My Time in Iraqi Kurdistan


KalarFrom mid-May to mid-June I worked on an archaeological survey centered on an area surrounding the Diyala River (called the Sirwan River in Kurdish) near the city of Kalar. We flew into Erbil, drove to Sulaymaniyah to take care of some Iraqi Antiquities Department paperwork, and then moved on to Kalar to set up our residence and begin survey work.

If you look up Kalar on Google Maps and zoom out a bit, you’ll see its proximity to the Iranian border and its position as one of the southernmost Kurdish-held cities in Iraq. Here are a few anecdotal remarks about my experiences there:

  • Negotiating where it is safe and where it is not safe to go is tricky business. On our drive from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah, we avoided the main highway that would have taken us through Kirkuk, and instead took some gravel and unfinished roads (the Kurds are building a highway that remains within Kurdish-held territory) between the two cities. Note: The Kurds later took control of parts of Kirkuk when the Iraqi regular army fled the advance of ISIS. This happened after I had returned to the U.S.
  • The survey area technically extends south of Kalar, but it wasn’t particularly safe for us to travel down that direction. We focused our efforts in searching for ancient sites on areas north and west of Kalar.
  • Armed checkpoints are frequent on major roads, river crossings, and near borders. The Kurdish Security Police look more like army soldiers than policemen (who are called Traffic Police) and are dressed and equipped like soldiers. They were serious, and yet friendly and respectful.
  • Our accommodations, a rented house in Kalar, was comfortable and air-conditioned, but there were regular daily power outages as the power grid and other utility infrastructure still needs major updating and upgrading.
  • Evidence of Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds in the ’80s was still visible. In visiting different tells (mounded ancient sites) in the area, many of them had the decaying remains of Kurdish villages either abandoned when their residents fled or were executed by Saddam’s troops. Locations of mass graves were known by Antiquities Department officials we spoke to.
  • We also found evidence of barracks, foxholes, and pieces of exploded ordinance from the Iran–Iraq War. Note: We were careful to confine our survey to currently farmed and traversed areas and spoke to officials about areas to avoid that still have landmines.
  • At the end of our survey, we stayed in Erbil’s Christian quarter the last couple days before our flight left. This area is called Ankawa and is located close to the airport. Since the Iraq War in 2003, this area has grown rapidly with Christian refugees fleeing other areas of Iraq no longer safe for Christians. It was already crowded when I was there in June, and it must be overflowing following the ISIS capture of Mosul and surrounding areas (I flew back to the States the day ISIS began attacking Mosul).

These are just a few brief observations from my recent archaeological work in Kurdistan. As I was going through the security checkpoint in the airport on the way out, one of the security officials asked if I was an American, and upon my answer in the affirmative, he told me how much he liked Americans and thanked me. I thanked him in return for the warm hospitality I had received in his country and how much I enjoyed my time in Kurdistan.

Image: Patriotic Union of Kurdistan banners crisscross the streets of Kalar, Kurdistan, Iraq (my photo)

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  1. Sandy Member

    Thank you for this post, although it makes our abandonment of and the threats to Kurdistan even less bearable.

    • #1
  2. rico Inactive

    Sounds fascinating. Here’s hoping Kurdistan can establish its independence and defend itself as a bastion of civilization.

    • #2
  3. Roberto Inactive

    Very interesting and impressive as well. The Iraqi Kurds appears to accomplished so much in an incredibly volatile region. They appear to be natural allies, it is a damn shame this administration has not done more to cultivate this relationship. 

    These are informative reflections DJ EJ, I hope to see more of them in the future.

    • #3
  4. Mallard Inactive

    They are the largest ethnic group on the planet today w/o a proper homeland. Lets hope that they carve a piece out of Iraq, Iran & Turkey to get that injustice corrected. It’ll also serve as a nice stick in the eye to the Turks & Iranians – a two-fer!!

    • #4
  5. WillowSpring Member

    Thank you for this.  The Kurds appear to be a small island of civilization in a sea of savagery.  
    You must be very concerned that the study of Near Eastern Archeology is rapidly running out of artifacts to study thanks to ISIS.  
    The first I remember hearing of Al Qaeda was when they demolished some large Buddhist (??) statues.  

    A question – I remember a Michael Wood documentary where he was describing how the “Marsh Arabs” were being flooded by a project undertaken by Sadaam just before the first Gulf war.  Was this the dam that ISIS seems to have captured recently?

    Thanks again

    • #5
  6. user_3444 Coolidge

    Why are we still committed to a unified Iraq?  An independent Kurdistan is long overdue.

    • #6
  7. DJ EJ Member
    DJ EJ

    @WillowSpring – Yes, ISIS and Middle Eastern strife generally have definitely shrunk the number of possible safe locations for active archaeological work. Up until the war, I worked on an excavation at an ancient settlement site in northwestern Syria for 12 years. The destruction of those monumental Buddha statues was perpetrated by Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The dam ISIS recently captured is up in the northwestern corner of Iraq. The March Arabs (Shiite) are located in the southeastern part of Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates empty into the Arabian/Persian Gulf. I’m not sure if the dam ISIS captured is the same one Saddam closed off to dry out and destroy the marsh. After the 2003 Iraq War, the marsh area was re-flooded and at least somewhat restored.

    @Joseph Stanko – Agreed. An independent and strong Kurdistan allied with and militarily supported by the USA would be a great stabilizing force in an otherwise volatile Middle East. Here’s hoping we help them turn back the ISIS advance.

    • #7
  8. Tim H. Inactive
    Tim H.

    DJ EJ, this is fascinating to read, particularly because it is your own experience.  Another benefit of Ricochet is finding people with such interesting skills and specialties.

    Will you have any more trips in the near future?

    • #8
  9. user_473455 Inactive

    Thanks for this update. 

    Yet another reason why I thank the Good Lord I live here. Consistency of power is something many of us take for granted.

    • #9
  10. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu

    Thank you! Very interesting. Support for an alliance with an independent Kurdistan seems to be in everyone’s interests. They like us, they deserve their own state, and we have all the same enemies in the region. (Apart from maybe the Turks, but that’s not a huge issue right now, is it?) Help the Kurds protect themselves and they’ll probably be willing to help us provide some sanctuary for refugees.

    • #10
  11. HeartofAmerica Inactive

    I have some friends whose oldest child and young family are teachers in the area. The situation is so tense there that now the organization is removing them (thankfully). We are very worried for their safety.

    • #11
  12. danys Thatcher

    Thank you for writing this. The horror the Christians and Kurds are suffering are now more real.

    • #12
  13. DJ EJ Member
    DJ EJ

    @Tim H. – Usually fieldwork is conducted during the summer months, which coincides with when school is out of session and the drier times of the year in the Middle East. The exception would be Dubai, as it’s way to hot to work outside in the summertime. I worked on survey and excavation projects there in previous years during January and March. For fieldwork in Kurdistan, I would expect to go back out around May of 2015. That assumes, of course, that it will be safe to go back.

    @HeartofAmerica – Happy to hear your friends’ relatives are safe and headed home!

    • #13
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