Commonwealth War Graves Being Restored Ahead Of World War I Centennial

Commonwealth War Graves
Sean McLachlan

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is busy fixing up the cemeteries it manages ahead of next year’s World War I centennial, the BBC reports.

It’s a daunting task – maintaining 1.7 million graves in 153 countries, including far-flung areas such as Baghdad. The grave photographed here is in the Baghdad North Gate War Cemetery and is for Private E. Wadsworth of the Cheshire Regiment, who died during the Mesopotamian Campaign against the Ottoman Turks. I had the honor of visiting this cemetery during my recent trip to Iraq.

The organization has its roots in World War I and has continued to this day, honoring the fallen from both World Wars. The headstones are of a standard size and design, with the emblem of the soldier’s regiment on top.

Some of the less-visited cemeteries, such as the one in Baghdad, are not as well kept as popular ones on the Western Front. They are receiving equal attention this year, however, and many old headstones are being replaced. While cemeteries may seem like odd places to visit while on vacation, they are becoming increasingly popular as people interested in genealogy and history seek them out. The Commission expects record numbers of visitors to its many cemeteries along the Western Front next year.

Ani, The Ghost City


Ask someone to name tourist draws in Turkey and you’ll get the obvious: Istanbul, Cappadocia, Galipoli, maybe the beaches of Antalya. Some more familiar with the country might offer up the bizarre calcium cascades of Pamukkale, or the monstrous gods’ heads sculptures on Mount Nemrut. Nobody ever mentions Ani, a city that for a brief period 1,000 years ago was one of the cultural and commercial centers of the world.

The ruins of Ani, the erstwhile capital of an ancient Armenian kingdom, stand overlooked in the far east of Turkey, weathered by the elements and neglect. In 2010 the ruins were ignominiously singled out with 11 other sites by the Global Heritage Fund as places that were in danger of disappearing due to neglect and mismanagement. This is a travesty. Greek, Incan, Roman, Siamese, Mayan, Khmer – you name the civilization, the ruins of Ani are on par with all of them. They are the most astounding ruins you have never seen.

Part of the reason is distance. At over 900 miles from tourist central, Istanbul, Ani is actually closer to Baghdad and Tehran. It’s still 30 miles away from Kars, the nearest city of any note, and there is no public transportation to the site. In 2011, Turkey welcomed 31 millions visitors. Ani saw around 23,000. As you can see in this video, they traveled a while to get there:

A friend and I arrived on a dark day in mid-November. The fields, which in the spring are green and speckled with wildflowers, had shed their color and taken on sepia tones. The grasses were gold and yellow, and fallen bricks covered in green and rust-colored lichen littered the ground. An occasional flurry of snow would burst from the slate-grey sky and then vanish before it had time to settle on the ground. We slipped by the sleeping guard at the entrance and through one of Ani’s famed “40 gates,” a feature of the city’s rapid growth that rendered redundant much of its original fortifications. We had the entire ancient city to ourselves.

Ani is set on a triangular plateau that is naturally protected by a river on one side and a steep valley on another. On the other side of the river is modern-day Armenia. We heard low-frequency sounds from tractors and drills in a quarry across the border. Armenia developed this quarry to build the Yervan cathedral, wanting to use building material as close as possible to the original Ani stone. Unfortunately, blasts from the Armenian quarry have damaged the ruins.

The wind ushered these mechanical sounds through the valley and canyon, where they wrinkled and amplified into eerie moans. Swirling over the plateau in a swooping howl, these distorted noises were punctuated by piercing cries from low-flying eagles. It was more than a little spooky.

Ani’s “1,001 churches” now number only a handful. Some, like the Cathedral of Ani shown in the lead photo, look like they could have been designed recently. That they’re over 1,000 years old and not only structurally sound but architecturally fresh is remarkable. Others, though, in their cloaks of grasses, lichens and overgrowth, seem to slip into the background. All are in a woeful state. A lightning strike in the 1950s caused half of the Church of the Redeemer to collapse. Some of the rubble was collected and pushed against the side of the building in a half-hearted effort to prevent further ruin.

Archaeologically, the site is a shambles. The Church of the Apostles suffered damage when untrained landscapers went at the overgrowth with pickaxes. In the Church of St. Gregory, we found a worker had made a fireplace against one wall to keep warm, and the fire had scorched and blackened the entire apse. The Merchant’s Palace was rebuilt in 1999 using bricks of a different color, material, size and finish than the originals. Only a small section near the doorway in the bottom left of this photo is pre-1999.

