Category Archives: Erbil

The fighting season

I’m supposed to fly to Erbil in nine days’ time to continue excavating on the citadel which, all things considered, could have worked out better. The Foreign and Commonwealth office, as of yesterday, advises against all travel to most of Iraqi Kurdistan and the UK government has asked all British citizens to leave Erbil. That’s if I can get there at all seeing as most of the airlines that fly to Erbil are cancelling flights today. I now have to seriously consider the choice between bailing on the excavation, losing my airfare, two and a half months of pay and a certain amount of archaeological street-cred (trench-cred surely?) – we archaeologists traditionally laugh in the face of petty local deadly religious wars (see previous posts concerning Leonard Woolley) – or I could ignore the wise council of Her Majesty’s government and go out to Erbil to be butchered by angry jihadists. It’s all very difficult, on the one hand I really need the money, but on the other hand I don’t want to die and I do want to see the new series of Doctor Who. Seriously, I don’t know what to do.

The new Doctor Who says fuck the fuck off you dickless ISIS  c**ts

The new Doctor Who says fuck the fuck off you dickless ISIS c**ts

 

[On an unprecedentedly serious note, watching a region I’ve come to like very much (in spite of its lunatic minority and poorly justified policy towards bacon) disintegrate into murderous chaos has been exceptionally painful. I’ve been deeply angry and frustrated over the short-sighted inaction of the international community over both the state of Israel’s murder of almost 2000 mostly innocent civilians in Gaza and the unchecked barbarity of ISIS/ISIL/IS in Iraq and Syria, all in the name of supposed just and merciful gods. Other than shouting at the television, my only response has been to give money to the Red Cross for Gaza and to the National Secular Society as mankind’s only long term hope.]

It’s been a bad summer, mostly spent on my parent’s sofa watching the World Cup, Wimbledon, the Tour de France, the cricket, the Commonwealth Games and the Horrible Wars. As well as making this my most physically inactive summer ever, it’s been extremely disappointing; I wanted England to win the World Cup (I know) and the cricket, Roger Federer to win Wimbledon, Chris Froome to win the Tour de France, the Palestinians to win in Gaza, the government to win in Ukraine and anyone but ISIS to win in Iraq. At least we did pretty well in the Commonwealth Games.

Drunk in a pub in Abingdon I experience considerable, if somewhat questionable, pleasure

Drunk in a pub in Abingdon I experience considerable, if somewhat questionable, pleasure

I haven’t been doing much archaeology; I wrote a paper, did some reconstruction illustrations and a very boring desk based assessment for a site in Croydon. I read a vaguely archaeological book this week, written in the 1950s by a journalist travelling through the Middle East; ‘Flying to 3000 BC’ by Pierre Jeannerat. My heart sank during the introduction which was nauseatingly floral (‘The Great Pyramid is no mere bulk of freestone; it is also made of poetry’) but this soon settled down into more readable anecdotes about runaway donkeys and climbing pyramids in eveningwear after dinner parties. The coverage of the archaeology is rudimentary but it’s worth the read because Jeannerat meets some of the more famous archaeologists of the day. He gets shown around Nimrud by Max Mallowan and has lunch with Agatha Christie. He gets shouted at by Kathleen Kenyon from the bottom of her trench at Jericho. Disappointingly, Iraq is more or less skipped in favour of an extended dream sequence which involves Jeannerat reading a book from the distant future in which the world is wisely ruled over by elephants who are struggling to make sense of the archaeological remains of the barbarous human civilisation which preceded them. Going into details of the socio-religious structure of the future elephantine world and biographical details of the elephant author, professor Dermpacky, this sequence consumes around a fifth of the book and is mind-bogglingly pointless.

I find your lack of bacon disturbing

I find your lack of bacon disturbing

Outside archaeology I have amused myself by going to beer festivals and trying to adapt my sleep patterns so that my waking hours overlap as little as possible with those of my parents. My greatest triumph was going to my sister’s boyfriend’s Starwars/Game of Thrones themed birthday party as a Jedi direwolf.

