All photographs by Mark Edward Harris
“When we saw ISIS fighters arrive in a truck right down there…”, the monk pointed to the road we had just come in on, “I knew we were in dire trouble. I packed up the ancient books such as Aramaic bibles and artifacts into cardboard boxes and put them in the trunk of my car to take to Erbil for safekeeping. I knew they’d be back soon with more fighters, and they intended to wipe us out.” The monk of Mor Mattai Monastery told us how more than 40 families that had been taking refuge in the monastery built around 360 AD had fled, leaving one family and him to face what may come. Thankfully, the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters showed up shortly after, driving ISIS back.
In 2017 we were on a trip around Iraqi Kurdistan — my son, three adventure travel industry friends and me, to see for ourselves this incredible and conflicted part of the world. It’s rich in history, culture and nature but rarely seen by outside eyes due to concerns around the region’s instability.
ISIS is gone, the wars are long since passed, and the region is far safer and calmer than the days when we visited. While it is an adventure of a lifetime, it is not for the timid of heart. In fact, our trip would be marked by intensity at every turn, although our safety never felt compromised as our guides were knowledgeable and Kurds are traditionally incredibly hospitable. I’ve never drank so much tea with strangers. In the streets, in shops, in cafés around Kurdistan we sipped, shared stories, smiled and exchanged gifts with strangers.
I’m often asked as an adventure travel professional what my “favorite” trip is, a question I always deflect as there are just very different types of trips. However, Kurdistan is without doubt one of the most memorable and unique experiences I’ve ever experienced in 30+ years traversing the globe.
We traveled in a big loop around Kurdistan, starting and ending in Erbil, which claims more than 8,000 years of continuous human inhabitation, with the current city being built on top of numerous other ancient dwellings of centuries past. It’s where Darius III fled after Alexander the Great routed him on the plains of nearby Gaugamela (a place we also visited).
Along the route was the Mor Mattai Monastery, where, following the monk’s gripping story, we stood on the mountainside and watched 500lb bombs go off in the distance in Mosul, a mere 20km away, where Kurdish, Iraqi, and US forces were working together in the final crushing of ISIS. Watching my son look off in the distance seeing intense history play out in front of us, I wondered how this would be remembered by him decades from now. As a kid who had also seen Cambodia’s killing fields firsthand and taken that in, and who in a few days would tour Saddam’s infamous prison, now Amna Suraka, a museum commemorating the 182,000 Kurds “disappeared” and many more killed in his genocidal push, I knew this would give him a grim, but realistic view of the dark depths humanity can plunge to.
But just as we took deep breaths trying to make sense of what we’d seen, we then popped back into the reality of our tour and the smiles of a jolly, AK-47 wielding guard who traveled with us. He loved taking selfies with our group, who were not used to hanging around people handling automatic weapons with such effortless ease.
We rolled into Lalish on day 3, the pilgrimage site of the Yezidis who many believe to be the descendants of the Zoroastrians – one of the most mysterious peoples in the world. We were welcomed cautiously, but with hundreds of smiles, to walk barefoot through their holiest temple. A pilgrimage to this place is required of all Yezidis at least once in a lifetime and in October there is a festival with more than 250,000 in attendance. At points the ground felt greasy from the oil lamps situated throughout the temple. Three-hundred-sixty-five lamps are lit by “keepers of the temple” each evening to symbolize the daily commitment to their faith and the daily watchful eye of God over the Yezidi. Watching and even participating in some of the rituals felt like being transported to an ancient era as not much has changed in the culture tucked away deep in Kurdistan.
ISIS members hold an especially virulent hatred of Yezidis, ridiculously believing them to be followers of Satan.
During their reign, ISIS fighters persecuted and murdered Yezidis at will, driving scores of thousands into refugee camps. Khanke camp was orderly, clean, and full. People had access to limited food and dwellings. Sitting in one, we learned from the residents that it had 12 inhabitants and couldn’t have measured more than 200 square feet. The grandmother was suffering for lack of medicine.
