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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.