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

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

Last Ottoman dies, but the civilization endures

It was only a blip on the world news last week, but historians will remember it as the end of an era. Ertugrul Osman, the last heir to the throne of the Ottoman Empire, has died at the age of 97.

He was the last grandson of Sultan Abdul-Hamid II, and would have become Sultan himself if the caliphate hadn’t been abolished in 1922 as the remnants of the Ottoman Empire remade itself into the Republic of Turkey following defeat in World War One.

Osman reportedly never wanted to be Sultan, but if the empire survived he would have ruled over a civilization of great artistic achievements. The Ottomans may be a thing of the past but you can still enjoy Ottoman art, especially the architecture that graces all parts of the former empire, which once stretched west from Istanbul almost to Vienna, and south across the Middle East to Yemen and west into North Africa.

Ottoman architecture took its cues from Byzantium, an empire that ruled much of the area the Ottomans took over, as well as the refined styles of Iran. The gallery shows a sampling of what to expect as you journey through the former empire.

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Five places Obama should have seen in Egypt

When Obama visited Egypt last week he took time out from making historic speeches to see the country’s most famous sights–the Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza. It’s surprising he had the time, considering he was only in the country for nine hours. It reminds me of some of the package tours that zip through the world’s most historic country faster than you can say Tutankhamun.

OK, Obama’s a busy guy, but Egypt is a place you need to take slowly. Here are five sights that every visitor to Egypt should spend a day seeing.

Islamic Quarter of Cairo. Many people only use Cairo as a base for seeing the pyramids at Giza and the fantastic Egyptian Museum. While these are two of Egypt’s greatest hits, Cairo has plenty more to offer. Take a stroll through the Islamic Quarter, the old medieval district of winding alleyways and historic architecture. You’ll pass by thousand-year-old mosques, ornate madrasas, and sumptuous fountains. Take the time to have some tea or coffee in one of the quarter’s innumerable cafes and you’ll be sure to end up in an interesting conversation with the local shopkeepers.

Valley of the Kings. It’s best to get here as early as possible. I arrived at dawn and found most of the guards asleep, but a wee bit of baksheesh (“tip”) got me inside the tombs. I asked them not to turn on the lights. Seeing the tombs alone with only a flashlight for illumination was one of the most stunning experiences of my life. I didn’t enjoy it for long. Within an hour the first tour groups arrived. Although I was already further along in the valley, they soon caught up. But that hour or so I had by myself was unforgettable. With the help of a map, take the trail over the ridge to get above the modern-looking Temple of Hatshepsut. You can then take a trail down to this famous temple of the woman pharaoh, passing the tombs of its builders on the way.

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Karnak. The most magnificent Egyptian ruins besides the Pyramids at Giza, this massive temple complex near Luxor begs to be seen at a leisurely pace. The Great Hypostyle Hall in the Precinct of Amun-Re is awe inspiring. It’s a forest of massive columns covered in hieroglyphs. I spent an enjoyable morning from dawn until noon sitting in just this one giant hall watching the light and shadows move over the carvings. Most tour groups ran through here in fifteen minutes or less, but there was so much to study I’m sure I missed half of it. While there are a lot of people selling tourist trinkets, if you hang out long enough they leave you alone. You’ll have to say no to each of them at least two or three times, but the solitude that follows is well worth it.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. Built in the 6th century AD, this monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai may be the oldest functioning Christian monastery in the world. Not only are there historic churches and age-old traditions to experience, but an incredible collection of early Christian art, including some especially beautiful icons. Several tour companies from Egypt and Israel send buses here, and it makes a good stopover if you’re traveling between the two countries.

At least one small town. Egypt has been hustling tourists since the days of Herodotus, so it’s nice to get away from it all by visiting an out-of-the-way place where tourists tend not to go. I spent an enjoyable three days in Minya, a small provincial capital that doesn’t have much in the way of ancient ruins. When I visited the local museum the curator was so excited he insisted I sign the guest book. I was the first person writing in something other than Arabic for several days. I spent my time sitting by the Nile, watching the faluccas while chatting with everyone who stopped by. Nobody tried to sell me anything. Away from the economic pressure of the tourist industry, I found the Egyptians to be warm, friendly, and eager to meet foreigners. I smoked waterpipes and drank tea in cafes, read the paper, and did nothing in particular. It was like a vacation from my vacation.

If you are looking for more about Egypt, check out last year’s post by Matthew Firestone of five other things you can do in Egypt. Interestingly enough, only one of them kinda overlaps with my list.

There are lots of guidebooks to Egypt, but the best cultural and historical guide I’ve seen is the Blue Guide, which is like a crash course on all things Egyptian. Sadly, the last edition was in 1993 and it is now out of print. You can easily find used copies but obviously you’ll need to buy another guidebook to supplement it. Hey, Blue Guides! Do you need a former archaeologist to update your Egypt book?

Tourist returns ancient piece of Jerusalem

The Israel Antiquities Authority got an interesting package from the U.S. recently, Archaeology News reported. It contained a piece of early medieval stonework and came with a note.

The note said that the sender, who apparently remained anonymous, had been an archaeology student 12 years ago and stole the stone from the excavation he was on so that he would have a memento with which to “pray for Jerusalem.” Instead, it made him feel guilty and so he decided to return it. Sometimes guilt takes a while to work.

At least this idiot had to pay a lot in postage. The stone weighed 21 kilograms (more than 46 pounds) and appears to be a portion of a marble column from the Umayyid Dynasty, a Muslim dynasty that ruled the region from 661 to 750 A.D. The Umayyids had the first major Muslim empire, ruling over a vast territory from their capital in Damascus. They were responsible for building two of the major Muslim sites in the holy city–The Dome of the Rock (pictured here) and Al-Aksa Mosque.

Israeli archaeologists believe the column came from a large palace complex built near the Temple Mount that served as the local seat of government.

As some travelers set off to volunteer at archaeological excavations this summer, this former archaeologist would like to remind them that stealing antiquities is not only immoral, but illegal, and could land you in jail. It will certainly get you an F in your archaeology class.