Visiting The Great Assyrian Sites Of Iraq

Assyrian, Assur, Iraq. Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
This Iraqi policeman is busy texting at one of the great archaeological sites of his country – Assur, the first capital of the Assyrian Empire.

Assur was founded at least as early as 2400 B.C., but it wasn’t until the reign of the Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad (ruled 1809-1776 B.C.) that it became the capital of a true empire. Shamshi-Adad’s armies took over the bulk of Mesopotamia, as well as Syria and Asia Minor.

By then Assur was a magnificent place, having had centuries of kings lavishing it with attention. Several large temples dominated the site, including one for the goddess Ishtar and another for the city’s god Assur, who rose to become one of the most important gods in the Assyrian pantheon thanks to the city’s fortunes. Rising above all was a ziggurat, a stepped pyramid atop which once stood a temple. Shamshi-Adad’s conquests weren’t to last and the empire soon fell to the Babylonians. The Assyrian Empire had to be rebuilt by later kings.

Like with many Mesopotamian sites, Assur is in a sad state today. The land has very little stone, so most buildings were constructed with mud brick, which has a bad habit of melting away in the rain, even the sparse rain of Mesopotamia. Thus the ziggurat looks like a big lumpy hill, and we can only see the foundations of the temples and palaces thanks to the meticulous excavations of generations of archaeologists. Despite the poor preservation, there’s still a magical quality to the place with the Tigris River flowing lazily by and so much history underfoot.

%Gallery-171929%Another important Assyrian site is Nimrud, established as the imperial capital by King Ashurnasirpal II (ruled 883-859 B.C.). His palace was decorated with lively bas-reliefs showing him hunting, vanquishing his enemies. This site has more to see thanks to the intact stone carvings and several reconstructed buildings. A pair of giant, winged bulls flank the entrance, and several important carvings still line the walls. Sadly, one that showed the king standing before a sacred tree with the god Assur hovering above was smashed and parts of it stolen during the looting that took place during the 2003 invasion.

The Assyrians have the reputation of being the bullies of the ancient world, always ready to lay waste to a city, salt the fields, and flay their enemies. This is partially due to their unsympathetic treatment in the Bible and partially to the magnificent bas-reliefs they carved to show off the bloody results of their conquests. The Assyrians were great warriors, but they were no more cruel than any other ancient empire and they achieved a high level of artistic development.

They also valued learning. At Nineveh, another Assyrian site in Iraq, archaeologists discovered a vast library filled with texts on astronomy, medicine, geography and history, as well as the day-to-day functioning of the empire. Ancient classics such as “The Epic of Gilgamesh” were copied and read, and new works were written. Far more than simple thugs, the Assyrians were one of the great empires of the ancient world.

If you can’t make it to Iraq, several museums in the West have excellent Assyrian collections, including the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, and the Met in New York City.

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: “Visiting Ur, Ctesiphon, and Babylon!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

Assyrian, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel

Hostility And Smiles On The Streets Of Nasiriyah, Iraq

Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel, Nasiriyah
There comes a time in every trip when the honeymoon ends. The initial romance of being in a new place wears off and you begin to notice the pushy vendors and the dirty hotel rooms. The first blush of love fades like a flower in autumn, hit by the cold winter wind of reality.

My honeymoon with Iraq didn’t end with tourist hucksters or filthy hotel rooms – so far we’d had none of those. My honeymoon with Iraq ended when I saw the crater in front of my hotel in Nasiriyah.

“Car bomb last month,” the guard explained as he sat in his metal folding chair outside the front door, Kalashnikov resting in his lap. “It kill two men and two babies. One man a teacher.”

We had just come out of our hotel to meet a squad of policemen, all wearing Kevlar and toting the ubiquitous AK-47. Our tour leader, Geoff, came up to me.

“This is our escort,” he said. “Let’s go for a walk around town.”

Yeah, let’s do that.

