A journey into Iraqi Kurdistan, haunted by war


The Mar Mattai monastery clings to the side of a steep mountain, and on a clear day a visitor can stand against its fortresslike walls and discern far below the winsome farmlands of Upper Mesopotamia. Here, in the cradle of civilization, the building is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world. From this peaceful perch, it is difficult to imagine the horror. 

One hazy morning last spring, Harry Schute, a retired Army colonel in his 50s with a Cheshire grin, walked through the monastery’s heavy doors and along its shaded arcades. A boy played with a soccer ball in the courtyard, the boom of each kick cracking off the stone walls. At its peak in the ninth century, the monastery housed as many as 7,000 monks. Today it has five, a bishop, this boy and his family — all survivors of the Islamic State.  

We were on the western fringes of Kurdistan, a Netherlands-size, semi-autonomous region in the north of Iraq that is home to 5.2 million of the world’s estimated 30 million Kurds, a stateless people who populate the border regions between Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. That the monastery still stood; that this Christian boy and his family were still alive; that a small group of North Americans now felt safe enough to travel here — all of it seemed like a miracle.  

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, sat 20 miles southwest. In June 2014, ISIS overran it, and the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, stood inside its Great Mosque of al-Nuri and named himself caliph of the terrifying regime. By August 2014, the ominous black flags of ISIS snapped just 3 miles from where I stood. Under the cover of night, the monastery’s manager, a priest named Yousif Ibrahim, whose brother had already been killed by the militants, spirited away scores of ancient documents, the last of the monastery’s once magnificent library, and even a discolored hand bone fragment believed to have belonged to St. Matthew the Hermit, who founded the monastery in 363 A.D. He was certain the monastery would be lost. But then the airstrikes began and the Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi army turned the tide on the ground. The caliphate began to crumble.  

It was now May 2017 and most of the artifacts had been returned to the monastery. This was one of the first times that Schute had brought travelers here since ISIS had come so close. Today, Schute believes that Kurdistan could be one of the world’s great travel destinations if people would only stop confusing it with the Iraq they see in the news.  

To be sure, Kurdistan is nothing like the Iraq of Mosul but a Middle Eastern Montana with ruins: a cooler, welcoming tableau of crisp mountain streams and scrappy peaks. A traveler can ski at a new resort serviced by gondolas or wander through the sun-roasted walls of the deepest canyon in the Middle East. You can drink city water from the taps and stroll around Irbil, the regional capital, concerned with only how to decline, politely, invitations to drink tea. 

“Hello, my friend, have some bread.”  

“Come, sit.”  

“Please, mister, enjoy my country.”  

For now, the war with ISIS was still winding down. Soon we would watch a 500-pound coalition bomb erupt over the militants’ last stronghold in Mosul and send a huge mushroom cloud curling over the city. The concussion, heavy and round, would ring for miles. Here at the monastery, though, on this pleasant spring day, birdsong ricocheted off the cliffs and the only thing to explode were the poppies. 

As a West Point history major with a soft spot for heavy metal, Schute had been a state trooper in New Jersey before being called to Iraq in April 2003 to command a U.S. Army Reserve civil affairs battalion. “Those are the guys who help get people and things out of the way so the Army can come in and break stuff,” he said. Soon he became something of a celebrity as the senior U.S. officer in Kurdistan. To this day, the Kurds, who view Americans as their liberators for ousting Saddam Hussein, recognize him on the street and ask for photographs with him. As his tour drew to a close, Schute began to feel anxious.  

“It was like there was a hole in me,” he said. “I felt I was in the middle of contributing worthwhile things, and I wanted to continue to contribute. I wanted to stay.”  

The Kurdistan Regional Government eventually offered him a job in Irbil, about 225 miles north of Baghdad. For a history buff, Kurdistan was a dream. He could hear swords ringing on grassy fields where ancient armies collided. He ran his hands along the ramparts of forgotten fortresses and felt the dampness in the crypt-like passages of mystical shrines. He learned Kurdish and married a Kurd.  

In 2003 at a Kurdish investment seminar in Irbil, Schute met Douglas Layton, an American who came to Kurdistan in 1992. Layton, whose round spectacles and woolen cap lend him the air of a paperback spy, had survived a $1 million bounty on his head, courtesy of Saddam. After the dictator’s capture and execution, Layton journeyed to Saddam’s palace in Baghdad, where he found his outlandish throne and sat in it. “You’re gone,” Layton whispered to Hussein’s ghost, “and I’m still here.”  