Howard Carter is rolling in his grave.

Sometimes a good balance between decay and preservation can make for a more genuine encounter with history. I prefer to see a bit of nature crawling into old, dead buildings. It’s the way of things, and when you take it away entirely you end up with Wayne Newton ruins, frozen artificially in and inorganically buttressed against time. Few people would argue that Ta Prohm, the famous tree-entangled Angkor temple should be recovered from the jungle.

The restoration of Ani has gotten it wrong in both directions. The very few sections that have been recovered have been turned into ersatz monstrosities like the example above. Meanwhile, the rest of the buildings are crumbling and falling down by the day.

In a way, Ani’s perverse treatment in death reflects the sad historical trajectory of the city. In its heyday during Armenian (Bagratid) rule, as the guidebooks like to say, it was a city on par with other world capitals: Constantinople, Cairo and Baghdad. In reality, Ani’s population, and by extension its importance, was only about a fifth of these other cities’. It was, however, highly regarded as a center of commerce and culture. The unique architectural artistry of the churches was widely renowned.

When it was made the capital of Ashot III’s Bagratid Kingdom in 971, it grew into a major hub on the Silk Road, connecting Syria and Byzantium with Persia and Central Asia. The seat of Armenian Catholicism moved there in 992, and churches and dioceses sprouted up like dandelions. At its peak, the city had 12 bishops.

Then, on a fateful day in 1064, her citizens yielded to a 25-day siege by Sedjuk Turks. They were subsequently massacred. After the sacking, the city never really recovered. It changed hands countless times, passing from the Armenians to the Turks to the Kurds to the Georgians to the Persians. Even the Mongols sacked the city. After a drawn-out twilight, the city was abandoned completely in the 1700s.

Ani’s current decline is the result of icy diplomatic relations between Ankara and Yerevan. Armenia often claims Turkey is purposefully letting their cultural touchstone descend into decrepitude. Past actions don’t help matters. After retaking Ani in post-WWI border skirmishes, the Turkish government ordered Ani’s monuments “wiped off the face of the Earth.”

Modern Turkish diktats aren’t nearly so explicit. While Turkey deflects accusations of willful destruction, other Turkish activities are at best antagonistic. In 2010, majority-Christian Armenia was enraged when a Turkish politician uttered a Muslim prayer in the Cathedral of Ani. Later that year, Elle Turkey shot a fashion spread amid the ruins, which Armenians say disrespected the site. Armenians also complain about local cowherds encouraging their cows to graze on Ani’s pastures. And not without reason: when we entered one of the 1,000-year-old churches, we found cows had taken shelter there and defecated in the building.

After walking around the ruins for almost five hours, the sky began to darken noticeably and we made our way back to the car. The sleeping guard had disappeared by the time we returned, and had locked the gate on the way out. For a brief moment, we were trapped in time in a dead city. We had to scale one of Ani’s 1,000-year-old walls to get out. A sudden snow flurry pursued us like a ghostly whisper at our back as we drove away from the city walls.

Things are changing for the ghosts of Ani, though. From 2011 to 2012, the number of visitors doubled. Turkey is gradually coming around to the view that Ani is a potential tourism gold mine and is starting to change its tune. A quick glance at The Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey’s leading English-language paper, illuminates the shift. From 2006 until late 2010, there were no mentions of Ani in the headlines. In September of 2010, the aforementioned politician came a-praying in Ani’s cathedral, an act that the paper called a response to an Armenian prayer gathering earlier that month. In 2011, a travelogue’s first mention of Ani is in reference to the greatness of Turkey. In August 2012, it was a “historic site in Kars province”; in October, “the capital of an ancient Armenian Kingdom”; and in March 2013, “the center of a powerful Armenian empire.”

More visitors potentially means more damage, but it also means that Ani finally has a shot, if only in death, at being restored to its former renown. If all goes well, Ani could be set for the pilgrimage it has been waiting for for almost 1,000 years.

[Photo credit: Flick user sly06 for the spring photos, all others Adam Hodge]

Visiting Iraq: The Practicalities

Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
Will Iraq become the next big adventure travel destination?

Short answer: Not yet.

Long answer:

At the moment most of Iraq is closed to solo travel. The Iraqi government has authorized only a few group tour companies such as Hinterland Travel and Babel Tours. These tours have a set itinerary and offer very little freedom for individual movement. This is not the fault of the tour operators. The security situation dictates that the government approves the itinerary ahead of time. Our translator had to carry a ream of official papers to get us into each stop on our itinerary.