Nasiriyah, a city of half a million people on the Euphrates River 225 miles southeast of Baghdad, has been through a lot in the past 20 years. It shows. Many buildings, like the old cinema shown above, are pockmarked by small arms fire. The bridges that spanned the river were destroyed during the invasion and replaced with pontoon bridges. Blast walls and barbed wire are even more common here than the rest of Iraq.

There were only four of us on the tour now, the other six had opted for the shorter tour and were now safely home. With half a dozen police, two guards from the Interior Ministry, and a translator, our little band of foreigners looked far more important than we were. I didn’t like that. Important people are targets. That’s why the bomber set off his explosives in front of our hotel – it’s the nicest in town.

%Gallery-171836%The streets of Iraq all look pretty much the same – concrete buildings and blast walls. Some municipalities have gussied up the sidewalks with potted plants and colored bricks, but most places just have the same grim gray surfaces. We walked through this dreary landscape, the police forming a large circle around us and keeping a tense eye on every passerby.

Suddenly an iron gate opened across the street and a crowd of teenage schoolgirls came out, all neatly dressed in blue uniforms and matching headscarves. They were headed in our direction and as they paced us on the opposite side of the street we got a lot of sidelong glances and giggles. I was even graced with a smile. Maybe Nasiriyah wasn’t such a bad place after all.

One thoughtless member of our group snapped a photo of them and got frowns in return. Idiot. Do you take photos of schoolgirls back home in England? Luckily for him no irate Muslim father came over to defend the family honor. That would have been fun to see.

The police hustled us into a busy market and their tension ratcheted up noticeably. There were few smiles or welcomes here. People gave us hard looks or long, studying stares. It reminded me of the Sunni Triangle. The Sunnis had suffered the worst under the invasion and after the change of Iraq’s power structure in favor of the Shia. Nasiriyah, however, was mostly Shia.

So why the hostility? Perhaps it was the heavy losses the local Shias took when they rebelled against Saddam and the West did nothing to help. The city was also the scene of a hard-fought battle in the 2003 invasion over the control of those long-gone bridges. Maybe it was the police escort that soured people to us. Maybe it was that we were being hustled along and didn’t have the opportunity to break the ice.

That opportunity came in the middle of the marketplace. Our guide ushered us into a shop as the cops guarded the door. I took one look at the shelves and decided to join the cops on the street. The shop was filled with tourist dreck – cheap tin ashtrays sporting the Iraqi flag and plastic minarets of Samarra. Who sells tourist trash when there are no tourists?

I stepped back onto the sidewalk and one of the cops gave me a dubious look before swiveling around to scan the crowd. From an alley a few steps to my right, a little boy peeked at me. Another little boy peeked around him, and then another. Big brown eyes studied me. Unlike the adults on the street, who gave the half-circle of policemen a wide berth, the kids didn’t seem to notice my escort at all.

They ducked back out of sight. I could hear them calling to their friends and in a second a whole crowd of kids burst out of the alley. They stared at me, blinking, unsure, and then one of them pushed another up to me. That one laughed, spun back around, and pushed his friend toward me. In a second, the whole lot of them descended into a giggling riot in miniature, each one trying to push another up to the strange apparition in their street.

I picked one, knelt down in front of him and said, “Hello.”

The kid fled to the back of the crowd. One of the braver ones came up to me.

“Nasiriya is my home. Where are you from?”

“I’m from Canada. What’s your name?”

Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel, NasiriyahThat’s all it took. Suddenly I was giving an English lesson to a dozen entranced children. The passersby gave me amused glances. One guy came up with his little girl in his arms and asked me to take a photo. Even the cops eased up a little.

As we talked I noticed a couple of the kids standing in front of the alley were looking up and shouting angrily. I looked around the corner. A young boy, maybe 10 years old, sat on the roof two stories above. He extended his arm over the narrow ally, a bottle held in his little hand. He looked me right in the eye, the corners of his mouth turned upwards. But he wasn’t smiling.

“Is that for me?” I asked.

His expression didn’t change.

In another time and another place I might have stepped into the alley and called his bluff. I decided to stay in the street. I wasn’t sure people bluffed here.

Little hands tugged me away from the alley.

