majority than Iraq, and has been ruled by Shia for centuries. Iranian pilgrims come to Iraq by the millions every year. Karbala and Najaf are almost as holy to the Shia as Mecca and Medina.

One of the best conversations was with two female engineering students from Iran. Bright eyed and friendly, they were delighted to learn that I’d been to their country and had visited that matchless city, Isfahan. There’s an old Persian proverb, “Esfahan Nesf-e Jahan” (“Esfahan is half the world”) and with its stunning mosques, soaring blue-green minarets, and sparkling river I couldn’t deny it.

The Shia shrines of Karbala and Najaf give Isfahan a run for its money, though. Some interiors are entirely made of multifaceted glass, with colored lights that make the walls and ceiling sparkle like jewels. Others have vast ceilings of paneled tiles like the one shown below. The graves of the martyrs are ornately decorated in gold, as are some of the doors.

Together the girls and I admired the architecture and they urged me to take my wife to Iran the next time I go.

“Oh, she would love it!” they said. “She should have come to Iraq too.”

“She was too scared to come.”

“Oh, it’s not dangerous,” they said.

I found their innocence touching. On second thought I realized they couldn’t be so naive. They were simply being welcoming. The Iranians did have more of a sense of optimism than the Iraqis. Although they, too, have had a succession of oppressive governments, at least they haven’t been persecuted for their faith.

It was pilgrimage season. The television was filled with images of the Hajj. People were visiting Karbala and Najaf in large numbers too. One night I flicked on the television in my hotel room and saw an announcer at the same mosque where I spoke with those Iranian students. It was a call-in show and as pilgrims mingled in the background, the announcer chatted with the callers.
They were almost exclusively women and almost all were crying. I couldn’t follow the conversations very well but I did pick up the names Husayn and Ali, as well as other male names, probably of the women’s relatives. And one name was repeated over and over again with a mixture of hatred and horror.

Saddam. Saddam. Saddam.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology, and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Iraq Street Art: Beautifying the Blast Walls!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

Shia, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel