Into the Zagros Mountains!
by Rob Ferguson
One sunny Friday – Friday is the Moslem holy day – I joined three other teachers in an outing to the Zagros Mountains, the range that skirts northern Kurdistan into Turkey and spans the whole length of western Iran down to the Arabian Gulf.
When I agreed to come to Iraq – a decision I made in about two days – I hadn’t thought of mountains. I’d thought of tanks rolling across dusty deserts, disrupted sporadically by blasts of IEDs, Improvised Explosion Devices, and of sprawling concrete cities with skylines of minarets. That may be a limited but reasonably accurate description of the vast Mesopotamian plains of southern Iraq, but up here is where the plains meet the mountains: with cooler summer temperatures and abundant lakes and rivers, Kurdistan is a land of agriculture and tourism.
The Zagros Mountains were created by the collision of the Eurasian and Iranian tectonic plates, the stresses causing very impressive folding of the distinctly layered sedimentary rocks – the views of these folds are everywhere. Erosion got rid of the softer rocks, leaving mainly yellow-hued limestone and dolomite. Salt domes, massive underground salt deposits that are mushroom-shaped and thousands of metres thick, formed where shallows seas once stood and trapped petroleum beneath other rock layers, and they are now the targets of oil exploration.
That clear day, the views were spectacular. The blue-grey slopes stretched in hazy layers to the horizon and the snowy peaks glistened in the sun. George, our eager driver, took us through several checkpoints in his ramshackle Toyota, around the very dangerous city of Mosel – the border areas between Kurdistan and Iraq proper are sites of some of the worst ethnic and religious violence – and up to a tiny Christian village at the edge of the mountains, called Al-Kosh, or Alqosh. A quant mud-walled hamlet, it is something like 2500 years old and has miraculously survived intact throughout centuries of ethnic and religious conflicts.
George, a Christian from a nearby town, knew just where to go. We stopped at the stone-walled nunnery of Notre Dame de Semences, which thanks to international churches, was being completely rebuilt, and then headed up into a steep valley to the area’s star attraction, the Rabba Hormizd Monastery. It is a collection of caves and tunnels built into the yellow cliffs. We parked, scaled the steep steps and investigated. Soon we met two old men who greeted us heartily; they were the only remaining Chaldean monks still living here. They invited us into a cave for sweet tea. One of them spoke a little English and told us about how the caves were being preserved, again thanks to international money. We explored some more and gazed down the narrow gorge at the dazzling panorama of tiny Al-Kosh and the hazy Mesopotamian plain beyond.
Back in Al-Kosh George stopped the car outside a pool hall, apparently the only restaurant.
“Kebabs in Duhok, George?” I asked. Lunch had been planned for Duhok, a city only a short drive away with a no doubt a wide selection of eateries and some interesting sights. But George was stubbornly unwilling to take us there, so we settled for grilled chicken and tomato and onion salads with more tea while local lads shot billiards and grinned happily at us.
“Duhok, George?” I asked after lunch as we headed back down the highway. George chose not to answer, but minutes later he missed the major turnoff to Duhok.
“Lalish,” he then announced with a determination you don’t question. We drove along the edge of the mountains, then after half an hour or so, passed some oil derricks and headed up into a lush wooded valley. We arrived at a village of stone temples and tombs topped with pointed cones. We got out and followed the cobblestone path along a babbling stream to a plaza and the entrance to the Sanctuary, the largest temple crowned with two pyramids. As I took pictures a young man in bare feet approached me and in a pious way told me I had to remove my shoes. I showed surprise at this, but then looked around and noticed everyone else was shoeless. Respectfully removing my sneakers – why had I worn white socks? – I danced over the cold stones and through the gate guarded by a stone snake slithering into a hole and toured the holiest shrine of the mysterious and often persecuted Kurdish sect called the Yazidis.
Lalish, the Yazidis’ spiritual capital, also happens to be one of several spots believed to be where Noah’s Ark came to rest. Followers of Yazidism, a curious blend of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, believe they are descendents of Adam but not Eve – another of those leaps of faith required by all religions – and, more appealingly to me, that they are reincarnated over and over again until they reach sufficient purity to get into heaven. Sometimes accused as devil-worshipers by adherents of other religions, these days they are a benign sect welcoming tourists to celebrate their quirky beliefs and enjoy their holiest site, which we certainly did, although we left with an sense of not really understanding it all. But then that’s the point of any religion, isn’t it? – peculiar beliefs wrapped in serious mystery.
“Duhok, George?” I asked. But he looked taken aback at my question and pointed at my watch. As it was already after four in the afternoon, it would be dark by the time we got back to Erbil. Anyway, I did get to Duhok a few weeks later on another expedition.
Rob Ferguson has worked in communications and as a trainer in his native Canada, Vanuatu, Mongolia, Central Asia, the Caribbean island of Montserrat, Colombia and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. He has also worked as a freelance journalist, editor and instructor of English, creative writing and journalism. He is the author of *Dancing with the Vodka Terrorists: Misadventures in the 'Stans*, available from here. He currently lives and works in Erbil, Kurdistan Region, Iraq. This blog originated here. Contact Rob Ferguson at: FaceBook: Robert W Ferguson. Instagram & Twitter: robertissimmo
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