“Photo! Photo!” the gaggle of kids demanded. I raised my camera and snapped a shot, then showed them the picture as they squealed with glee.

“One more! One more!”

My travel companions came out of the shop and I said a quick goodbye to my little buddies as the cops hustled us down the street. Soon a tug of war developed between us. The police wanted us to hurry, but I and the others kept slowing down to look in windows and talk with shopkeepers. I peered into one storefront and spotted walls covered in artwork. That stopped me in my tracks. An artist’s studio? Here?

I entered, greeting the three men inside. One sat behind a desk sketching a group of galloping horses. He looked up and smiled.

“Welcome! Come in,” he rose and shook my hand. “Wait!”

He sat down again and made a few more strokes of his pencil. When the picture was done to his satisfaction he tore it from the sketch pad and offered it to me with a flourish.

“For you. To remember Iraq.”

We all started talking. He was a prominent local artist and invited me to his exhibition opening the next morning. One of his friends was an artist too, the other a teacher. We talked of his paintings, which ranged in style from Daliesque surrealism to sharp-eyed realism, and the conversation expanded to a dozen different subjects.

And for a moment everything was OK. I’d found one of those oases that exist in every city, no matter what the people have been through, a place where art and culture and books have value and meaning. A place where people who share no religion or heritage or life experiences in common can be fast friends because of their mutual love for those precious things that separate civilization from savagery.

I’d found the exact place in Iraq I wanted to be. The conversation soared, both sides eager to connect, and I thought back on the other places like this I’d found. At a Bulgarian university and an Ethiopian birtcha. At late-night Madrid literary bars and hick towns in Missouri. In fact, I’d found them everywhere. The only difference was that in some places it took a little longer.

A policeman trudged into the studio, looking as out of place as a grenade in a sack of Easter eggs. He gestured for me to follow him. He’d been doing that for the past five minutes but now he really meant it.

It was time to go. I would not be attending that art opening. That hadn’t been pre-approved and stamped and filed and scheduled by the local authorities.

There comes a time in every trip when the honeymoon ends. The champagne has been drunk, the cake is all gone, and it’s time to return the keys to the bridal suite. Now comes the long, tough reality of learning just what you’ve signed up for. Like with marriage it isn’t always easy, but getting to know a country for what it is, not what you hoped it would be, can be a lot more rewarding.

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: “Visiting The Great Ancient Sites Of Iraq!”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Beer Run In Basra

Basra, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
We’d been on the road in Iraq for a week, and after inhaling ten pounds of desert sand each, we really needed a beer. Luckily we were in Basra, and our tour leader Geoff knew a good place to buy liquor under the counter. So after a day of seeing the historic quarter and taking a boat trip along the Shatt al-Arab, a few of us ditched our guards and headed out into town.

Ditched our guards? In Iraq??? Sure. Basra is a pretty safe town and our Muslim guards from the Ministry of Interior wouldn’t have approved of us going on a beer run. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? The last time I went off without my guards I nearly got arrested, but that wasn’t so bad. I even got to meet a general.

Geoff led the way. We passed down some quiet back streets flanked by crumbling concrete buildings. The few passersby didn’t seem to take much notice of us. This is common in Iraq. They’re looking at you but don’t make a show of it. If you wave and say hello, though, they’ll respond warmly.

We ended up at a little corner grocery store. A few dusty boxes of tea and some cans of soup with faded, peeling labels sat on the shelves. It didn’t look like this place had sold any groceries for a decade. It was one of the least convincing facades I’ve ever seen.

%Gallery-171530%We walked up to the counter and asked for beer. The two middle-aged men behind the counter didn’t bat an eyelid. They named the price, we handed over the money, and one of them walked out of the store.

“He will be back in one minute,” the owner said. “Where are you from?”

Basra, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travelWe replied and had the usual friendly conversation of “Welcome to Iraq” and “How do you like my country?” Lots of smiles and handshakes. Anyone who has traveled knows these conversations. They quickly get repetitive but they’re good for international relations. Iraqis and Westerners could do with a few more friendly conversations.

