Monastery Tour on the ISIS Frontline

I came to Iraqi Kurdistan with fairly open expectations on what to visit. I certainly didn’t come here on some religious pilgrimage, although it started to feel that way as we visited one church or monastery after another. To be clear, these are deeply historic and beautiful sites, but they are symbolic and meaningful in a very contemporary sense as well. Iraq has VERY recently been occupied by militant extremists claiming to be Islamic (ISIS) and attempting to start their own country. Combine that with decades of sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni as well as ethnic minorities and the reputation of Iraq to the outside world is not exactly one of tolerance of diversity. To be immediately introduced to these historic Christian sites made sense, as they ran directly counter to common perceptions.

Now, I should be clear that this is a visit to Iraqi Kurdistan. I flew into Erbil and stayed there. The day trips left from Erbil and I journeyed as far as Sulaymaniyah. Kurdistan is as absolutely safe as one can be in Iraq. We drove all over the place without security. I spent time alone on foot. Situational awareness is warranted like in any place, but I felt as safe or safer in Erbil or Sulaymaniyah as in, say, Jakarta or Mexico City. Bad shit can happen anywhere, obviously, but Iraqi Kurdistan has their security situation well under control. To illustrate, I’ll give an example: on the highways in Kurdistan there are speed cameras that will nab you for speeding on the interstate. (If you obscure your license plate or don’t keep it clean, you’ll get pulled over for a hefty fine). The speed cameras add a speeding ticket automatically to your vehicle registration for when you need to renew your license plate. (Sounds annoying!) My guide’s take on this was “well, it’s really cut down on our car accidents, which were very bad before”. Before visiting, Western media would have had me believe all of Iraq was some lawless hellscape of jihadi suicide bombers. But here I was….  looking at functioning bureaucracy. Not sure if I’m communicating this well, but what I’m trying to say is that things like signing up for a frequent shopper card at a chain store at a large air-conditioned shopping mall, nice sidewalks, teenagers playing around in the town square, basic mundane city life was impressive to me because I’m not sure that’s what I expected ahead of time. My visit here was welcoming throughout and I really had a great time. I would love to come back and see some of the spots that are a little further than a day trip would allow.

This post includes the sites from the itinerary that were in Erbil and surroundings:

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