Iraqi Kurdistan: Exploring the land of the biggest stateless nation in the world

Greetings from Iraqi Kurdistan! My today’s reportage will be dedicated to this fascinating region with the incredible and agonizing history of its people and numerous cultural and architectural treasures.

The Kurds are known to be the largest ethnic group without a state of their own. About 25-35 million Kurds live in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Armenia. The Kurds are traditionally divided in ideological, political, social dimensions, as well as by personal hostility ― both within the respective states in which they live and throughout Kurdistan. Kurdish identity, society, and politics have been strongly influenced by government projects in the countries in which they live. Many Kurdish nationalists may be dreaming of a great independent Kurdistan. But demands for broader rights and autonomy from Kurdish political parties have traditionally been directed at the states in which they reside.

Iraqi Kurds have always set the tone for Kurdish nationalism, fighting Baghdad governments for most of the twentieth century. After decades of war, the Iraqi Kurds received a quasi-state in northern Iraq.

My trip began in Erbil. The guide met me right at the airport and accompanied me to the hotel. I was going on this trip with YPT group I had already been to North Korea and the Pacific Islands with a couple of weeks earlier.

But I spent the first evening with the guide and two other girls. We went to the bar in one of the Christian neighborhoods nearby.

The Christian minority in Iraq is quite numerous, it accounts for around 10% today. Christians have their own streets and neighborhoods; they own bars and restaurants. So we went to the one. Everything is pretty liberal there with lots of girls not wearing any headscarves and alcohol allowed. We spent a nice evening there.

After being dry for 8 nights in Iran finally some alcohol again. The wine is very decent, actually 😉

The next day our YPT group got together. There were about 15 people along with me. We got to another restaurant, had a good dinner, and prepared for our tour around Iraqi Kurdistan, which was about to start the next morning.

The time I travelled to Erbil was more or less a year after the fights. Erbil has never been attacked by ISIS, but it is located just 30 km away from Mosul that used to be the capital of the ISIS empire and some sites we were going to visit were actually in the Mosul province, pretty close to it.

êvar baş Kurdistan

The first day of our tour was dedicated to visiting Lalish, the holy site of the Yazidi people. I was extremely curious of this place and the Yazidis themselves.

The Yazidis, an ethnoreligious minority whose homeland is located in the mountains of Kurdistan, have been persecuted throughout their history. The Yazidi people say that they have lived there for seven thousand years, and during this time have survived more than 70 attempts of total annihilation. There’s some evidence about the existence of the Yazidis yet in the eleventh century. Moreover, the earliest documents that mention this people describe the Yazidis not as a separate ethnic group, but as a group within Sufism, which is Islamic mysticism, still widespread in Iraq, Syria and other countries in the region, as well as in the Caucasus.

The Yazidis, however, separated as an ethnoreligious group over time. Belonging to them means professing their faith. They differ from their neighbors, Muslims, and Christians, by their religion, called Yezidism. We know that the word comes from “Ezd” meaning “God”, and the roots of this religion date back to Zoroastrianism, i.e. the Pre-Islam and pre-Christian times. Despite the common language and part of the history, Iraqi Yazidis often emphasize that they are not Kurds.

Yazidis live in a closed community: marriages outside of it are forbidden, and it is impossible to convert to this religion. You can only be born a Yazidi. It sounds like a sentence in Iraq. In October 2014, the Islamic State propaganda magazine Dabiq discussed whether Yazidis should be immediately exterminated as apostates, or converted to Islam and enslaved as if they were “pagans”.

The problem of this minority, which has lived next to Muslims for years, is related to their beliefs. The deity depicted as a peacock, Melek Taus, is an angel cast down from heaven according to the Yazidi faith. Christians and Muslims associate him with Satan.

On August 3, 2014, IS militants entered the Iraqi city and region of Sinjar 50 km from the border with Syria and 200 km with Turkey. According to various estimates, between 5,000 and 7,000 people were killed in a matter of days, and several thousand women are still enslaved by the Islamic State. According to the International Organization for Migration, 90% of Yazidis left for autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey, and other countries.