Schute and Layton, who had been working for the Meridian Health Foundation, both knew of Kurdistan’s cultural riches and friendly people, so they joined forces to create what eventually became Kurdistan Iraq Tours, the only inbound tourism operator in Kurdistan. The idea seemed absurd.  

“Everyone said no one will come to Iraq, and I said but they’ll come to ‘the other Iraq!'” Layton recalled. “I believed, and I still believe, that tourism is the future.”  

For their main local guide, they hired and trained Balin Zrar, a charismatic, chain-smoking Kurd. Zrar had spent seven years running an Italian restaurant in London after he smuggled himself to Europe — an epic tale that involved time in an Iranian prison camp and riding for days curled atop a spare tire under a tractor-trailer. After the London bombings, Zrar returned to Kurdistan to dabble in real estate. For the guide-position interview, Layton asked him if he liked history. “I hate history,” said Zrar, now in his early 40s, and the candor landed him the job. No one believed he would be busy.  

In 2008, though, things took off. The company landed a contract with California-based Distant Horizons to run its Kurdistan cultural trips and soon others followed. Momentum built. By 2011 The New York Times put Iraqi Kurdistan on its annual list of places to go. National Geographic Traveler did the same. “Top Gear,” the British television show, filmed a special there. In 2012 tourism arrivals surged 30 percent, year-over-year, to about 2.2 million visitors. Copycat inbound companies sprang to life. Starwood, Kempinski and Marriott lined up to manage new luxury hotels. By spring 2014, Kurdistan Iraq Tours had 15-person groups booking 11-day itineraries and was actually making some money.  

Then, ISIS showed up.  

The militants steamrollered down the Tigris and pushed into Kurdistan. They got so close to Irbil’s city gates that even Schute was worried. Tourism companies shut down. Seventy hotels closed. Many flights ceased. “We were the last guys standing,” Layton said.  

But all through those awful years the men worked behind the scenes, speaking to lawmakers and publishing a gorgeous, comprehensive guidebook to the region. As soon as ISIS was gone, they knew, travelers would come back.  

———  

The red-eye from Amman touched down just before dawn in Irbil where Zrar waited. He had a slim build and black hair flecked with gray. He fidgeted, as most Kurdish men do, with a string of beads called a tasbih. Outside the air was hazy and cool.  

Our contingent of five North Americans had pretty much spent a lifetime traveling. Even so, only one of us, the head of an adventure travel trade association, had visited Kurdistan before. This time he’d brought along his son, who would turn 17 on the trip. A Canadian expat living in Hong Kong and a photographer from Los Angeles who had been to North Korea 10 times rounded out our group.  

We piled into a minibus and rolled into the city. Rows of half-finished skyscrapers rose from the earth like the picked-over rib cage of a great steely beast. Barbershops, bookstores, mosques and carts laden with wild cucumbers and cigarettes scrolled by the window. Unlike Iraqi Arabs, few Kurdish women wore headscarves. If you ignored the road signs pointing to Baghdad, you could mistake this for Turkey.  

The plan was to spend a week traveling in a clockwise loop that started and ended in Irbil, taking in cities like Duhok and Sulaymaniyah along the way. We’d hike in the Zagros Mountains, paddle kayaks on Lake Dukan, and eat kebabs and flatbread. Often we’d pause over sugary tea outside noisy bazaars and linger in museums highlighting Kurdish traditions and history. Layton, who now lives in Connecticut, could not join us, but Schute, still in Irbil, would spend time with us.  

Immediately it became clear that this would be unlike any other trip. Schute also serves as a senior security adviser to the Kurdish interior ministry and works closely with the peshmerga, which means “those who face death.” More than 100,000 of these Kurdish soldiers — our allies against Saddam and ISIS — manned a nearly impenetrable front riddled with tank ditches and checkpoints that has kept Kurdistan an enclave of comparative security while much of the rest of Iraq remains too dangerous for tourists. The peshmerga, coalition forces and the Iraqis had cornered the last of ISIS’ fighters in Mosul’s old city along the Tigris. The effort to root them out for good was being coordinated through the Zerevani peshmerga headquarters outside Irbil. Schute arranged to take us there. 

C-17s roared overhead as we arrived. In the distance you could see a dome that the South Koreans had built for a gym and several squat metal buildings. Guards led us into a room with a long table set with bananas and apricots and cold cans of Pepsi. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Darin E. Huss, the center’s director, and Iraqi and Kurdish generals, came in to answer our questions about the fight. “In 10 days it will be finished, inshallah,” Staff Major Gen. Saad Khalid Yasin told me. (It would be more like six weeks.) 

