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]