The holy valley for Yazidis

The persecution of Yazidis began long before the ISIS appeared in Iraq. In this country, they suffered, firstly, because they were Kurds (particularly under Saddam Hussein), and secondly, because they were non-Muslim Kurds, that is, a minority in a minority. If you talk to the Yazidis about what they went through, you will hear that there have been the 73 genocides in the history of our people. The previous one happened only 9 years ago and they don’t want the 74th to happen, and therefore they cannot stay close to Muslims anymore.

I had some background knowledge of the Yazidi culture and history and was extremely curious to see their holy site. It is called Lalish and it is a shrine and place of pilgrimage of the Yazidi people.

Visiting it is quite an interesting experience. It is heavily guarded by the military and Yazidis themselves. Apparently, just 10 days before we visited it, a big yearly holy festival called the Festival of Light took place there. The Yazidis from all over the world, along with their remote communities gather on this occasion in the valley. According to the tradition, the Iraqi Yazidis light candles and paraffin torches to commemorate the arrival of light into the world. At Lalish Temple, worshippers light 366 flames, to mark each day of the Yazidi calendar. This symbolism is very important for the Yazidi faith.

One has to take off one’s shoes before entering the territory of the shrine.

The holy water of the Yazidis at their most important shrine

There are two sacred springs in Lalish, so first we went to see them.

The first one is called Zamzam. It is located in the Zamzam Cave. According to legend, Sheikh Adi created it for the Baghdad Sheikhs.

And the second one is called Kāniyā or “The White Spring”. According to Yazidi cosmogony, the world was a solid ocean, and angels led by Melek Taus descended to the place where this spring is now located. Today Yazidis baptize their children in this hole spring.

We were then let into the Lalish Temple. The interior is full of weavings and sheets from different kinds of wool. The columns inside the shrine are draped with prayer cloths. The pilgrims can make wishes by first untying a knot, thus releasing the previous pilgrim’s wish to be granted, then they tie and retie the knot three times while reflecting on their own wish. On the third turn, having made their wish, they tie it tight for the last time. They also store a lot of porcelain and pottery in there.

The holy water of the Yazidis at their most important shrine

Important thing: the doorways there are sacred, and most of them are marked by large stone sills which pilgrims will kiss and bless. You should step through the doorway but never set foot on the sill, or the threshold of any doorway at all, as it is forbidden.

Then we also went up the mountain to see the holy valley of the Yazidis which is very well protected by nature.

Alqosh Monastery

From there we continued to Alqosh. Technically it’s not part of Kurdistan but the part of Mosul and Iraq “proper”. Alqosh is an Iraqi Christian monastery located up in the mountains where the winding zigzag road takes you and from where you have a great view of the plateau of Mosul. You can actually see Mosul itself in the distance, around 40-50 km away. From the mountainside church, we were able to see what used to be the Peshmerga front line against ISIS. We also visited a cave and learned about the lives of the monks who lived there and their self-mutilation practices.

The mountainside Christian temple

This place is special because of the Rabban Hormizd Monastery located not far away from the town itself. It is an important monastery of the Chaldean Catholic Church, founded about 640 AD, carved out in the mountains about 2 miles from Alqosh but it was still half an hour bus ride to go back to the town. On our way, we made a brief stop at a house depicting the Christmas story with all its colorful figures, Christmas trees, baby Jesus etc. You wouldn’t have expected to see such a kitschy thing in such close proximity to Mosul.

Christmas scene in Iraq

The next morning we headed to Amadiya, the home to one of Saddam Hussein’s former mountaintop palaces, located actually pretty close to Turkey. This is a conflict area for Turkey and Kurdistan and obviously not the safest place. This mountain palace is located on the hill, about 15 km from the border. The palace was bombed after Saddam Hussein had been taken from power. But it is still partly standing, looking like an eagle’s nest on the top of the mountain. It was hard to say that this building had previously performed such an important function. The massive two-storeyed building, consisting of two parts, was half destroyed and burnt. Barrels of fuel stood at the entrance, antennas towered over the hulls. There are still plenty of mines all along this area so visitors have to be careful not to stray from the path.