Most eye-opening was the base’s Mad Max junkyard of captured ISIS vehicles. The militants had welded thick armored plates around old Soviet personnel carriers and attached grids of rebar along their sides to disperse incoming rocket blasts. Some rigs had heavy metal prows to better ram a checkpoint. Others had been reduced to mangled heaps of metal. I climbed inside one that had been scorched beyond recognition. On the floor lay a chalky white bone. Lamb. Someone’s lunch had ended poorly. 

——— 

Over the next few days we took in more mainstream sites. We strolled around Irbil’s citadel, a fortress on a mound, which dates to 6000 B.C., and mingled with Arab Iraqis from the south who seemed overjoyed to friend an American on Facebook. I stuck my nose in sacks of za’atar and sumac in the city’s frenetic bazaar and watched two teen lovebirds — she in a hijab, he in jeans — kiss behind a tree in a park where no one could see but God. 

The next morning our driver headed north toward the Mar Mattai monastery. We slipped past wheat fields, gas stations with knockoff names like “Shall” and “Nobil,” and a refinery — a reminder of Kurdistan’s agricultural economy and the fact that Iraq controls some of the richest oil fields in the world, a quarter of which lie in Kurdistan. Children played on the banks of the Greater Zab River where earthen bunkers once shielded Iraqi tanks during the 2003 invasion. This was the Green Line, the point behind which Saddam withdrew his forces after the creation of a no-fly zone over Kurdistan following his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.  

The air turned hair-dryer hot as we wrapped up our time at the monastery. From there we drove to a field just outside a village called Amian. A lone cow stood in the grass. A child in a yellow shirt rode by, waving, on a bike. In the distance rose a gumdrop-shape dollop of earth. It was a tell, or a man-made hill formed when ancient villages are built and rebuilt atop one another over thousands of years until they’re abandoned and the grass reclaims them. 

Kurdistan is littered with these. Very few of them have been excavated, Hashim Hama Abdullah, the director of the Slemani Museum in Sulaymaniyah, would tell me later after I had spent a morning studying the museum’s ancient stelae, tablets and other artifacts. “No excavating happened at all under Saddam,” he said. “Now teams are coming in.”  

Kurdistan has no real budget for tourism projects, which means few attractions have basic things like interpretive signs. 

This field would be just a field without Schute to explain it. In 331 B.C., the Persian king Darius III picked this now peaceful place to face Alexander the Great of Macedonia once and for all. The ensuing fight, the Battle of Gaugamela, saw Darius’ far greater force suffer such horrific losses that soon the Macedon kingdom would stretch from Greece to Pakistan. The battle counts as one of the most important military victories of all time, Schute said.  

“Can you feel it?” he asked, as he imagined the war elephants, the scythed chariots and the tens of thousands of soldiers lining up to hack each other to bits. “I get here and I can feel it.”  

We pressed on toward Duhok, a city tucked between the Shandukha and Spi mountains, just as rain began to fall. We stopped to take a short hike to see carvings of Assyrian kings left in a hillside and grabbed a lunch of nesik, a lentil soup, and sawer, a bulgur dish served with pickled squash. Murals on walls said “respect the peshmerga.”  

Of all the people that ISIS fought, the militants were particularly vicious toward the Yazidi, one of Iraq’s most mysterious religious minorities, who were massacred by the thousands. The Yazidi allow no outsiders to convert to Yazidism, and the contents of their holy text, the Meshef Resh or Black Book, are only for other Yazidi. In the most general of terms, they believe in one God and that the angel cast from heaven in Christian faiths is now the reconciled leader of all angels and takes the form of a peacock. Some Yazidi don’t wear blue.  

The faith holds that every Yazidi should take a pilgrimage to the center of their world, or Lalish, a lovely mountain village about 30 miles southeast of Duhok. The Yazidi believe that Noah’s Ark came to rest here after a snake used its body to plug a hole in the boat, thus saving all of creation.  

Yazidi children gathered around us as we walked toward temples tucked against scruffy hillsides. The village had stone buildings and narrow streets, and families sat together on carpets inside courtyards and on patios. Everyone, like us, was barefoot. Shoes aren’t allowed in Lalish.  

“Where you from?” a boy in sunglasses asked.  