Public relations

Disney's Robin Hood: the first man I ever loved

Disney’s Robin Hood: the first man I ever loved

I’m drinking tea on my parent’s sofa reading my old John Constantine graphic novels, while receiving malevolent looks from my dad. I made him turn over from The One Show for the safety of both of us. I’ve been back in the UK for forty long hours now, though I made some of them go very fast by seeing Thor: The Dark World and drinking five pints of Cheshire Gap at the pub. The last week in Erbil was fairly packed. On site I completed The Megaplan (you can fit a lot of bricks in a 20m x 15m trench and now I know them all personally), my team won the Halloween quiz at the T Bar and were rewarded with lots of small, free, colourful drinks (which seemed like a good idea at the time), and I went to a refugee camp where we made life better for a bunch of Syrian children by making them watch Disney’s Robin Hood until they cried. I pretended to be amazing at Egyptian Arabic by translating the dubbed sound track back into English for my colleagues, while in fact simply recalling the script word for word having watched Robin Hood at least three hundred times between the ages of 7 and 28 (when the second DVD wore out).

Media mess: A late medieval wall proves to be the perfect buffet table

Media mess: A late medieval wall proves to be the perfect buffet table

We finished the season by holding a large press conference in the trench. I spent much of this hiding, and grinding my teeth as I watched members of the Kurdish press pulling bones out of the sections, scrambling over architecture in four inch heels, and using the ancient walls to put their drinks on. There was a thrilling minute during which a particularly fat cameraman stood on a section of wall supported only by optimism. I remained undecided as to whether the damage to the wall might be worth the sight of him breaking his legs in front of twenty TV cameras. I have since had to endure my colleagues sending endless YouTube clips of me looking shifty and irritable on various Kurdish satellite channels. I finally got paid (in cash). At first they wanted to pay me in Iraqi dinars but I had to point out that there wasn’t even nearly enough room in my luggage.

The Parthenon: still not finished

The Parthenon: still not finished

Because I haven’t suffered enough, instead of going home I went to a five day conference in Athens on Kurdish archaeology. When I say ‘went’, I mean I registered and then spent five days shopping and drinking wine in cafes. I dutifully went to the Parthenon, but was extremely careful to learn nothing whatsoever. Particularly memorable moments were the military museum (where I discovered that things haven’t gone so well for the Greek military since the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC) and seeing a dog run over by a taxi. I have changed plane in Istanbul airport nine times in the last twelve months and aim to never go there again.

False starts

Today was supposed to be the first day back on site after the Eid break, so I crawled weeping from my bed at 7am (I have been mostly getting up at noon), put my digging boots on, filled my pockets full of knives and string and stumbled off in search of a taxi. The office was locked which was a bad sign. I walked over to the site to find it full of crisp packets and plastic bags and completely empty of workmen. I walked back past Asad the guard; “Nooo buddy here!” he said “Ha ha ha”.

The third worst cup of coffee in the world. The world's worst coffee is of course brewed by the Garden City House Hotel, Cairo, which has now ceased trading for the good of mankind.

My third worst cup of coffee ever. The world’s worst coffee is of course brewed by the Garden City House Hotel, Cairo, which has now ceased trading for the good of mankind.

Determined not to wholly waste the taxi fare I went out through the main gate and down to the square where I sat at one of the tea booths and asked for a nescafe. A nine year old boy made me a mug of something that tasted like the milk from a bowl of Cocoa Pops, if you heated it up and stirred it through with petrol. I pretended to drink it while reading Wolf Hall and refusing a string of offers to have my boots cleaned. The nine year old boy charged me a thousand dinar, which was about three times as much as the going rate for a real nescafe. I rolled my eyes but gave him his money; I try to avoid having fights with primary school children before 10am.

The British contribution to Erbil's historic citadel

1920s water tank: The British contribution to Erbil’s historic citadel

The Eid holiday continued as it started; as a litany of drink related incidents punctuated by extreme boredom and the World Cup Qualifiers. As the alcohol-to-archaeology ratio of this blog is already embarrassing me, I shall instead tell you about a book I partially read. It should have been an interesting book about the British Mandate period in Iraq, but the undoubted talent of the author turned it into a turgid wade through late Imperial bureaucracy, unrelieved by style, narrative or pictures. He leaves out all the fighting.