In addition, guards from the Interior Ministry accompany each group. I had a bit of friction with these guys. I wanted to stop and talk to people, or wander off on my own when I felt the situation was safe enough. They didn’t like that.

Group travel in Iraq does offer some advantages. The distances are long and having a bus to take you to the far-flung sites is very convenient. Having a translator along was another important asset. Plus the tour company handled all the visas. The group visa is approved ahead of time in Baghdad and the tour company sends you a copy of the approval letter. The visa itself is picked up at Baghdad airport. Anyone who has traveled extensively in the Middle East knows what a hassle the bureaucracy can be. It was nice to have someone else deal with that for once.

The first question on everybody’s mind, of course, is safety. Iraq felt far safer than I thought it would. I ditched the guards and took a solo stroll through Baghdad and went on a beer run in Basra with no trouble. Bad idea? Maybe, but most of my best memories have come from bad ideas.While Iraq was safer than I thought, it wasn’t as safe as I hoped. At times I was glad to have those guards around. In some places like Nasiriyah and the Sunni Triangle we got nasty stares. Only once did we face open hostility, when an old woman at the house of Imam Ali started chucking rocks at us. She was too far away to hit us and the police quickly shooed her away. The incident was depressing rather than frightening.

Our tour leader Geoff Hann says the security situation is improving. He’s been coming to Iraq for years and on our trip he kept commenting that there were fewer checkpoints and fewer troubles with the police. Considering the numerous waits we had at checkpoints (once for two hours) I have to wonder what his previous trips were like. Hann and other observers say there will probably be solo travel in Iraq in the next few years. Of course the security situation could change tomorrow so it’s probably best not to make any predictions.

The one major exception to all this is Kurdistan, which is open to individual travel already. It is far safer and more stable than central Iraq. This is not to say that it’s like visiting Belgium. Travelers should still register with their embassy and use caution and common sense.

Like with most adventure travel destinations, travelers need to come to Iraq prepared. Hinterland Travel provided us with a long list of medications to bring along. The pharmacies turned out to be pretty good, but it’s better to be on the safe side. Mineral water is a must, as is sunscreen. Even in the winter the heat could be punishing.

Those willing to brave the dangers and inconveniences of traveling in Iraq will be richly rewarded. As this series has shown, there’s an incredible amount to see, from famous ancient cities like Ur and Babylon to beautiful mosques in places like Najaf and Karbala. The best, the most important, part of any trip is the people. The Iraqis didn’t disappoint me. The vast majority loved the fact that I was there. Over and over again people came to welcome me to their country. As for the minority who gave me poison stares and that one woman who chucked stones, who knows what they’ve been through? I can’t judge them. Maybe when I pass down their street again five years from now they’ll give me a second chance.

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.

[Image courtesy Wikipedia]

A Solo Stroll Through Baghdad

Baghdad, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
I am alone in Baghdad. After a farewell dinner and a visit to an Iraqi amusement park my travel companions have left for the airport. Our guards from the Interior Ministry have gone off to other duties and I’m staying unguarded in my hotel. I don’t fly out until tomorrow.

I’m not supposed to leave the hotel. Guards are supposed to be with me at all times. While I understand why the government insists on this rule, I’ve found the guards annoying. They’ve often made me move on when I’ve wanted to linger at a place or continue a conversation, and I get the feeling some people didn’t approach me because of their presence.

Now I finally have a chance to see Iraq without them. I’m not nervous about this. Well, not too nervous. My hotel is in a good neighborhood and I walked in Basra without a guard and had no trouble. Besides, the biggest risk here is from car bombs and I don’t really see what a guard can do about that.

I don’t have much of an area to explore. I can’t go through a checkpoint alone. The best result I could get from that stunt would be a stern lecture and a police escort back to my hotel. The worst result is something better left unexplored. So my Baghdad tour is limited to one neighborhood circumscribed by police barricades.

The neighborhood is a good one by Baghdad standards, shops and apartment blocks and a few official buildings. The main landmark is the National Theater and a couple of swank hotels. It’s considered an up-and-coming and reasonably safe area.

The only problem is that it’s the last day of Eid al-Adha, a celebration of Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael, known in Christianity and Judaism as the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s one of the biggest holidays in the Muslim calendar and most places are closed.

