“There we women were dressed in black abaya from head to toe, a hot and uncomfortable novelty, but we were generously allowed into the glittering, mirror-mosaic interiors of the mosques where rich carpets from wall to wall provided seating for thousands of pilgrims, all of them happy to see us, non-Muslims, in their holiest of places.”
May 2011, I watched out the plane window as it circled and prepared to land in Baghdad. I was one-third scared, two-thirds thrilled.
Three weeks later, I had visited Babylon, Nimrud, Ur and another half dozen ancient sites in the desert, scattered with cuneiform bricks and dotted with wild flowers, and had climbed their ziggurats hidden under mounds of hard-packed earth.
I had eaten fantastically in every restaurant we visited on our travels, spectacular spreads of mezze and equally spectacular spreads of meat and fish to follow.
I had snapped the locals while they, grinning, snapped me on their mobile phones in return.
I had shopped in the bazaars of Baghdad, of Erbil, of Basra, and visited the two holiest mosques in the Shia world, those of Hussein and Ali in Kerbala and Najaf. There we women were dressed in black abaya from head to toe, a hot and uncomfortable novelty, but we were generously allowed into the glittering, mirror-mosaic interiors of the mosques where rich carpets from wall to wall provided seating for thousands of pilgrims, all of them happy to see us, non-Muslims, in their holiest of places.
I climbed the great winding tower of Samara, crossed the endless fertile wheat fields of the Mesopotamian plains between the Tigris and the Euphrates, stopped in the desert to talk to camel-herders and their noisy animals, and visited the birthplace of Abraham and the tomb of Ezra. The Jewish member of our group was welcomed to pray in Ezra’s synagogue which is carefully maintained by its Muslim guardian.
I travelled in the flat-bottomed boats of the Marsh Arabs through avenues of reeds, and met their families in their floating reed homes.
Up in the Kurdistan mountains, we visited ancient hilltop churches and monasteries where courageous priests guarded the welfare of the Christians living in the villages clustered below.
By contrast, we also visited two of Saddam Hussein’s many trashed palaces, in Babylon and Basra; in both palaces the toilets, decorated with gold, had gleefully been split in two; in the main ensuite in the Babylon palace, a dead pigeon lay in the bowl.
At Nimrud, where Agatha Christie washed pottery shards for her archaeologist husband, I marvelled at the Assyrian reliefs depicting giant beings tending the tree of life with oil from little handbags; the details of their sandalled feet and their long fingers were lovingly clear even after 2020 years. Around their wrists, the carved figures wore bracelets with camomile clasps; at our feet in the sand were camomile flowers growing wild.
Nimrud’s beauty has now been bulldozed by so-called ISIS. So, too, has the magnificent site of Hatra, standing resplendent in the desert; I remember its wonderful 2000 year-old arches carved with tender reliefs of mother camels suckling their calves.
Many of the police and soldiers who guarded us with their Kalashnikovs had never seen their heritage themselves; in the Baghdad Museum (all of whose specialist curators were women!!), the soldiers gazed incredulously at the ancient reliefs – they couldn’t stop touching these beautiful wonders.
Only once was I nervous, in the volatile city of Kirkuk when we got stuck inside the bomb-blast walls of a petrol station and no-one would look us in the eye.
It was a love affair. We loved the Iraqis, thoroughly modern people, lovely, kind, funny, genuine and extremely welcoming. They loved us back. Now they are overrun with barbarians. They and we shared those wonderful three weeks – but I cannot share the horror they are going through now. I think of them constantly.
After 35 years of corporate life, Sidney Smith is completing a doctoral thesis in French on sexy Moroccan novels. She loves to travel in less-usual places, so far including Mali, North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan, and Iraq.