I did learn some interesting things however. The British took on the mandate of Mesopotamia after the First World War, partially because they wanted the oil, but mostly because they didn’t want the French to have it. The British were initially in favour of Kurdish independence but this mostly fell through because the Kurds were entirely unable to come up with a single leader with whom the British could sit down and have a cup of tea. Frustration over the lack of a proper tea drinking partner eventually led to the RAF bombing Suleimaniya in 1925. Things were not especially helped by Gertrude Bell running around giving some fairly poor advice. Gertrude Bell was an archaeologist, political officer, writer, traveller, spy and mountaineer who was largely responsible for the creation of Iraq. It is possibly down to the fact that she spread herself so thinly that she was able to do a moderately large amount of damage in so many different spheres. I personally restrict myself to the damage of archaeology and that’s enough for me. Perhaps one day I will finish the book and there will be a happy ending (maybe a wedding) but I’m not optimistic. The major legacy of British rule in Iraq seems to be the sensible use of three-pin plugs.

Gertrude Bell, on whom I won £30 at Ascot the autumn before last

Gertrude Bell, on whom I won £30 at Ascot the autumn before last

The devil makes work for idle hands

The wheelbarrow ramp situation on site is starting to resemble a fairly challenging early 90s platform game

The wheelbarrow ramp situation on site is starting to resemble an early 90s platform game

I’m undergoing a process of decontamination. I’ve had a long shower, put all my clothes in the washing machine, eaten two pro-biotic yoghurts and brushed my teeth twice. If only I could give my brain a good rinse under the tap I might be ready to rejoin society. I have the week off work because of Eid, which is a time when people are supposed to return to their families for a period of peace and sober contemplation and sheep sacrifice. Naturally, I took this opportunity to go on a two day nihilistic drinking bout of unusual ambition.

Octoberfest in Iraq

Octoberfest in Iraq

The first stage was a basic re-run of my very first night in Erbil in the spring: https://oldstuffinhotplaces.com/2013/05/12/disgracing-myself-in-erbil/ I started at the German Bar, where the delights of Octoberfest have begun. On arrival I ordered a two litre stein of a powerful wheat beer and settled in to watch the freshly imported German um-pah band being led by a vastly fat, drunk man in lederhosen. As my bucket of wheat beer was delivered it was announced we were leaving in fifteen minutes and should drink up, which, against expectation and good sense, I did. With this strong start under my belt we moved on to The Edge in the American compound. Above the bar is proclaimed ‘What happens at The Edge stays at The Edge’, for which I am profoundly grateful. I remember spectacularly winning at darts by ending with two darts in the green of the bull, and I remember dancing (sort of) and being pursued by a very very drunk American.  My last memory of the evening was of watching Thai boxing in the British consular building, then I woke up in all my clothes on a friend’s bed with a German woman on the phone asking where I was because I was supposed to be going with her to Lalish.

Schwartzbier: evil in a tall glass

Schwartzbier: evil in a tall glass

I did not go to Lalish. Instead I stumbled off to the German Bar breakfast porkathon in an effort to recover my wits. Unfortunately, just as I looked in danger of sobering up, someone bought me a beer and things went south from there. In the end I stayed for eight hours, drank seven litres of schwartzbier and played a German drinking game that involves hammering a nail into a tree. When it got dark the um-pah band played Waltzing Matilda and handed out free beer. But all things must end, and eventually it becomes necessary to change one’s clothes, so a very drunk friend drove me home where I took some ibuprofen and watched two episodes of Downton Abbey.

I do not recommend the digestive effects of a diet consisting only of bacon and schwartzbier.