Men approached us, desperate after 3 years of being in the camp, begging not for money but for work. “We need work. I WANT to work!!”. “Are you a doctor? My son needs help” they cried out, with our interpreter running interference as our hearts broke. My son’s main memory was of a boy about his age who in perfect English and with spiky hair and bright eyes said, with fierce determination, “I want to be a biologist someday!” We heard stories of non-Kurdish neighbors betraying these people to ISIS. Many had downcast eyes as the painful stories flowed. Donations we left with the operation director felt like a drop in the sea of need.
We spent that night in Duhok where the sign in the hotel lobby clearly stated no weapons allowed in the building. After an amazing meal of kofta, kibbeh, biryani, and vegetables, we crashed into deep sleep trying to process this trip.
The day dawned and we continued our journey on the plains of Nineveh, pulling up to the town of Al Qosh to see the tomb of Nahum, the 7th century Biblical prophet. We knock on the wrought iron gate and a man pokes his head out of an upper window and signals with a smile that he’ll let us in. There’s no visitor center, restroom, gift shop or even a fee (we did of course tip). You are simply allowed beyond the chained gate to see the tomb of a prophet walking the plains 700 years before Christ. It was surreal to hear our echoing, hushed voices in a place of such reverence and sanctuary.
The next day was yet another awe-filled story told as we visited one of Saddam’s palaces, which had been completely ransacked down to the concrete and pipes as locals took everything of value for their own building needs once the “spider” had been pulled from his hole and summarily executed by the Iraqi government. Apparently, there were more than 80 palaces built in his gluttonous, insane, and murderous reign, during which staff were instructed to have meals waiting for Saddam and any guests, in case they should show up that any time during any day or night, at any of the locations. It was satisfying to know that the Kurds had dismantled his empire for their benefit.
Amadiya was one of our next stops — a city built on a high stone plateau situated in a vast valley, for protection from enemies. Local tradition holds this is where the three wise men followed the star to find the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, as it was once a center of the Chaldean Magi, a sect of Zoroastrianism priests during the ruling Median Empire. (Are you keeping up?) The view of the mountain ranges from this place was awe-inspiring and the practicality of protection was clear. If the city was under siege, there was one way in and out and very defensible.
The trip was an emotional yo-yo, with scenes dastardly to beautiful. I had a touching conversation with a young man in a café serendipitously and he gave me a beautiful string of prayer beads that I keep to this day. We also experienced the outdoors — hiking near the border of Iran where three foreigners were captured and imprisoned years ago when they wandered into Iran. Days later we were wading in a stream with hundreds of Arabs from South Iraq and then lake kayaking.
These outdoor experiences topped off a trip that had immersed us deeply in a culture and a story that spans thousands of years, that made us despair and inspired us as the fierce, hospitable Kurds continue to forge a difficult path with smiles and grit. At one point our guide asked if we felt auspicious and constantly watched, which we did. He said “Kurds are hospitable and when we see a visitor in our midst, it is our duty to protect them. They are looking at you as someone they would protect at any cost.”
As we flew to Amman from Erbil, the Kurdish man next to me and I tried to communicate without language about how the air vents worked, the befuddling instructions in English about plane safety being of no help. He tried to smoke a cigarette and after the steward shut him down, he shrugged, smiled at me, put his head on my shoulder and went to sleep for the remainder of the 2-hour flight. I leaned back awkwardly and accepted this too-close-for-American-comfort moment and slept away the rest of the most amazing trip in memory.
You can experience this trip and others in the region by getting in touch with www.exploremesopotamia.com. I recounted only about half of the experiences we had in this brief essay. The tour operator was professional and thoughtful, and we felt safe the entire trip, with the exception maybe of traffic — a pretty common, and sometimes hazardous challenge for travelers around the world!
Shannon is President of the Adventure Travel Trade Association www.adventure.travel
You can see more of Mark’s amazing photography on Instagram @MarkEdwardHarrisPhoto