I pound the pavement past rows of steel shutters. It looks like most people are taking the day off. A middle-aged man and his son come up and say hello. Their English is almost as bad as my Arabic and the conversation soon falters. What I want is to find a like mind, someone with open eyes, a good education, and good English who can explain his country to me. The National Theater seems a likely place. I head over there. Closed.

I continue on my quest. I have a few more “Welcome to Iraq” conversations, each time cut short due to language. I curse myself for not studying more Arabic. One young guy says he’d love to smoke some hash with me but he’s all out. Yeah, pot paranoia on the streets of Baghdad. That would have made an interesting article.

%Gallery-173222%One of the few stores I pass that’s open is a liquor store. The owners, two guys who look to be in their late 20s, wave me inside. “Where are you from?” “How do you like Iraq?” The usual conversation starts, hampered by bad English and terrible Arabic.

They invite me behind the counter and give me a glass of whiskey and some string cheese. String cheese. I kid you not. I didn’t know they had string cheese. Yet another insight into Iraqi culture.

My two companions really, really want to leave Iraq.

“But business is good here,” I say, eying the wad of bills in the cash drawer.

“Yes, but too many troubles,” they say. “Sometimes Muslim militia come here, take bottles, and no pay.”

I shake my head. A lot of the so-called Islamists are actually simple criminals grabbing an opportunity.

They ply me with questions about how to move to Canada, my home country. They’re disappointed to hear that Canada wants people with money who can speak English but seem hopeful about the refugee angle. They’re from one of Iraq’s many persecuted minorities.

As we talk a steady stream of customers come through. None look at me. Muslims always have this guilty look on their faces when they buy booze. It’s the same look Western guys get in porn shops. As a joke I start serving customers. My two buddies think this is hilarious. None of the customers bat an eye. Iraqis act nonchalant when stuck in a strange situation they’re trying to size up. It’s a survival technique. To show that you notice is to become part of the scene, and that’s not always healthy.

One of the liquor store owners runs over to a nearby bakery and brings back some fresh, hot pita. Ah, Arab hospitality! This is followed by a second (third?) round of whiskey, another form of hospitality that isn’t as rare in the Middle East as you might think. As they break out more string cheese I notice it’s getting dark outside. My day of independence is ending. My one real chance to have an immersive experience in Iraqi culture ends with string cheese and an alcohol buzz in a liquor store.

It would have to be good enough. When I told a friend back in Spain that most of my interactions in Iraq were friendly but all too brief and superficial, he replied that Westerners and Iraqis need to have more friendly, superficial meetings. At least it’s a start, he said.

Good point, but I wanted more.

Guarded group travel has insurmountable limitations that one day of partial freedom can’t break. Those serendipitous experiences don’t come on demand. You need time and luck. For me they came a few times on this trip – with pilgrims at the Shia holy shrines, with a child refugee in my hotel lobby, and with an artist on the tough streets of Nasiriyah. Each time these experiences could have – should have – turned into daylong interactions. Each time, though, the group agenda and my guards’ concerns meant we had to move on.

Luckily the security situation is slowly improving and there’s talk of individual travel opening up throughout Iraq like it already is in Kurdistan. Perhaps in a few years I’ll be able to come back and explore Iraq the way adventure travel is supposed to be done – slowly, with no itinerary, and alone.

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 Random Observations About Iraq!”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

A Family Night Out In Baghdad

Baghdad, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
After a long road trip around Iraq, I find myself back in Baghdad. It’s our last night together as a group. For our final dinner we decide to eat a famous Baghdadi recipe at a famous landmark –mazgouf fish at Abu Nuwas Park.

Abu Nuwas park runs for one-and-a-half miles along the east bank of the Tigris in central Baghdad. It’s named after an early medieval poet who was half Arab and half Persian, and wrote poems in both languages. His poetry celebrated wine and sex and made fun of the Arab nostalgia for Bedouin life. This ensured trouble during his lifetime and fame after his death.

In keeping with the Abu Nuwas’ liberal tradition, the park that bears his name is a neutral ground for the city’s warring factions. Everyone comes here to relax, not fight. Of course there’s still the usual cordon of armed guards. Trust is in short supply in this country.

Once inside, though, it doesn’t feel like Baghdad at all. Families have picnics on blankets spread under trees. Kids do cartwheels on the grass. The Tigris glitters with reflected streetlights. A fountain at the edge of the riverbank shoots up water as colored lamps make the jets pulse red and purple. Music mixes with the calls of vendors selling nuts, candy, and Spongebob Squarepants balloons.