Staggering on

The Irish drunk - philosopher, poet, knee-squeezer

The traditional Irish drunk – philosopher, poet and knee-squeezer

Against my better judgement I found myself at the ‘Irish Bar’ again last night, drinking a strange beer from the British Virgin Islands and being slowly lobotomised by the mind-buggeringly awful music. I did, however, manage to find something authentically Irish this time in the shape of Paul; a drunk elderly man from County Down. He bought me a beer while slurring incoherently about the Mountains of Mourne and being way too free with his hands. If I could have had a pint of stout and ended the night under a table roaring Whisky in the Jar the experience would have been complete. When I asked what his job was he said ‘Ah work wit m’shovel’.

living on the crumbly edge

living on the crumbly edge

On the excavation, things have achieved a healthy sort of monotony, except for the occasional hangover and deadly car bombing. I was on site when the bombings happened last week; it was quite a bang which scared all the birds off the citadel and made me drop my plumb bob. Everything got back to normal pretty quickly though and we didn’t even get the afternoon off. The main dangers that I’m actually experiencing, other than suicidal Kurdish driving habits, are to do with cleaning off the top of the enormous fortification wall prior to planning it. This involves balancing on crumbling ancient mud brick with a five metre drop on one side and a strong cross wind. I feel my experience working aloft up the masts of tall ships has helped with the emotional background to this process. One of my Kurdish colleagues won’t even go up the step ladder to take site photographs.

Same old, same old. Erbil weather is not the most exciting

Same old, same old. Erbil weather is not exciting

Nice green pot, alas full of encrusted shit as it had been used as a drain

Nice green pot, alas full of encrusted shit as it had been used as a drain

I’m finding that excavating in the middle of a big city is a bit different to the digs I work on out in the middle of nowhere. One issue is that I’m just so dirty. Urban Kurds are a pretty well-groomed lot, overlooking their rather excessive use of powerful aftershaves, and I do get some rather concerned looks walking through town in my best old clothes covered in filth. Taxi drivers in particular seem filled with doubt about my right to be in any such state, being female, alone, very foreign and very dirty. Many seem unprepared for such an exotic beast. On Wednesday the taxi driver who drove me home offered me some of his perfume. I was unsure if he was making a pass or making a point about sweaty, smelly foreigners.

German pig and Scottish Whisky

Round two of three. The german bar pig-based friday brunch of kings

Round two of three. The german bar pig-based friday brunch of kings

I just returned from brunch at the German bar, I think I might have civilisation poisoning. I just ate two bratwurst, one weiswurst, two other unidentified sausages, parma ham, baked ham, salami, several thick slices of honey roast gammon and a very very large quantity of bacon. The non-pig-based elements consisted of scrambled eggs, pickled cabbage, a bit of salad, a diet coke and two litres of good german pilsner. It was a bargain at $42; I might die of happiness. Or some other internal complaint.

The strange fruits of the iraqi earth

The strange fruits of the iraqi earth

My joyful reunion with Schweinefleisch has not been the only reminder of the things of home this week. Digging out a deep vertical pit on site, which I suspect to have been for a lavatory, we recovered a number of interesting items including shoes, clothing, tobacco pipes, umbrella fragments, a plastic flower and an almost undamaged whisky bottle produced by James Buchanan co. Ltd, Glasgow, Scotland. I feel a stronger connectedness to the people of ancient Erbil, now that I know they were drinking a decent Scottish whisky and hiding the empties in the toilet.

The Iraqi prince William comes with considerably more hair

The Iraqi prince William comes with considerably more hair

There are in fact a series of slightly un-nerving home-like things about Erbil, such as the very sensible adoption of the three-pin-plug and the way the mosque in the main square looks uncannily like Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. In a wedding shop on my way home from work, two of the dummies have been dressed up to look like Prince William and Kate Middleton. The first time I drove past I thought I’d imagined it and was having some kind of mid-life royalist fit. Last night I went to the UN bar where I met a fair few British people and ended up talking about awful British towns we’ve lived in. I think I won having worked in Stoke-on-Trent for two years. The UN bar was unexpectedly nice and gave out free beers and Tuborg t-shirts, although it was slightly over-populated with earnest looking men wearing ethnic scarves. I’m always disappointed by cliché.

Art imitating life: Brad Pitt  as earnest scarf-wearing zombie-fighting UN worker in World War Z

Brad Pitt as earnest-looking scarf-wearing zombie-fighting UN worker in World War Z

Ghosts of archaeology past

The deep magic of calling  down clouds using wet washing

The deep magic of calling down clouds using wet washing

The clouds are gathering over Erbil in a distressingly English way that makes me want to have a slice of cheese on toast and go to the pub. Even here autumn is on the way, in a sticky sort of 35°C manner. I’ve had my first autumn cold, probably due to the damage to my immune system wrought by two weeks of heavy drinking. As well as being snot-free once more, I’m currently enjoying my third day off thanks to the joys of the Kurdish election, so life seems good.

