Category Archives: Erbil

Getting over the finish line

In the deepest part of the deepest trench, fortification wall Phase 1a (Neo-Assyrian?) continues on down

In the deepest part of the deepest trench, fortification wall Phase 1a (Neo-Assyrian?) continues on down

I got paid today with the usual stack of grubby hundred dollar notes tied up with an elastic band. However satisfactory this may be in terms of being able to throw it up in the air while jumping on my bed, it presents me with problems; security issues, the means to make poor spending choices, and an ethical dilemma concerning tax declaration. The movement of abstract numbers from one column to another is not quite as emotionally involving as dirty green pieces of paper in a plastic bag.

The view from the bottom, up two and a half thousand years of wall

The view from the bottom, up two and a half thousand years of wall

A co-worker delicately balances her laptop on pottery context [209]

A co-worker delicately balances her laptop on pottery context [209]

Winter has come to Erbil; it’s dark and rainy and I have to wear my coat in the office. The clocks have gone back in Britain and I’m making excellent progress in building up my winter fat reserves via a high diet of beer, kebab and office biscuits. It’s almost time to go home. Unfortunately there are some things I have to do first, chief among which is to write up the site by Saturday. This is a mighty task given the amount of this and that we’ve dug up over the last three years. I’m running out of tasteful pastel shades to colour all the architectural phases for a start, eventually something’s going to have to be magenta. We’ve also run out of space in the tiny plastic office now that most of the table surfaces are being used for laying out pottery. The floor is ankle-deep in biscuit packets and I have to lay the plans out over whichever pot sherds our stand-in ceramicist isn’t currently studying.

I picked up my official kit on the way home from work. White - not the best colour for a new digging t shirt...

I picked up my official kit on the way home from work. White – not the best colour for a new digging t shirt…

I’m not holding out too much hope of finding a lot of writing time on Friday and Saturday. Somehow I’ve found myself running in the Erbil International Marathon on Friday, although only in the 5km ‘family fun race’ for the old and the lame and the smokers. I assume this state of affairs is ultimately my fault although I can’t actually recall how it came about. All I know is that it’s going to make me deeply unhappy, probably at about the 1.5km point. I’ve always thought there’s enough pain and tedious repetitive toil in the world without taking up endurance sports. Now I’m older I understand that some people enjoy performing the same physical action over and over again for a very long time until they feel sick, but I still view these individuals with vast suspicion. My housemate has declined to take part in the Erbil Marathon as she considers it to be a potential terrorist target. When she announced this my very first thought was that if Daesh kill me at the marathon on Friday I won’t have to hand in the excavation report on Saturday, which is a measure of how things are in the report writing department. Should I survive, I plan to drink myself to death during the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday night.

Trying not to explode

It's just a bomb, what harm can it do, right?

It’s just a bomb, what harm can it do, right?

I’m still on my Eid holidays, the length of which is one of the few benefits of being employed by the Kurdish Regional Government. The holiday cut last week down to just three working days but we managed to fit a lot in, one way or another. On Sunday morning the workmen continued to clear the rubbish where last week’s awkward Qurans were lurking. Going through a particularly rich vein of plastic shoes, chicken wire and fire extinguishers, I notice a largish rusty bit of iron coming up so I jumped down to give it a scrape with a trowel. What I uncovered were the sinister rusted tail fins of a fairly large mortar round. “It’s a fucking bomb!” I exclaimed, removing myself from the trench with much speed and little dignity. I turned back to see one of the workman, with to my mind a maniacal grin on his face, stick the shovel under the mortar and flip it out of the ground. I just about managed to stop him from chucking it over the wall down the five metre drop to the spoil heap. Then it was time for everyone to laugh at the funny foreign lady who thinks bombs sometimes explode if you hit them with a shovel or drop them five metres onto concrete. It was really hilarious, I’m still laughing inside.

