Thursday, November 25, 2010

Third Blog report

Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 25, 2010

I continue to be an inconsistent writer to this blog, and for that I apologize. But most days it seems there’s little to comment on, and I continue to believe that the mundane parts of daily life are hardly blog-worthy. (I could never get into Twitter where people write multiple times per day about even the most trivial aspects of their lives, as long as it fits into 150 words. God forbid that a person have a thought that might take longer than 150 characters to write. Multiple tweets, I suppose, composing serial thoughts.)

Last week, the week of November 14, was the time of the Islamic holy festival called Eid al-Fitr. It commemorates the moment when as the story goes in Genesis Abraham was, at the request of Yahweh, called upon to sacrifice his firstborn son, who in the Islamic tradition was Ismail. The event is more important in Islam than it is in Christianity, so it is celebrated solemnly, and joyfully. Because it is a three day holiday, we had time last week to travel. A group of us went back Dohuk in northern Iraq, the same city that Carolyn and I joined a group to go to last year at about this time

The drive there and back is grueling. Because it is not safe to travel north via the good highways leading to Mosul, and thence north to Erbil and Dohuk, we had to, instead, stay with the more northerly roads that go through the mountains of Kurdish Iraq. All of this land is solidly in the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the KRG. It took six hours to get there, but I suspect that in those six hours we traveled only a little over 200 miles. At times we were going terrifyingly fast – 80 miles an hour on a rough two lane road – and then at times creeping over speed bumps in small villages or being stopped at check points. It seemed that the KRG Peshmerga were more suspicious this time than last and rather than waving us through perfunctorily, they were asking to see our work permits. Perhaps the recent bombings in Mosul were the cause? We don’t know. We just know this that this part of Iraq continues to be a safe place in which to travel so we don’t resent the check points. Following, see a picture of our driver, a most competent fellow named Hiwa who owns a large, well-used Chevrolet Suburban. (If you click on the photo it will be enlarged.)

I will not try to repeat all that we wrote about the previous trip in our December 3, 2009 blog. Go to, and scroll back to December 3 if you wish to read about the trip from last year. Many of this year’s photos look like those. The monastery of St. Hormuzd, built high into the side of a mountain, continues to impress. The ruined synagogue holding what they consider to be the remains of the Prophet Nahum is still there but looking more like it could collapse any day. The Yezidi temple at Lalish continues to fascinate.

Two new aspects of the region as we saw on this trip:

The first: My colleague Jonathan Loopstra, the fellow who organized this trip, is an expert in the history of religion in this region in the late antique period. He is quite a respected scholar of Christianity in the early years of the church. This past summer he met an Assyrian Christian from the region at a conference in India, and received an invitation to this man’s home near Dohuk. All of us with Jonathan and his wife were also invited. So we had the wonderful opportunity to meet a man whose name I will not use. His family has lived in this village for generations. He is the author of several books and has excellent command of English. After serving us coffee and tea, he took us to the Assyrian church in the village. The foundation of the church dates to 550 A.D., but the upper part of the church is modern, a replacement of the old that was forced after the old was destroyed during the Saddam Hussein era. These folks were proud of the fact that the 4.5 feet thick walls withstood three different efforts by Saddam’s henchman Ali Hassan al-Majid, aka“Chemical Ali,” to destroy them.

When talking with our host's delightful children, a daughter who is a freshman in university and a son who is a sophomore in high school, I learned that they do not identify themselves as Arab or Kurd, but rather as Assyrian. Though surrounded by Kurds, they do not speak or read Kurdish. Only English and Assyrian. Our host says that as a people the Assyrians date themselves from the Assyrians whose empire was centered at Nineveh before the rise of Christianity. The Assyrian Church is sometimes called the Nestorian Church, but more appropriately is part of the Church of the East, as distinct from the other large Christian community in Iraq, the Chaldean Church which is under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church.

Being with them was a gift of insight into the lives of people whose ancestors were Christian long before my Anglo-Saxon/Germanic ancestors had ever heard of Christianty. See picture below of our host and his family and a close up of his children:

The second new part of this trip: From our host's house we drove to a mountaintop city called Amadiya. See next picture. There's a great deal of detail that can be seen by clicking once on the photo, then clicking a second time to expand it.

This city was once a walled city that sat on the famed silk route on which goods were transported between China and the Middle East. The city is located on a virtually impregnable plateau, and it’s little wonder that people who wished to rule the region had to rule Almedi. Today the city has a fairly run down feel to it. The only visible evidence of its former fortified character is a gate that is accessible by a set of stone steps leading from the valley to the gate.

As I stood on the steps, and accepted at face value for a moment the story of this as a silk road city, I was wondering what it must have been like to witness a camel caravan coming from Inner Asia climbing those steps for a couple nights’ rest before heading on to Baghdad or Constantinople or Cairo. The closest I came to this moment was when a fellow led his pomegranate-laden donkey up the steps. Not exactly as exotic as a silk-laden camel, to be sure, but you get the idea.

One can only hope that as Iraq’s government stabilizes over time, and money can be spent for what are now luxury items, this city can be developed into what it might become: a major tourist attraction drawing lots of foreign currency to the region.

On the way back we passed a large walled fortification built during the Saddam era. The wall alone must stretch for 4 to 5 miles. What efforts that man went to to rule Iraq with his iron hand.

One more comment on the trip: In the village of Alqosh, as I explained last year, there is a 19th century Chaldean Christian monastery located at the base of the hill into St. Hormuzd is built. Last year when we were there we met a number of the orphan boys who live there. This year, we met a number of Christian families from the region, especially Mosul, who like us had time off to travel because of the Eid holiday. They chose to come to the monastery that, in the tradition of medieval European monasteries, has rooms for staying overnight. While the parents did not speak much English, high school and college age children had pretty good command of English. After getting past the pleasantries of where we were from and what we thought of the region, they began to tell us heartbreaking stories of the insecurity they feel every day in their cities of residence. The girls cannot leave home except to go to school; otherwise they have to stay inside. They describe family members who have been killed in Mosul and Baghdad as a result of what appears to be a concerted effort to strike fear in them and get them to leave. Thus, a sort of ethnic cleansing. The violence that sometimes makes the news in the US is an everyday part of their lives. They blame their own government for its inability to control the violence, and the US for unleashing these forces when Saddam was overthrown. When I asked why they did not accept the invitation that the Iraqi Kurds have offered: to come to the safer north, they say they cannot as they do not speak the language. When asked where they want to go, the universal answer is to the US. I would include a picture of a couple of the families below this paragraph, but will desist as it might create a problem for them should it get into the wrong hands.

I just returned from a Thanksgiving Day dinner sponsored by the university for the ex-pat faculty and staff. The meat was provided by the university. Everything else was brought by us. It was good food and better than eating alone. Not quite like being with family, though. I was given the privilege of carving a couple of turkeys. See next photo.

I send this message on Thanksgiving Day evening with a note of my gratefulness for all that I have, that I did not earn: my place of birth, my parents, my wife, my sons and their families, my faith (such as it is), and my opportunity to do meaningful work. I offer my best wishes to all who read this.

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