1911, Assur. A German archaeologist teaches a Sharqati workman how to annoy me

1911, Assur. A German archaeologist teaches a Sharqati workman how to annoy me

Work on site goes slowly onwards and downwards. Last week I started to tackle the Sharqatis. Sharqatis are men from Sharqat near Mosul who were trained by Germans a hundred years ago as excavators. This ancient knowledge has been passed down from father to son through the last century so that now they come fully trained to excavate new sites just as badly as the old ones. We have two. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very good at what they do, but we stopped doing a lot of those things fifty years ago. The main problem is that they want to find the walls and have very little interest in the stuff above and beside them like pits and late Medieval floors. As well as being very experienced in archaeology, they are very experienced in dealing with foreign archaeologists. When I ask them to please stop digging holes in things and to take the upper deposit out first they very politely say ‘yes, of course, whatever you say’. Then as soon as I walk away they laugh at my Egyptian Arabic and carry on digging big unstratigraphic trenches towards the wall face. I’ve had to start popping back after two minutes to catch them at it.

Meanwhile I’m continuing my explorations into the Erbil expat jungle. I’m amassing a large collection of business cards, including several important professors, three international consuls and the head of the Board of Intangible Cultural Heritage. I thought about getting some of my own printed but what would I put on them? ‘Homeless, penniless archaeologist, please feed me’, something like that? I’ve also extended my knowledge base in the realm of drinking establishments. I’ve found one around the corner where I can sit in the garden and the beer is reasonably priced, but because I’m a woman they set up a special table for me and whoever I’m with in the darkest corner. There is no women’s toilet. I feel like a leper. On Thursday night I went out with some other expats to try the new ‘Irish’ bar that opened last week. As it turned out it was owned by a Jordanian man and his Lebanese wife and only served German beer. A few forlorn shamrocks hid in a dark corner by the appalling DJ. When we left they tried to charge us a $50 per head cover charge and for a large meal we hadn’t eaten. We paid them for the actual things we’d drunk, told them we would never come here again and went somewhere better. I’d been hoping for Guinness and singing.

I like my archaeology with a decent view

I like my archaeology with a decent view

The many dangers of Erbil

The staff in their excavation issue cowboy hats. I think I look particularly good in mine

The staff in their excavation issue cowboy hats. I think I look particularly good in mine

I’ve been in Erbil for a week now and my general impressions are that it’s a cheery sort of hot squalid city with friendly people, appalling works of public art and a pervading smell of eggs (I suspect that most of the taxis run on some kind of sulphurous biogas). So far I’ve been to four dinner parties and one lecture, got lost twice and been in a car crash. I sustained no serious injury in the latter except getting diet coke in my eye, which was surprisingly unpleasant.

Walking the plank in the temple of doom

Walking the plank in the temple of doom

Work on site is slow but steadily improving in standard; yesterday we cracked the difference between centimetres and inches on the measuring tapes. The achievements of the last season, of which I was thankfully not a witness, hang over us like a health and safety officer’s darkest nightmare, consisting of unmarked precipices and vast chasms bridged with planks of wood. My aims for the season are to improve the standard of recording on site, to draw the elevation of the enormous Ottoman city wall and not to break my neck. I find I have been classified by the powers that be on site as a ‘consultant’, which I resent enormously as I feel it implies that I’m doing very little for a huge amount of money when in fact the opposite is true.

Liberated American pear

Liberated American pear

If the site doesn’t kill me I fear the social scene might. I’m renting a room in a house with other foreigners and so far we’ve had three large dinner parties with a further one planned for Saturday night. I’m developing excellent upper body strength through carrying boxes of Jacob’s Creek back from the wine shop every night. We also get invited out. Last night two of us went to the American security compound at the invitation of a member of the consular staff who has an interest in archaeology. He treated us to hamburgers and cheesecake at one of the compound restaurants and then took us back to his house where we drank a large amount of whiskey and admired his body armour. On the way back to the gates I sustained moderate injuries to my left arm by drunkenly climbing a wall to steal pears. In hindsight I was probably lucky not to get shot – as it happens, the wall concealed a large amount of satellite communications equipment and several armed guards. I’m sure there’ll be plenty more opportunities to get myself arrested.