Area F - precious few places to stand, nowhere to hide

Area F – precious few places to stand, nowhere to hide

The second trial of the week came with the arrival of a reporter from BBC Arabic along with a swarm of camera crew and producers. I have long experience of safely handling this sort of situation by walking quickly in the opposite direction and finding somewhere to hide until they go away. In the past I’ve successfully hidden from Reuters, National Geographic, Al Iraqiya, Rudaw, Hezbolah TV and Alastair Sooke, but this time there was no way out – literally; this part of site is tiny and there’s only one exit. I told the reporter that cameras make me unhappy, so he said he’d just take some quotes down, but within ten minutes there was a sound guy shoving a microphone up my shirt. I tried to think of intelligent things to say but it was hard when 90% of my brain was trying to work out what the hell to do with my arms. Luckily they only used two tiny clips and dubbed me over in Arabic:

http://www.bbc.com/arabic/multimedia/2015/09/150925_iraq_arbil_castle

The only exciting thing I’ve done with my holiday is to visit a German dig up in the mountains. I went with my housemate and her driver and a fine gift of beer and biscuits. It was nice to talk about archaeology for a change – all we talk about at the Citadel is food and when can we reasonably go home. The journey there and back was probably the real highlight as I was entertained/terrified by our progress down a endless dreadful road in a Nissan Sunny with no rear brakes and no discernible suspension. My housemate’s antics were of particular interest as she attempted to incite our driver to violence by constantly telling him to slow down, maintain two car lengths between us and the car in front, activating and deactivating the hazard lights seemingly at random and lecturing checkpoint guards on how they should paint lines across the speed bumps. We mysteriously survived the journey.

The mountains near Rania

The mountains near Rania

Rucking, mauling and digging in Iraq

The best view in Erbil - from the roof of the citadel's new gate, which will hopefully open one day

The best view in Erbil – from the roof of the citadel’s new gate, which will hopefully open one day

It’s Friday in Erbil and I’m being unpleasantly reminded of why I don’t drink much wine any more. The shaking has mostly stopped now, but I’m still feeling a bit… sullied. I was out with the ‘Erbil Film Society’ last night, which turns out to be a small group of oil people with a projector and an unlimited amount of free food and booze, which is never a bad thing and yet never really a good thing either.

The teaching of section drawing becomes a fairly intimate affair when part of the section is essentially in a tunnel

The teaching of section drawing becomes a fairly intimate affair when part of the section is essentially in a tunnel

The excavation proceeds slowly, partly because it’s still very hot and there’s no shade most of the day by the south gate, but also because we’re all very lazy and my Kurdish co-workers want to go home at 2pm and who am I to argue? We had another hold up yesterday of a new and exotic kind, just when I thought I’d seen all the possible ways in which archaeology can be impeded. We’re clearing a deposit of modern rubbish that was used to fill the gap between the archaeology and a modern wall. The rubbish is of the usual Middle Eastern kind – lots of plastic bags and an inexplicable wealth of shoes and pharmaceutical packaging – but then we hit a rich seam of burnt books, which on inspection appeared to be Qurans. Turns out you can’t just chuck a Quran on the spoil heap, you have to watch for forty-five minutes while two Kurdish workmen reverentially scoop handfuls of ashy pages into plastic shopping bags, making a huge hole in your neat excavation. I asked what they were going to do with the bags of Quran ash but they just shrugged and put them under the pomegranate tree for safe-keeping. From the flakes of ash poking out from the rest of the rubbish I have a sinking feeling that this will prove to be a Quran-rich deposit and we’re going to spend a lot of next week on holy-book-disposal instead of science.