Another, a teenager with immaculate hair, wanted to take a selfie with us. Soon everyone wanted a selfie with us. They followed us toward a shrine with a conical roof. Sheikh Adi, a man as holy to the Yazidi as Jesus is to Christians, was buried inside. “Step through the door!” a boy told me, meaning I shouldn’t step on the threshold. Angels rest in doorways.  

Inside the air was cool and moist. A woman pressed her forehead against a threshold, kissed it and mumbled. Others walked around Adi’s tomb, chanting; holy water burbled up from deep within the mountain. In one room I found two holes in the floor. One went to heaven, the other to hell, but no one would tell me which was which. 

That seemed to be a fitting image for the rest of the trip, which oscillated between breathtaking beauty and heartbreaking anguish. We visited the spectacular town of Amadiya, perched on a butte, perhaps home to the three wise men, and toured refugee centers where children had posted notes for dead parents. We danced in shin-deep water at the Ali Begg waterfall with giggling Arab Iraqi men, then visited Halabja where Saddam killed thousands of Kurds in chemical gas attacks. I gazed over endless peaks that stretched toward Turkey, while standing in the blown-up husk of one of Saddam’s once-lavish palaces. Never once did I feel unsafe.  

Even so: “I don’t know what the future is,” Zrar told me. “It’s not wise to be hopeful.” 

Near the end of the trip we met Rekan Rasool, 25, who started a hiking and kayaking club for Kurds. In 2010 his Rock Your Bones group had a handful of members. Today it has more than 6,000.  

Standing along the Lesser Zab River, he told me how he dreams of opening an outdoor shop in Irbil, of hiking across Kurdistan through the mountains, of getting more women involved in the outdoors. Like Schute and Layton, he sees something in Kurdistan that would be obvious were it not for the news.  

“When there is no war in my country, Kurdistan is the best place,” he said. He stuffed inflatable kayaks, coolers and tents into his SUV for a long weekend of adventure with his girlfriend. We said goodbye. Then he drove down a road that arced out of sight.

— If You Go  

The Kurds voted in September to declare independence from Iraq, a move that triggered Baghdad into placing a punitive ban on international flights into the region. Talks in mid-January hinted that the ban might soon be lifted. The Kurdish news agency Rudaw has an English website and has been covering the flight ban regularly. Until it is lifted, travelers have two options for getting into Kurdistan.  

The first is to go overland through Turkey. To do that you would fly to Sirnak or Diyarbakir, both in southeastern Turkey, then cross into Iraqi Kurdistan via the Habur-Ibrahim Khalil border crossing. You’ll need a Turkish visa. The second way is to connect on a domestic flight through Baghdad. To do that, you’ll need an Iraqi visa.  

Visa rules for Kurdistan may change as Kurd and Iraqi authorities negotiate the results of the independence vote. For now, passport holders from the United States, Britain, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Japan can get a free 30-day Kurdistan visa at the border crossing and, presumably, upon arrival at the Irbil airport in Kurdistan once flights resume. Again, that may all change. Check the Kurdistan Regional Government website for more information. As of press time the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations website had removed its webpage related to Kurdish visas.  

For these reasons, it’s recommended that would-be travelers find a reputable company to organize their trips and to keep them up-to-date on visa requirements. Kurdistan Iraq Tours (info@kurdistaniraqtours) offers custom trips that can range from single-day excursions to two-week itineraries or more for up to 15 people. Prices are all-inclusive (without flights) and vary depending on the group size, hotels and the exact itinerary. Expect to pay from $2,000 to $9,000. (Note: Kurdistan is a cash economy. You can use a credit card at major hotels but Kurdistan Iraq Tours can only take cash.)  

Kurdistan Iraq Tours works with outfitters based in Britain and the United States, such as Steppes Travel, Native Eye Travel, Undiscovered Destinations, Young Pioneer Tours and Spiekermann Travel. Mountain Travel Sobek plans to offer a Kurdistan trip in 2019. Wild Frontiers Travel may add it again in the future.  

The State Department strongly advises against traveling to Iraq and it didn’t support the Kurdish referendum. Travel insurance is a must. Companies like World Nomads and First Allied offer coverage in Iraq. It’s also a good idea for U.S. citizens to register with the State Department through its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program before going. Kurdistan Iraq Tour’s high-level contacts within the Kurdish government allow for a more nuanced and real-time understanding of what’s safe and what isn’t. Situations can change, of course, but I, and other members in my group, never once felt unsafe.


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