Visiting Ur, Ctesiphon, And Babylon In Iraq


Iraq is an ancient land. It’s seen a lot of civilizations come and go and each one has left behind spectacular monuments and rare treasures. On a recent visit, I had the privilege to experience many of these sites. Last time, I talked about the monuments of the Assyrian Empire. Today, I want to talk about three more of Iraq’s ancient wonders.

Perhaps the most famous is Babylon. It was the political and spiritual capital of southern Mesopotamia starting with the ruler Hammurabi (ruled 1792-1550 B.C.), the same king who created the famous law code. The city had its ups and downs but reached a peak under Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 604-562 B.C.).

Babylon was home to the fabled Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens. Equally impressive were its city walls, which stretched for 8 kilometers. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus said they were wide enough on top to allow a four-horse chariot to turn around.

The story of the Tower of Babel may have been inspired by a giant stepped pyramid called a ziggurat. It was a temple to the god Marduk and stood 300 feet high. It was later quarried for its baked bricks and there’s little left. The Hanging Gardens have also vanished. What does remain are the city walls and the fabulous Ishtar Gate with its glazed brick reliefs of bulls and dragons. It was through this gate that the images of the gods would be taken in procession. The name Babylon means “the gate of the gods.”

The gate was excavated by a German team in the early 20th century and carted back to Staatliche Museen in Berlin. The gate at Babylon today is a modern reconstruction, and it’s not even full size. Far more impressive are the city walls, also reconstructed, and the original processional way, which, like the Ishtar Gate, is decorated with strange beasts.

Part of the original street level of the processional way remains – a flat surface of bitumen, an early form of asphalt. Strange to say, I found this simple stretch of pavement one of the most evocative sights in a country filled with ancient treasures. People walked along here more than 2,500 years ago, and there it was, stretched out before me. I desperately wanted to vault over the fence and stroll down the road, but even Iraq’s archaeological sites have guards and regulations. What a pity.

Babylon’s reconstruction was done under the rule of Saddam Hussein, who fancied himself one of the great kings of Mesopotamia. He got the cruelty part down pat, but missed out on the greatness. He couldn’t even do a decent reconstruction. Against the advice of the archaeological community, he built the new walls atop the originals and obliterated much of the ancient remains. In true ancient style he had bricks bearing his name used in the building. And now in true ancient style, his people have been busy erasing his name ever since his inglorious end. One of Saddam’s palaces stands on a hill overlooking the site – an empty shell.

%Gallery-172219%Ur, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
When Babylon was enjoying its heyday, the Sumerian city of Ur was already ancient. Its foundation is lost in time, stretching back at least seven thousand years. The city grew steadily and became the center of the most sophisticated civilization the world had yet seen. Writing thrived here, with scribes producing countless clay tablets written in cuneiform, a complex script of wedge-shaped impressions.

The first dynasty of Ur, starting in the 26th century B.C., was hugely wealthy and powerful. Some of Sumer’s best-known treasures come from the royal tombs dating to this period, such as elaborately decorated harps, the Royal Standard decorated with scenes of war and peace, and delicate gold jewelry from the queens, princesses and their female servants. The British Museum now owns many of them. Click the link for an amazing slideshow.

The Third Dynasty was even greater than the First and saw a flourishing of the arts and science. It also created the first known law code, the Code of Ur-Nammu, 300 years before the Code of Hammurabi. This dynasty completely rebuilt Ur and also put up the Great Ziggurat, pictured above, which got a modern facelift courtesy of Saddam Hussein.

One archaeologist I met back in the U.S. told me that during the war, Saddam parked some of his fighter planes next to the ziggurat, hoping they’d be safer there than in the nearby air force base. They got strafed by an A-10 and some of the bullets hit the ziggurat. I intended on checking for bullet holes but got so entranced with where I was that I forgot to. Maybe next time.

Zipping forward several centuries we come to Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian Empire in the first century B.C. and later the Sassanid Persian Empire. All that’s visible today is the Taq-i Kisra, shown below. This was an iwan, or great hall, built by the Sassanids in the sixth century A.D. The building was a royal winter residence and it was here in the iwan that this king would sit on his throne and rule his kingdom. The giant brick vault soars 110 feet into the air and used no reinforcement. It’s the largest of its kind ever built and despite all the years and wars and invasions, it’s still standing.