My Kurdish colleagues use a hand tape to gather pomegranates from a nearby tree in a further illustration of their extraordinary work ethic

My Kurdish colleagues use a hand tape to gather pomegranates from a nearby tree in a further illustration of their extraordinary work ethic

So spins the earth, and so eventually the Rugby World Cup comes around, in about three hours’ time in fact. Me and my housemate are off to our friend A’s house where he’s cooking a bacon-based pasta dish and putting his enormous TV at our disposal. I have an excellent night ahead of bacon, beer, rugby and explaining rugby to an American. I’ve already tried explaining the scrum to her, which elicited expressions of horror, so we’ll have to take it slowly. I’ve actually managed to find rugby to play here, which makes me think there might be hope for Iraq after all. I’m now playing touch rugby twice a week just down the road, although I am struggling a bit with the heat and the creeping advance of creeky-knee-ed age. Still, it’s good to be doing something here other than drinking, smoking and complaining.

Untidy endings in Erbil

The new citadel gateway: the big exit

The new citadel gateway: the big exit

In the way of all things, the end has come and I’ll be leaving Erbil tonight. I’m enjoying a last bit of crisp, sunny Kurdish autumn before I get a big wet smack in the face at Manchester, where heavy rain is forecast. On the excavation the last week was predictably annoying, as all things tend to be in Iraq when you find you have a deadline to plan for. I turned up on site on Sunday morning, bright and early, with a full five-day-week’s worth of work planned only to find that the site was crawling with soldiers and men in dark glasses peering down holes and looking under tarpaulins. The Kurdish prime minister was coming to visit, I was told, and there would be no work today as everyone was busy burying untidy cables and picking up rubbish in their best suits. Then I was told there would be no work the next day either, as it was the Shia holy day of Ashura and everyone would be busy fasting and beating themselves with chains. Oh, and Tuesday would probably be out too as everyone had to get through their Ashura come-down and make up for all the eating they’d missed. The last week of work had just shrunk from five days to two days so when I’d finished wailing and beating my little fists in the dust I sulked off home throwing foul looks at the men in dark glasses, who I think were sincerely glad I wasn’t hanging around to spoil the shiny suit aesthetic with my dirty trousers and grumpy face.

Middle east expat wet dream

Middle east expat wet dream

I spent my unexpected holiday digitising the site plan while listening to Radio One, both of which had negative effects on my mental health. On Ashura I made a pork feast for me and my housemate – I got two pork tenderloins, stuffed apple and cinnamon in between them and wrapped them together with apple smoked bacon. Then I cooked it in apple juice to create a porky masterpiece. I would like to call it pork Ashura if that wasn’t incredibly offensive. Other holiday activities included staring into space, watching my housemate’s dog crap in the corner (invariably as I eat breakfast) and making a late night ill-considered on-line purchase of expensive electrical goods.

Final day challenge - a bit more than I bargained for in the way of bricks

Final day challenge – a bit more than I bargained for in the way of bricks

Returning to site on Wednesday I abandoned my original five day plan and decided to make everything behind the city wall flat with a big pick and see what showed up. This in fact yielded rather too much and I ended my final day in an undignified frenzy of planning while the workmen sat around smoking and eating my goodbye biscuits. Then I went out and got drunk.

Today I’m faced with the weary prospect of packing my life up again, and cleaning the bathroom (the later being a trial that with my current situation I only have to endure once a year or so, thank christ).

ugh, packing. Just when I'd got everything just right

ugh, packing. Just when I’d got everything tidy

Foreign idiots in a car

The sickly pumpkins of Iraq

The sickly pumpkins of Iraq

It’s the morning after an unwisely alcoholic Halloween and things have just got to the point where I think I might live after all. I went to a barbeque, where I got savaged by an enormous orange cat (small tiger?), and then onto the Halloween party at the Palmyra Hotel, and then I woke up. Earlier in the day I managed to procure an Iraqi pumpkin and carve a passably evil face into it. It is of a slightly sickly hue in comparison to its garish western equivalents and is much wetter, causing a brown slime to accumulate in the bottom and an appearance of sweating. It is in all other respects charming.

