Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 5)

December 29, 2010

After a night of barely sleeping due to the excitement of it all, I decided it was time to get out of bed and start exploring. I could hear the people in the market below getting stores and restaurants ready. It was just before seven and I was ready for action! Preston decided to sleep in a bit longer so I went for a walk alone. In spite of all the noise coming from the market, which turned out to be actually coming from the one or two restaurants across from our hotel prepping for the day, it was pretty deserted, so I took a long stroll along the empty streets of the still sleeping city and wound up walking around the base of the citadel, snapping pictures every three or four steps.

After walking around the base, which took me about 30 minutes given all the pauses, I decided to take a peek inside. I was going to wait for Preston before actually walking around inside, but it isn’t often that I find myself standing outside a seven or eight thousand year old town. I couldn’t wait. But it turns out I was a bit too hasty as it was only 7:30 or so and it doesn’t open until 9:00. I contented myself with wandering around a bit more.

Beneath the main entrance of the citadel, there is a sort of town square, dominated by fountains which had been running the night before, but like everything else in the city, were sleeping at that time of the morning. I wandered around to see what interesting places I would discover and soon found myself lost in narrow, run down streets with old buildings and crumbling walls semi-covered in graffiti. It was at once exciting and scary. I realized I was in Iraq, and while what I was seeing and experiencing had nothing to do with the imagery on TV or the things that I had been “taught” about the country for decades, I realized that nobody on the planet had a clue where I was. There was also nobody around to tell me anything, and there were no signs warning of danger. At least none that I could read. Everything is in Arabic. I wandered around the streets, turning this way and that, getting lost and hoping that nobody was going to come out and rob me, or worse.

After about 10 minutes of walking around, I was almost back at the main square when I came across a man with a little tea stand and the biggest smile you have ever seen. He asked me to take a picture and have some tea. I love those kinds of unexpected moments.

Then it was time to meet Preston, have breakfast and do some serious exploring of the citadel. I got Preston out of bed and as there was no water and no towels, we headed out without showers. As the citadel was still closed, we had some breakfast and headed to Minare Park, a medium sized park dominated on one end by the slightly leaning Mudhafaria Minaret, which was built in around 1190 AD and the top part of which had broken off long ago. The park was still closed, but we asked the guards if we could go in and they opened the gates for us. While I can imagine the park must be beautiful in the spring and summer, with all the rose bushes, today it was a bit brown and sad looking. We saw there was an aerial tramway going from Minare Park to an unknown destination off in the distance, but when we got to the ticket counter, we discovered it only opens at 3:00 and so we were out of luck. Done with the park, we headed to the citadel at last.

The Citadel of Erbil rests about 30 meters above the rest of the city and it is arguably the oldest continually inhabited town in the world, with evidence dating back to at least the 5th millennium BC. In recent years it has been inhabited by refugees who fled the violence in other parts of Iraq (at least from what I have read). It is in a horrible state of disrepair, but is currently undergoing extensive restoration and renovation in partnership with Unesco.

Due to the renovation work which began in June 2010, most of the area was closed off, but we managed to spend an hour or so walking through the old town. While it was run down and crumbling in many places, there were also some gorgeous areas and pieces of buildings and residences lingering here and there. Walking through the twisting and confusing lanes, it was easy to imagine what it must have looked like so long ago. I hope to visit it again after the restoration.

After the citadel, we walked to the big bazaar that lies just off the town square. It was amazing. Like being back in India, only everything was in Kurdish or Arabic. Stores crammed with everything imaginable. Carts carrying eggs, toys, candy, sweets, clothes and anything else you could want. We walked along the market while everyone asked for photos to be taken. People waved and smiled and sometimes asked us where we were from. It was amazing. Nobody asked us for money or tried to hassle us at all. It was busy and chaotic, but we were not bothered at all. After about thirty or so minutes of walking around and taking pictures, I was approached by a group of men who told me not to take pictures. I didn’t know who they were, so I asked why. From what I could make out, one of the men was the manager of the market. Fortunately for me, I had basically al the images I wanted and we were pretty much done by the time he came around.

It is early afternoon and time to head to Sulaymaniya.

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