All of these sites and many more have suffered from looting and neglect in the tough years since the invasion. Luckily, a dedicated band of Iraqi and foreign archaeologists have been busy preserving them. New excavations have started and hopefully, as more incredible finds are uncovered, Iraq’s ancient past will come to light.

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: “The Christian Community Of Iraq!”

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Ctesiphon, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel

Visiting Orkney: The Practicalities

Orkney
A week in Orkney was not enough. These 70+ islands just north of Scotland have a rich history and vibrant natural life. In a week my family and I explored stone circles, spotted seals on the beach, climbed cliffs to see nesting birds, and walked on uninhabited islands. Despite a very full seven days, we saw less than a tenth of the Orkney Islands and I have a feeling less than one percent of what they have to offer. If you’re looking for something a bit different for your next vacation, try Orkney. Here are a few tips to make your trip easier.

Getting there
Regular flights service Kirkwall airport from Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow, and Inverness. There’s also a long ferry from Aberdeen if you want to bring a car along. The ferry is no cheaper than the flight and takes several hours from Aberdeen as opposed to just one, so if you aren’t bringing a car, it’s probably best to go by air.

Getting around
This can be a bit tricky. There’s a public bus service but it’s a bit limited and isn’t timed with the ferry service. The ferries are better. They serve all the inhabited islands and are reasonably priced. Most are car ferries so you can bring your vehicle along. You have to be careful with the ferry times, however, as the last ferry often leaves pretty early.
Considering renting a car to get you to the more out-of-the-way attractions, but be careful if you aren’t accustomed to driving on the left.

%Gallery-161806%Where to stay
Most people stay in Kirkwall or Stromness, the two largest towns on the Orkney Mainland. Kirkwall has more ferries to other islands, but my wife and I felt that Stromness had more atmosphere with its old stone houses and thriving art scene. Not that Kirkwall is hurting for art. We stayed just around the corner from The Reel, a great cafe/pub/music venue that hosts three or more concerts of traditional Scottish music a week.
Both towns have plenty of hotels B&Bs, and short-term apartment rentals. We got a two-bedroom apartment in central Kirkwall from Kirkwall Apartments for £550 ($856). We prefer to get an apartment because it feels more homey and relaxed than a B&B, we can cook our own meals to save money, and it comes out to about the same cost. I haven’t checked out other short-term letting agents so I have no basis for comparison, but I was satisfied with our place. It was clean, central, and Kirkwall Apartments had good customer service.
If you have a car and want to be out on your own, a little digging online will bring up many country cottages for rent. There are also B&Bs on some of the more remote islands. This is something I’m tempted to try the next time I go. Yes, there will definitely be a next time!

What to see
This series has gone over some of the highlights. There are plenty more attractions on the various islands. Check out the Visit Orkney website for more information.

Background reading
Reading up on a place before going always enriches the experience. A good place to start is with the “Orkneyinga Saga,” a Viking saga telling the history of the islands with plenty of battles, intrigue, and even a few Christian miracles. For more modern work, check out Orkney’s star author George Mackay Brown, who wrote numerous stories and poems about his beloved islands. Orkney also has numerous contemporary authors and poets, such as Pamela Beasant, who draw their inspiration from Orkney’s rich history and evocative landscape.
For some online reading, don’t miss Orkneyjar, an amazing website by the news editor of the Orcadian newspaper. The site offers a seemingly endless treasure trove of knowledge about Orkney’s nature, history and folklore.

Where to go from here?
Once you’re this far north, why not keep going? It’s a short hop on a plane to the Shetland Islands, an even more remote chain of Scottish islands. There are plenty of natural and archaeological wonders up there. You can also take a ferry, but it takes several hours over rough seas and goes by night, so you don’t get to see much. The plane sounds like a better option.
If you have a hankering for remote islands chains, there are also the Faroe Islands, about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. One marine biologist described them as, “Orkney on steroids.” Sounds good to me!

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Orkney