Iraq's most annoying dog sitting on the aqueduct at Jerwan

Iraq’s most annoying dog sitting on the aqueduct at Jerwan

This weekend is very much a contrast to last weekend which I spent in blameless sobriety, give or take a few glasses of wine here and there. Instead I went together with a few friends to hire a car and get out of Erbil. We decided to go up north of Mosul to see some of the Neo-Assyrian stuff, taking with us an elderly and inaccurate antiquities map to make sure we didn’t take a wrong turn and end the weekend by being sold into sexual slavery in the new Caliphate. As things turned out, what we really should have been worried about our own breath-taking stupidity in the area of car husbandry.

Spoiling the Mazda's fun

Spoiling the Mazda’s fun

Our first stop was at Jerwan where the Assyrian king Sennacherib built a whopping great aqueduct in about 700BC to bring water to Nineveh and keep his slaves busy. The peacefulness of the place was somewhat spoiled by a large dog, which kept up a constant barking for the full forty minutes we were there, and by the rumble of Peshmerga artillery shelling IS positions to the south. We were joined by a local Peshmerga who was on leave, along with his sons and his tractor, which turned out to be fantastically lucky. After Jerwan we attempted to visit a small tell site but taking a wrong turn we drove right into a huge pool of mud and sheep excrement from which the Mazda was unwilling or unable to remove itself. Every attempt managed only to burrow it in deeper and throw huge sprays of brown slurry in all directions. In the end it settled contentedly in the deepest part like a fat black pig. Fortunately, we had just met a man with a tractor who we called and within half an hour we were watching sheepishly as he dragged the Mazda unwillingly out by its arse. I even forgave him for attempting to grope my breast back at Jerwan. The local children took us to their village to wash the car off and laugh at us. We went home via Khinis and Akre and several very narrowly avoided car accidents.

The king doing his king thing at Khinis

The king doing his king thing at Khinis

Out of gas: waiting to be rescued again

Out of gas: waiting to be rescued again

On the second day we headed for the ancient monastery at Mar Mattai northeast of Mosul. We were having a jolly old time until the Mazda mysteriously ceased to function. Having pushed the car out of the path of the death-dealing fuel tankers which were thundering around us, we consulted the Mazda’s manual and after a period of denial were forced to accept that we had in fact run out of petrol. Fortunately, Kurds like nothing better than rescuing mentally deficient foreigners from their own stupidity and soon enough a nice man had driven one of us off to buy fuel at the nearest petrol station and then helped us to funnel it into the car. We finally arrived at the monastery with just enough time to have a cup of tea with the head monk and sit through a church service with a lace doily on my head before it was time to get back in the car. So ended the many valuable lessons of last weekend.

Mar Mattai: Praying for a release from idiocy and a safe drive home

Mar Mattai: Praying for a release from idiocy and a safe drive home

Drowning in nonsense

A brief break in the weather leaves a happy rainbow over soggy erbil

A brief break in the weather leaves a happy rainbow over soggy Erbil

Over the last two days I’ve been having a passionate affair with a Nespresso machine. My housemate picked one up in yet another looting incident after some oil people had to leave the country. It came with about 300 little coffee capsules in about twenty flavours; I’ve tried most of them in the last forty-eight hours but have decided to leave the last six flavours until tomorrow after having a dream about my eyeballs popping out of my head and trying to squash them back in with my thumbs.

The voyage back to the office

Swimming back to the office

The sun has finally come out today after a week of dreary rain punctuated by thunder storms. The refugees living in the unfinished shopping mall around the corner (in a manner reminiscent of zombie apocalypse movies) have hung everything out to dry from the incomplete rooftop. The citadel turns out to drain surprisingly poorly for high ground, and what does drain drains into the site, cutting gullies into the ancient walls and pooling in the deep trenches. The alleyways between the office and site are now of a semi-aquatic nature, sometimes requiring careful sounding to avoid sinking up to the knees and occasional scrabbling over the ruins of fallen walls brought down by the weight of their water soaked bricks. My two female trainees have mysteriously stopped coming to site, which I’m sure is wholly unconnected with their choice of ballet flats as excavation footwear.

I hear it was an excellent year for brick crocuses

I hear it was an excellent year for brick crocuses

I’ve escaped by throwing myself into the paperwork, examining the ‘records’ of the first season of excavation when no international adviser was present. Scant enough already, they bear testament to the perils of the unsupervised use of English by under-qualified persons. Of greatest interest is the collection of enigmatic sentences entered into the ‘Detailed description’ section of the context sheets, attesting to such diabolical objects as an ‘Angle iron, cercal, coration on serf black color’ and mysterious allusions to ‘Days of mud brick, clay and chipson’. The horrors of season one are made plain by references to a ‘Will maid bar backed brick’ and a ‘Flow bottom 044- mad by nore’. If anyone can translate nonsense please get in touch, there’s a publication credit and a packet of bacon in it for you if you can tell me what a ‘tow loin’ is.

IMG_9087crop

The archaeology office cat, who I refer to variously as ‘Bag of Bones’ or ‘Sack of Shit’ depending on what and how much it has eaten

As almost all of my posts from Erbil have so far featured a cat photo, here is a photo of the office cat. When it has turned over all the bins it sits in the office door and cries continuously in tones of great malevolence. It bites anyone approaching within two feet. At the start of the season it was deathly thin and appeared to have been hit in the face with a car, but has since grown fat and demanding on a diet of powdered milk and instant coffee fed to it by the girls in the office. I scowl daily upon the nourishing of this monster.

Semi-functional alcohologist

Erbil can seem quite tranquil from a distance and without shouting at you in Kurdish about pottery

Erbil can seem quite tranquil from a distance and without someone shouting at you in Kurdish about pottery

Archaeologically things are at a bit of a low ebb in Erbil. I’ve been back on site for three days since the end of the Eid holiday. We now have no workmen because there’s no money to pay them, meaning that digging has effectively stopped and there are only a few monstrously tall elevations to draw. My trainees have also not been paid and are, understandably, less and less interested in being around. Well, there’s the money but I think they might also be sick of leaning out over crumbly mud brick death canyons dangling a plumb bob. They’d all gone home by 1:30pm today, leaving me to work alone in the pit of despair. They also locking my bag in the office along with my money, ID and house keys before they left, which was thoughtful of them. At least it’s nice and quiet on site and I can listen to my ipod or take a little nap or throw rocks at the pigeons without anyone judging me. I might be going a bit ‘you-know’ (mad).

Oktoberfest - return of the ruinously expensive one litre steins of black beer

Oktoberfest – return of the ruinously expensive one litre steins of black beer

I enjoyed the traditional expat Eid holiday; drinking heroic quantities of alcohol every day until my brain started trying to crawl out of my ears for a breath of air. In the early stages this just involved the usual Erbil pursuits: Oktoberfest at the German bar, house parties, BBQs, crashing that Nepalese party and having drunken sprint races in Sami Abdulrahman Park with fuel men from the airport. Then I agreed to get out of town and go to the mountains around Choman with some friends for four days. I knew it was going to be a rough road when I found I’d drunk five cans of beer in the car on the way. One of my fellow holiday makers brought her cat along which made the journey even more entertaining due to his/her (complicated) unwavering interest in what the driver was doing with his feet. Having been raised by expats the cat was a needy alcoholic.

Henry finishes off his second Amstel, dribbling much of it into my lap

Henry finishes off his second Amstel, dribbling much of it into my lap

Mostly we played board games, smoked and watched documentaries about religion, which are far more entertaining when you’re drunk and willing to pick a side. One day we took a drive up through the mountains, keeping an anxious eye on the GPS to make sure we didn’t accidentally take a much longer holiday in Iranian prison. I learned a lot about what minefields look like and about all the places in a Lexus you can hide beer cans when you get to a checkpoint. I spent the last day of the Eid holiday back in Erbil feeling exceptionally sick while watching Downton Abbey and drinking fizzy water with my housemate.

Within 2km of the Iranian border we drink some schnapps and think about our options

Within 2km of the Iranian border we drink some schnapps and think about our options