The owner of my hotel in Dohuk made it sound easy: take a shared taxi in the morning to Al Qosh, spend a few hours, find a car to Lalish, and get back to Dohuk before darkness. But as I walk into the garage from where shared taxis are supposed to leave, I soon notice that no cars are leaving. Asking around soon gives me the confirmation: there will be no shared taxis to Al Qosh, or Lalish, for that matter. I am quoted a price that seems too steep for me; after a while, I find a group of drivers who call someone who speaks English and who confirms price less than half what was offered before. When we drive off and I try out some Arabic on the driver, I have a good feeling. But alas, things could not be that easy of course. When the driver continues west and skips the exit for Mosul, I start to worry, and when I ask, it appears that he is heading somewhere else. Problem is: since he insisted, I already paid him. He now turns around, and drops me behind the checkpoint on the road to Mosul, and drives off, giving some money to one of the waiting drivers. Eventually, someone else takes me to Al Qosh, just twenty minutes away. He gives his phone to me, and I suddenly find myself talking my native language to his brother on the other side. When he drops me on a small square in Al Qosh, I cannot wait to hit the streets of this ancient town: records suggest that its history goes back at least 2,500 years.
Just a few minutes up the street, my eyes are drawn to a particularly beautiful carved doorway of an old stone building, and I stop to take in the sight. A young guy approaches me, and we end up talking; he leaves his number before continuing down. As I reach a small square a little further up, several men approach me, and one of them, dressed in traditional clothes, insists he has to come with me, telling me he is a security guy. We walk the alleys winding up the hill, and before long, arrive at the shrine of the prophet Nahum. The house next door has the key, and we enter the heavily dilapidated building. The centerpiece inside is the big tomb of the prophet, while on the walls, I see plaques with Hebrew texts, I see old iron lanterns, and arches holding the part of the ceiling that has not yet collapsed. Ah, such beauty, such heritage, unkempt and seemingly decaying without any effort to conserve it! We hand the key back, and the old man continues talking to me in Arabic; it is time to call my friend again who shows up within minutes. Turns out, this enclave of christianity in a muslim country is highly protective; and while they are welcoming to strangers, they want to be on the safe side. Gradually, I start to learn about the plight of the christian minority in Iraq, and the dangers they face. Apparently, just a couple of days before, one of them was killed in Mosul. My new friends want to make sure I arrive safely and without problems at the Rabban Hermizd Monastery I want to visit, and I end up walking to the entrance gate with my friend and his brother.
After we pass the gate, I am free to walk to the monastery that now looms high above me. The road snakes up the narrow valley, and I take the shortcuts, so I soon find myself standing under one of the many caves in the area. From here, stairs take me to viewpoints, to a row of tombs, and higher up, to the main buildings of this extensive complex of rooms, churches, halls. Even though the first monastery here was built in the 7th century, much of it is much more recent, and there are lots of construction works on their way. But there is no religious soul around, and I seem to have the complex for myself, until I meet two young guys with weapons, guarding the Rabban Hermizd Monastery. They wave me through, and when I reach the highest level of the monastery, I turn around to savour the views. From here, you get the clearest view of how the monastery has been built up against the rocky face of the steep mountain. High above me: circling birds of prey; other than that: silence. The more I look, the more I see caves in the mountain, once used by hermits or for meditation, but now turned into lunch spots, judging from the amount of empty bottles. When I come down to the rather new church, I notice there is an exit at the back, and I step into caves with tombs, an old church with wooden panels with crosses, and a small labyrinth of low tunnels and tiny caves. The sun still has a warm shine when I walk down to town, get invited for some tea by my friends, and walk off down to the main road. Getting to Lalish seems impossible now: I would not make it before darkness. The guard at the security orders a driver to get me to the next checkpoint, and there, a Turkish truck driver stops right away to take me back to Dohuk.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Al Qosh (Iraq). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Al Qosh. Read more about this site.