After seeing the palace we headed to a locally famous cave restaurant for a traditional lunch and enjoyed a breathtaking sunset.

Greetings from the Rawanduz canyon

The next day was dedicated to a much longer journey to Rawanduz, where we were supposed to stay for the night. It is a town in Kurdistan Region, close to the borders with Iran and Turkey, surrounded by mountains from each side. This place is rich in mind-blowing views. It is an oasis of high mountains, deep canyons, and cascading waterfall. It’s actually home to one of the deepest canyons of the world. We couldn’t but see it and enjoy some cool tobogganing rides. It was quite fun – I didn’t know it was possible in Iraqi Kurdistan but it turned out to be one of the very popular tourist attractions there.

Tobogganing was fun!

After having some rides we went to the bus to see the Hamilton road – a very picturesque, scenic road down in the canyon where we had a nice short hike. The road is named after Archibald Milne Hamilton, a New Zealand engineer, famous for building the Hamilton Road through Kurdistan and designing the Callender-Hamilton bridge system. He was the principal engineer of a British-built strategic road across Iraqi Kurdistan. He hoped the road would unite the peoples of the region.

Isn’t it breathtaking?

The next point of our trip was Sulaymaniyah, the second main town after Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. But first, we went outside Sulaymaniyah to see a very special site, where Saddam Hussein’s regime made a chemical attack on the Kurdish people in the city of Halabja. It took place on 16 March 1988, during the closing days of the Iran–Iraq War. The attack killed up to 5,000 people and injured up to 10,000 more. Most of those people were civilians. We visited the memorial center there. It was really shocking to see the evidence of this horrible page of Kurds’ history. They made a big room depicting the scenes of the attack with puppets and plenty of pictures and videos along with presenting the data on the resistance against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Isn’t it breathtaking?

In Sulaymaniyah, we visited the Red House, which is actually Saddam Hussein’s former torture chamber. This placed was converted into a museum known as The National Museum of the Kurdish Revolution and Victims today. It is perhaps one of the Sulaymaniyah’s main tourist attractions and it is devoted to documenting torture and injustice. The floors of the cells are covered with dirty blankets, the toilet blocks still smell like sewage, hooks and spikes protrude from the roof and walls, and at one corner a man is handcuffed to a gutter, unable to sit down. We saw a room where prisoners were beaten with sticks on the soles of their feet and a room where women were raped. This place is truly horrifying.

The exposition of tortures

We also went to the viewpoint above the hill of Sulaymaniyah to see the sunset that evening and had a nice dinner nearby.

The next day was basically our last day, and we made our way from Sulaymaniyah to Erbil. We made a stop at the Dukan Lake that was pretty much along the road. This place is so picturesque that the Iraqi Kurdistan elite often decide to have their holiday houses there.

Rivers in Kurdistan

It is basically in the middle of a desert, and it serves as a reservoir created by the construction of the Dukan Dam that aims at providing water storage, irrigation and hydroelectricity to the country (and makes it one of the main income-generating thing in the region).

Dukan Lake

The area of the lake is quite scenic, hilly and green. We actually went on a little boat ride on the lake and had a lot fun going full speed. We managed to cross most of it in half an hour even though the lake is quite big (270 km² in area).

Now even boating in Kurdistan

After that we moved further to the town that is famous for its fish (owing to the lake and the river nearby), so most of the group had some nice fish there and people like me, who are allergic to it, had to go to another place. There’s also a big river in the town.

From there we went pretty much to Erbil. Just a few kilometers before the city we made a stop and went for another round of shooting. Then we finally got to Erbil itself to have a short sightseeing tour around the city. I had my flight to Sudan that evening along with two other guys from the group. So shortly after my arrival to Erbil I made my way to the airport, from where I flew to Cairo and then to Sudan. You can find an article on my trip to Sudan in the blog.