We’ve come to dine at one of the city’s most popular restaurants, Mazgouf, named after a large fish found in the Tigris that’s considered a delicacy. The fish is cut in half down its length and stuck on spike next to an open wood fire to slowly cook. When it’s done, it’s pulled off the spike and put on a plate. The scales and eyes on the outside are still preserved, making a sort of bowl from which to scoop out the goopy and incredibly rich insides. The restaurant at Abu Nuwas Park is said to be one of the best.

We find the restaurant and sit outside. As usual, the people at the next table come over and welcome us to Iraq. Mazgouf is made to order so there’s a long wait before we get our meal. Once it comes, everyone digs in with relish. I’m no expert on mazgouf but it’s the second-best meal I’ve had this entire trip. It’s so rich and heavy I can only finish half of it, although I’d love to eat the whole thing. The mood at the table is celebratory. We’ve made it through Iraq unscathed. Everyone is thinking of home but disappointed to be leaving.

While everyone else is leaving tomorrow morning and the guards will go off to other duties, my flight isn’t until the following morning, which means I get a whole day to myself in Baghdad. This worries me only slightly. My time in Iraq has taught me that the country is far safer than most people believe, and my hotel is in a good neighborhood. Besides, staying in the hotel all day simply isn’t an option. I just hope I don’t have any trouble when I go out alone.

After dinner we stroll around the park. The mood is relaxed and festive. So is the dress code. A woman walks by in a skirt and I almost keel over. It’s the first bare female leg I’ve seen in more than two weeks. Young couples who may very well be unmarried walk hand in hand, whispering to each other. I’ve stepped into another world. It’s even more relaxed than Kurdistan. Flashing lights and squeals of laughter draw me down a path and to another gate.

%Gallery-172598%It’s an amusement park. Kids are zipping around on bumper cars in the middle of a pool, or shooting down a giant inflatable slide. Their big brothers and sisters play videos games in a nearby arcade.

Getting in requires going through another checkpoint. There’s a brief hassle as the park’s guards demand that our guards leave their guns behind. Captain Ali, the senior of our two guards, doesn’t like that idea. I’m not sure how it’s resolved but we eventually get through, only to be stopped again.

“What now?” someone in our group groans.

“Photo! Photo!” the park guards say.

“Oh, OK.”

We all line up and take each other’s photos. I still haven’t figured out why Iraqis all want their photo taken. Only one of them has asked for a copy, and he never emailed me so I could send it to him. Maybe they just want to be part of my holiday memories. That’s cool. Memory made.

As soon as we’re through I ditch my guards. I don’t think those kids on the Merry-go-Round are going to shoot me, and after more than two weeks of these guys dogging my movements I’m sick of them. I slip behind some spinning ride with flashing lights and I’m gone.

Swarms of laughing children zip past me as I wander among the rides. I shake my head in amazement. How is this possible? This country is torn apart by war and sectarian bitterness and here everything is just fine. These families are the Iraqi majority, the decent folks who want all the bullshit to stop so they can get some enjoyment out of life. It would be silly to think they’re “just like us”; they’re not. But they’re enough like us that when this whole mess sorts itself out, I know who I want to come out on top.

“Mr. Sean.”

I turned around. Aw crap, Captain Ali has found me.

“We need to go now,” he says.

“Yeah, yeah.”

I turn away and keep walking. He trots patiently behind. This is a game he knows he’ll win.

Families come up to me, asking that I photograph their children or forcing their kids into impromptu English lessons. The kids take it with good grace, as curious as their parents about this strange foreigner who’s wandered into their fun.

Well, almost all the kids take it with good grace. One man drags his toddler over and urges her, “Say hello. Say hello.” She bursts into tears.

“Tired?” I ask.

He smiles and nods.

“Yes, tired. Late night.”

We laugh, one father to another.

Another tug at my arm. It’s Captain Ali again. Go away.

“Mr. Sean, we need to go.”

He leads me off, holding my wrist like a naughty child. I could complain, but he’s the law and even though he still has a reserve of good humor, his patience is at an end. We head for the exit.

Three bombs exploded in Baghdad this morning. More than a dozen killed. The story is already being broadcast by all the major news channels, with the usual blaring headlines and snuff film visuals. I take a last look around at Abu Nuwas park, at the picnicking families and the laughing children and the guys selling balloons. There are no TV cameras here.

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 Solo Stroll Through Baghdad!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

Baghdad, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel