Part I - Iraq
Through the fertile, mountainous and war-thorn region of Northern Iraq
The Kurds are one of the indigenous people of the Mesopotamian plains and the highlands in what are now Northern Iraqy, southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, northwestern Iran and southwestern Armenia.
Between 25 and 35 million Kurds inhabit this mountainous region, and they make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East.
From 1920 to 1923, an independent Kurdistan existed, but in 1923, the land split up between the two countries that are Iraq and Turkey today. Since then, the Kurds have struggled to build an independent nation, but they have yet to obtain a permanent nation state.
We decided to criss-cross all of Kuristand during a longer trip, thrus crossing the Kurdish parts of Iraq, Iran and Turkey.
"Why would you go to Kurdistan? Is it even a real country?".
As we started planning the journey this was the typical questions we would face. Knowing that Kurdistan is completely unique, we feel privileged to be ambassadors for this slice on earth. We have traveled extensively in Kurdistan and it is easy to see and sense that the Kurds form a distinctive community in the Levant and greater Middle East. They seem united through race, culture and language, even though they have no standard dialect. They also adhere to a number of different religions and creeds, although the majority are Sunni Muslims.
Another striking characteristic is that they are - seriously! - among the most friendly and hospitable people on Earth.
On leg one of this journey we start in Iraq, which is one of the most fascinating destinations in the Middle East. Iraqui Kurdistan, specifically, boasts the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, the oldest bridge and aqueduct ruin, several Neanderthal cave sites, and countless citadels, shrines, churches, mosques, ancient temples, and city bazaars. As we add in splendid nature such as the biggest gorge in the entire Middle East and towering mountains, tt became a photographer's paradise.
Continue to leg two of this journey where we venture into the remote, less affluent and extremely rural regions of Kurdistan in Iran and Eastern Turkey.
Selected pics from this encounter:
Criscrossing nearly all significant parts of Iraqi Kurdistan.
We started our journey in atmospheric Erbil, the largest city and regional capital of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. It was a good place for arranging transport and planning the trip. Erbil is believed to be the oldest inhabited city in the world, since evidence suggests it is at least 8000 years old. Today, we found it to be quite modern and very prospering.
Located in the very centre of Erbil, and locally referred to as Qala Hawler, the citadel is a landmark building on top of a mound rising from the surrounding plain. It is a good place to stroll around and visited the inside mosque, palace, hammam, etc.
At the foot of the citadel the market souq spreads out as far the eye can see and beyond. We found this to be a great place to people watch.
Everthing can be bought here - even bicycles.
East of the citadel, we found this bazaar to be one of the most exciting parts of the citadel area. It has hundreds of stores and stalls selling wholesale and retail goods, food, materials, etc. as well as many kinds of fish, meat, fruit and vegetables.
This seemed to be the place where locals, mostly men, hang out with their friends. We found many good eateries and places for enoying a nargilah (water pipe). Sellers are hawking traditional street food.
When our friends and colleagues think of anywhere in Iraq, they generally do not think anything positive about the security situation. But the fact is that security in Iraqi Kurdistan is very good. Everyhere we saw soldiers guarding the streets and we encountered security check points on all larger roads between cities.
As in other parts of the Middle East, a favourite activity after work is to take a stroll, do some picknicking and/or to go to a restaurant and have dinner with family and friends.
It is hard not to love Kurdish cuisine. It is exotically laced with flavorful spices requiring various fresh herbs with an abundance of vegetables complementing lamb and chicken.
As a whole, the Kurdish people are adherents to a large number of different religions and creeds, perhaps constituting the most religiously diverse people of West Asia. However, the dominant religion is the Shafi'i school of Sunni Islam. In Erbil, the Jalil Khayat mosque is very pretty, offering associations to other mosques in Iran and Uzbekistan that we visited on other travels.
We hooked up with a local driver who would take us across Iraqi Kurdistan. During the journey we would pay for the gasoline as well as accomodation and food for the driver. Oh, a small fee for his 24-hour service as he would drive us wherever we wanted to go. It was an advantage that he knew how to take all the shortcuts and although he did not speak English (and our Arabic is very basic) it went fine.
Leftovers of Saddam Husseins tanks which he bought from the Russians and which was destroyed by local Kurdish militias.
Negotiating where to drive. We drove through the outskits of Mosul, but was advised to not enter the city as there as still extremists operating inside the city and bombings still occur.
All over Iraq are local farmers and vendors selling locally harvested fruits and vegetables. On a daily basis we would buy pomegrenades etc. for the many hours of driving and exploring the many different villages and sites.
Crossing over the Narh al Khazir river on Road 3 towards Mosul. The whole Ninveh plain is very beautiful with a mix of desert scenery and rocky mountains dotted with pockets of treets and many small rivers.
Also known as St. Matthews monastery, it is perhaps the most ancient religious institution in Iraq. It rests on Mount Alfaf, northeast of the city of Mosul.
The monastery is today one of the oldest and still functioning monasteries in all of Mesopotamia and it holds the final resting place of many patriarchs and scholars.
Today, the massive complex is home to just six monks, a bishop and several trainee monks and nuns. During the war with ISIS/ISIL, terrorists took over and destroyed some aspects of the monestary, but Kurdish militas wrested it back from ISIS/ISIL and monks and visitors returned again.
Prior to the conquest of Iraqi Kurdistan by Muslims in the 7th Century, the predominant religion of the region was Christianity with the Christian Kingdom of Adiabene located in what is today modern Erbil as its most famous center.
Throughout the year Christians belonging to the Assyrian Church, the Chaldean Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, as well as other Assyrian Churches visit frequently for prayer and meditation.
The monastery maintains over fifty rooms, three halls and a church.
Lalish is possibly the most unique destination in all of Kurdistan. Our visit here was a cultural and religious experience that crawled deep beneath our skins. Lalish is a mountain valley, a city and a temple, and it is a holiest place of the Yezidis. At least once in their lifetime, Yazidis are expected to make a six-day pilgimage to the site. A chief sheikh, the Baba Sheikh, heads the religious hierarchy of the Yazidis, and the current Baba Sheikh welcomes us at our arrival!
Yezidis believe Lalish is where Noah's ark rested after the great flood abd life began anew. Every year, thusands pilgrims come here to drink the holy spring water flowing throughout the village. The entire place is a place of calming, serene and natural beauty. On the ground are several sacred places, amongst them the resting place for some of the important figures in the Yezedi faith that codofied much of Yezidi theology.
Yazidism is a monotheistic faith followed by the mostly Kurmanji-speaking Yazidi people. It is based on belief in one God who created the world and entrusted it into the care of seven Holy Beings, known as Angels. Preeminent among these Angels is Tawûsê Melek who is the leader of the Angels and who has authority over the world.
There is a great deal of controversy over the acutal beliefs of thie colorful and mysterious people. Some mistakenly call them devel worshippers which is far from true. The misconception derives from writings that speak of the opposing forces of light and darkess. Yezidis do not worship the darkness and believe that light will ultimately prevail.
Pilgrims come here to visit the tomb of Sheikh Adi and other sacred places. There are a few year-long residents of Lalish who are tasked with cooking food and maintaing the beauty of the place.