“We are Christians,” he told us.

We nodded. The liquor sellers in Iraq tend to be from the Christian or Yazidi minorities. They still suffer harassment, even though they aren’t breaking the rules of their religion. In some places liquor sales are strictly forbidden by self-appointed vice squads. In other places like Basra it happens in a semi-secretive fashion with everyone turning a blind eye, like with the pot dealer at a university dorm. In Baghdad the liquor stores operate out in the open. It all depends on which of Iraq’s countless factions controls that area.

The guy returned with a bulging plastic bag filled with cold cans of Turkish beer. The owner cut the conversation short.

“You go now,” he told us. Having foreigners in the store was attracting attention. People on the sidewalk peered through the glass door as they passed by. A group of guys across the street stood staring. One made a call on his mobile phone. I looked right at him and he looked right back at me, expressionless.

We thanked the shopkeepers and left. I volunteered to carry the bag. I figured if we ran into trouble I could use it as a club. A dozen beer cans upside the head will stop just about anybody.

It was the only weapon I ever carried in Iraq and I never got to use it. Those guys across the street were simply curious. The one with the phone wasn’t calling in a hit squad. We got back to our hotel with no trouble at all – except for getting lost. And what’s the point of traveling if you don’t get to ask for directions in Basra with a bag full of beer in your hand?

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: “Hostility And Smiles On The Streets Of Nasiriyah, Iraq!”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan. This is actually a liquor store in Baghdad that runs much more openly. I didn’t get a photo of the Basra folks. They weren’t exactly in a photogenic mood.]

Ghosts Of A Dictatorship: Visiting Saddam Hussein’s Palaces

Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
The name “Babylon” brings up two associations – that of an ancient city in Iraq, and of a place of sin and decadence. It’s only fitting then that Saddam Hussein erected one of his palaces on a hill overlooking the ancient site of Babylon.

This is only one of 70 such palaces, many built during the UN sanctions while Saddam’s people were short on food and medicine. Many Iraqis complained the sanctions did nothing to hurt the dictator, and this Babylon-on-a-hill seems proof of that.

Saddam had palaces in every corner of the country, and this one and another I visited in Basra are both opulent, even though they’ve been stripped of everything even remotely valuable, even the wiring. They were once fitted with the finest rugs and gilded furniture. There are rumors that there were solid gold toilets.

These empty, echoing shells are the only thing left of a huge cult of personality. Saddam’s face used to be everywhere. Statues stood at every intersection, giant murals decorated every neighborhood. He was a constant presence in the media. Saddam used to joke that if an Iraqi family’s TV broke, all they had to do was tape a poster of him on the screen. Now there are only empty plinths and whitewashed walls, and the Iraqis watch satellite channels from Europe and Dubai.

You’ll have a hard time finding Iraqis who will say anything good about Saddam Hussein. Even those who hated the sanctions, bombings and eventual invasion are glad he’s gone. Of all the people I talked to in my 17 days here I only found two guys, workers in a roadside tea stand, had something positive to say about his rule.

“In Saddam’s time Iraq was strong. Now it’s weak,” they said.

True enough as far as it goes, but Saddam’s megalomania was what brought Iraq to ruin and the vast majority of Iraqis understand this. During his reign everyone pretended to love him, because to act otherwise was to court death. In their hearts, though, they hated him. It must have galled the Iraqis to see his image everywhere, and to think about the treasures that filled his palaces.

All those treasures are gone now, except for one sad reminder of a pot-bellied dictator and his limitless greed. In a dark side room on the second story of the Babylon palace, I came across the shattered bowl of a gold-painted toilet. Not solid gold, sadly, just gold paint. Must have been the guest bathroom. It was good enough for me. I’d been in the bus for a long time and there was no other bathroom available so …

%Gallery-171444%Yeah, baby!!!!! Gadling dumps on the dictatorship!

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: “Beer run in Basra!”

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Shameless bottom photo taken by a laughing Per Steffensen. He was laughing with me, not at me. Really.]

Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism

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