Friday, November 16, 2012

Iraq, A Gadling Tour with Sean McLachlan

The Great Ziggurat at Ur, by Sean McLachlan

Today I'm interviewing a special guest. Sean McLachlan, a well-known blogger from Civil War Horror, who is currently writing a series about his trip to Iraq for the Gadling travel blog.

Welcome Sean, and thanks for consenting to a few questions about a trip to an area previously known as the Fertile Crescent. Civilization was born in this area. Can you tell us how you wrangled this trip?  Then, we'll focus on some of the archaeology of the country.

Hi D.G.! Great to be here. I've blogged about travel and archaeology on Gadling for three years now. My editor and I have a good relationship but it still took me more than a year to pester him into paying for me to go to Iraq! I was in the country for 17 days and saw most of the major sites, including archaeological wonders like Ur, Uruk, and Babylon. I went with a small group of adventure travelers. I generally avoid group tours but individual travel is forbidden for security reasons.

Are historical sites and heritage buildings in Iraq being preserved?

The situation is much better than it was right after the 2003 invasion but still needs a lot of improvement. In the lawless months after the invasion, looters ransacked the National Museum, most regional museums, and many archaeological sites. Now all these places are guarded, but some looting still goes on. The main problem now is preservation. Some work is being done, but the continuing instability in parts of the country are keeping many NGOs away. Plus the country's fiscal priorities are for projects like fixing the electric grid, the sewage system, etc.

The processional way at Babylon, an early asphalt road.

Can you elaborate on some of the heritage sites or ruins that you visited?

I managed to see all of Iraq's Greatest Hits. I also saw many historic places less well-known to the outside world, such as the medieval Abbasid period sites in Baghdad. There were some real high points, like standing atop the Great Ziggurat at Ur. One bit of the past that really blew me away was the processional way built by Nebuchadnezzar II (604-561 BC) at Babylon. It was covered in bitumen, a natural asphalt. Imagine, an almost perfectly preserved asphalt road from more than 2,500 years ago!

How many total miles did you cover between stops?

It was a grueling road trip. Iraq is a big country, almost twice the area of the UK, and the sites are spread out. We went all the way from Basra in the south to Erbil in the north, a distance of almost 600 miles, with a lot of zigging and zagging in between. Saddam built a good highway system, but there are frequent checkpoints. The police search cars, check ID, etc. While this was necessary for obvious reasons, it did slow us down, especially in tense areas such as Baghdad.

What did you notice about the average person on the street?

That's a huge question! Here are a few observations. First off, virtually everyone was friendly in the Shia areas. In the Sunni areas this was less so, because they've traditionally ruled Iraq but that changed after the invasion. The Kurds, who suffered as badly as the Shia under Saddam Hussein, really love foreigners.

Who were the friendliest Iraqis? The kids of course! They were very curious about us. Since everyone gets English lessons at school, they all wanted to practice. When we appeared, you could see their curiosity fighting their shyness. Each kid would push their buddy in front and soon a crowd of kids would be wrestling with each other in a big giggling mass of chaos. This broke the ice and soon everyone would be talking to us.

Being a Muslim country, most of my interactions were with men. Some Iraqi women are well educated, though, and I did get to meet female professionals at businesses and at the National Museum. I also met female pilgrims from Iran at the Shia shrines in Karbala and Najaf. While Iraq isn't as relaxed about interactions between the sexes as I found Iran to be when I visited in the mid-Nineties, it's certainly better than Pakistan or the Gulf States.

Any food impressions (other than yum?)

Most of the food, whether at restaurants or street stalls, was excellent. The main dishes are felafel, lamb or chicken kebab, roast chicken (my favorite), and chicken tikka (a mediocre imitation of Indian cuisine). The problem was that most restaurants served only these dishes. It got to be a running joke with our group when the waiter would tell us what was available. We could go right along with him like it was the lyrics of a familiar song!

Potsherds are everywhere in Iraq's archaeological sites.

The ziggurat is an intriguing design for a building. Are they designed especially for a sandy environment? They have some similarity to Aztec and Inca buildings.

I love me some ziggurats! These stepped pyramids are more designed for a clayey environment. Iraq has a lot of clay in the soil. It's always been used for making bricks and still is today. Making bricks is simple and cheap. The ancients didn't even fire most of them, instead allowing them to dry in the sun. The sparse rains meant that unfired bricks would last years. Unfortunately, they erode after enough centuries of exposure, so many ziggurats now look like low hills. The better-preserved ziggurats were encased in fired brick, which was more expensive but recognized by the ancient builders as more durable. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the narrator boasts, "Climb Uruk's wall and walk back and forth! Survey its foundations, examine its brickwork! Were its bricks not fired in an oven?"

Anything else you'd like to say, Sean? 

First off, thanks for having me!  Besides blogging for Gadling, I run Civil War Horror, dedicated to dark fiction, the American Civil War, and the Wild West. Guest bloggers are always welcome there. I'm the author of numerous books including A Fine Likeness, a historical novel set in Civil War Missouri, and The Night the Nazis Came to Dinner, a collection of dark speculative fiction. The electronic editions are both on sale at the moment. You can also check me out on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and my Amazon author's page.

Would you like to see some of these exotic locations that Sean visited?
Do you like to read travel experiences? Please share in the comments. Thanks for stopping by, and don't forget to check out these links to some of Sean's adventures:

Destination: Iraq

Ethiopia: Back to the Beginning

Harar, Ethiopia: Two Months Living in Africa's City of Saints

Somaliland: The Other Somalia

Credit:  Photos courtesy Sean McLachlan, all rights reserved.

Sean McLachlan, freelance author and blogger
Twitter: @WriterSean
A Fine Likeness: Civil War novel
American Civil War Guerrilla Tactics (Osprey, 2009)