Repack

I just completed the process of taking everything out of my big blue bag, washing it/throwing it away, and then repacking it into my even bigger green bag (plus some new underwear and a very large bag of coffee). I hate packing, it makes me realise how little I own of any value. I’m off to Heathrow in the morning and then hopefully to Erbil if they let me in (https://oldstuffinhotplaces.com/2013/05/12/disgracing-myself-in-erbil/).

At Warmington village fete I lie on the grass drinking beer and let things get away from me

At Warmington fete I spend too much time in the village pub and end up getting abducted by morris men

I’ve tried to make the most of my six days in fair England; I went down to visit my twin for two days, who just rusticated to a tiny cottage in Oxfordshire where she has adopted an elderly cat and taken up bell ringing. I fear for her mind. She took me to a local village fete (where I became entrapped into playing the base drum for the Morris dancers), we played darts in the pub next door and went shopping for teaspoons, garden chairs and rolling pins. She is starting to nest.

We also ate a pack of Serrano ham, a pack of Parma ham and a 2kg shoulder of pork. At home I’ve managed three large sausages, two packs of baked ham, a packet of bacon, two pork chops and over half a kilo of smoked salmon. My luggage is full of pork scratchings: I am ready.

Emergency equipment: there comes a point when only pig will do

Emergency equipment: there comes a point when only pig will do

Disgracing myself in Erbil

The beautiful ancient citadel of Erbil, which we completely failed to visit. It uncomfortably reminded me of my doctoral thesis, in which it featured.

The beautiful ancient citadel of Erbil, which we completely failed to visit. It uncomfortably reminded me of my doctoral thesis, in which it featured.

I’m having a second day on the wagon having excelled myself at the weekend. A select few of us went to Erbil for a taste of the big city, and to get away from the smell of drains in the dig house. Erbil is thought to be the oldest continuously occupied city in the world, but fortunately all of the cultural sites were closed so we fell back on the old standby of eating our own body weight in kebab and drinking. First we drank in a German bar full of Americans where they mostly played Johnny Cash, and then in an American bar full of Germans where they mostly played Bob Marley. The American bar had the added novelty of being situated inside the US secure military zone, meaning that to enter I had to surrender my passport, phone and camera to a very clean man with a very large semi-automatic rifle. He called me “ma’am”, which, under the influence of two large German beers and a can of Bitburger I bought and drank in a dark alley behind an SUV on the way, I found utterly hilarious.

The barman's t-shirt I woke up for. I wonder for what percentage of the night I was wearing it.

The barman’s t-shirt I woke up with. I wonder for what percentage of the night I was wearing it.

Fully x-rayed, metal detected and tagged, I then proceeded to the bar where I drank heroic quantities of reasonably priced Turkish larger, won an animated game of darts and danced in new and surprising ways. After this events are less well established. I remember spending some short time in a kitchen with an Iraqi barman while he made me a bracelet out of American army boot laces. I was in a car at some point, and in a house where I ate cake with some new friends. I don’t remember going back through security but that must have been an interesting experience all round. I remember some walking around in deserted streets, then I woke up on a sofa in some physical distress, with the Iraqi barman’s t-shirt under my head and whipped cream in my ear. They know how to party in the Kurdish Autonomous Region.

Early morning meat; the thread that held me to life

Early morning meat; the thread that held me to life

Bacon is the only known anti venom for this sort of poisoning, but as it turns out, a couple of hefty lamb shish kebabs and a coke can have some palliative effect. So 10:30am found me in a meat-induced coma with two fellow sufferers. Revived, I did some unwise carpet shopping and then spent four hours in a car shaking and looking at the horizon.

My convalescence progresses well, I may be ready to try a modest shandy by lunchtime. I promise I’ll write something about the archaeology next time and less about my low-level alcoholism.