Roadside history: A cultural education along the Erbil-Duhok Highway
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) - As infrastructure and investment improve across the Kurdistan Region, visitors and locals alike are increasingly making the trip between Duhok and Erbil on a regular basis.
Whether you take the slightly more scenic route passing through Kalak, or the faster route that crosses Chemmah and the unfinished bridge there, you will find more to appreciate than first meets the eye.
Just a few minutes north of Erbil, you will first pass through Khabat and Kalak and drive over the Great Zab river separating them. This is also the boundary between Erbil and Duhok governorates.
Khabat stands out with a massive sculpture of Mesopotamia’s famous, edible river fish. The town has an enviable position on the Great Zab, which reaches the Tigris downstream from Mosul.
For centuries, travelers wrote of crossing the river here with the Kalaks, which gave the small town across from Khabat its name. It was a major stop, not just between Mosul and Erbil, but on the broader caravan routes of Mesopotamia.
Kalaks were dried, inflated goatskins — much like a lifeguard buoy — that were tied together to float platforms from one side to the other (or to make boats that could slowly drift along the river). When the river was calm enough, Kalaks were tied all the way from one riverbank to the other and planks were added to make a seasonal bridge that lasted until the Kalaks were untied to stall an advancing enemy or were simply washed away in a storm.
Nowadays, the only reminder of the Kalak system is the name itself of the town Kalak, on the Duhok side of the river.
More than a century ago, the Kalaks here lost their purpose when the Ottomans commissioned a massive bridge spanning over 400 meters to properly link the Mosul and Erbil sides (There is also a modern bridge to the west.) Walking down to the riverbank gives a gorgeous view of the masonry: even with countless trucks and cars daily, the stone-fitting is so precise, and the arches are so exact that no shifts or gaps have happened.
Being a critical crossing has not come without disadvantages: the northern half of this historic Ottoman bridge was demolished by aerial bombardment during the Iran-Iraq War. Midway across the river, there is an earth pile and after that is a very narrow trestle bridge to reach the riverbank.
Though not directly along the road, Kalak and Khabat are adjacent to a cluster of villages based around Suffaya, which form one of the sacred heartlands of the Kakai community in Kurdistan and Iraq. Kakaiism (also called Yarsanism) is a unique syncretic religion that binds regional traditions together with a powerful gospel of worship and reincarnation.
However, many Kakais contend it is taboo to discuss or acknowledge their religion with the public, even though conversions are accepted.
Onward to Duhok, there is a checkpoint at the outskirt of Kalak. Immediately after the checkpoint, on the left side, is a curious-looking hillside with what appears to be a home built into the eroded caves.
In fact, this is a sacred spring and shrine for Sufis and reflects Kalak and Khabat’s importance not just for transportation and commerce but for the confluence of religious ideas and traditions that follows any time there is movement of people.
It is said the Sheikh Abdulqadir Gilani prayed at this shrine for seven years, living off a sparse diet of fresh spring water and fruit (an interesting parallel to Christianity’s pronounced tradition of asceticism in the area). It is said the spring there has nourishing, appetite-suppressing, and healing properties.
Pilgrims come to worship, to bottle some water, and to have an audience with a sheikh who arbitrates, informs, and blesses. He is of the Kasnazan order, the Sufi community that manages the shrine.
From here, there are many kilometers of scenic vistas and classic little towns and villages. Dominating this landscape is Maqlub Mountain.
On the other side of Maqlub Mountain is the ancient Syriac Orthodox monastery dedicated to Saint Matthew, which was established in a high, inaccessible crevice far from civilization in the 4th century during the anti-Christian reign of Roman emperor Julian (and against the backdrop of conflict between the Roman and Persian empires).
On the side of the mountain facing the Erbil-Duhok road, there is a complex of Ezidi chapels centered around the shrine of Ezidi saint Mohamed Rashan (which may be a crypto-Ezidi name). Whether you visit these places or not, it is not hard to imagine why this prominent, striking mountain has been written into history.
Along the road, you will drive through towns that seem adapted to no other economic reality besides the road itself, but which have beautiful narratives if you peer beneath the surface.
There is Bardarash, which is perhaps most notable as the archetype of flyover land in Kurdistan. Yet even here, there is history between the lines.
While many villages and towns across Kurdistan were razed by the Baathists and rebuilt with a grid layout for easier military control, this town’s residents were generally pragmatic during Kurdish uprisings and Bardarash was ultimately spared from that fate. The turning, sprawling road to get through town is a winding reminder of that non-history.
Nearby Bardarash is Ruvia, with its bazaar straddling the highway and where tourists from afar and townspeople alike will briefly mingle at the shops while semi-trailers zoom by and throw up clouds of dust. Even tiny towns such as Ruvia have become saturated with billboards catering to the countless people passing through on their way to other destinations for business, family, or pleasure.
However, Ruvia is more than just a few shops. It is home to one of Kurdistan’s preeminent Sufi takiyes and is filled with ecstatic worshippers once a week.
Not long after Ruvia is the river crossing at Khazir, downstream from the nearly 3,000-year-old ruins of Assyrian king Sennacherib monumental water infrastructure to irrigate his newly built capital at Nineveh.
Along the river and downstream from the bridge, the industrialized dredging of gravel has unearthed courses of his aqueducts and potential river ports as well. Just after the bridge, you may notice the top of a church: this is for worshippers in the village of Mullah Birwan, where one half of the village is Christian, and the other half is Muslim.
A few minutes after the river, there is a sign on the right side of the road for the turnoff to the partial ruins at Jerwan of an aqueduct from this same building campaign and which are accessible as part of a slow 45 minutes drive (roundtrip) along the dirt road to get there.
Along the road, artificial hills rise precipitously from the flatlands: these are ancient archaeological mounds, which form as construction happens again and again at the same place over hundreds and thousands of years.
There are too many mounds to stop at each one along the way, but after noticing one, it becomes easier for more and more to catch the eye and it becomes obvious just how often modern towns and villages live on today at these ancient settlements.
Rising up on the left side of the road is a large archaeological mound, atop which is the shrine for Ezidi Saint, Peshanga Piroz.
Notably, this is the first Ezidi shrine you will see on the way to Duhok if you stay on the main road. Like all Ezidi shrines, it is part of a sacred geography in the Ezidi homeland.
Ezidi shrines come in two forms: the fluted cones of large shrines and chapels; and little prayer altars with small niches for lighting oil lamps or candles. Both types can be found at the Shrine of Peshangaha Piroz.
Passing the town of Shekhan, it is important to note that the road to the right (into the heart of town) is the main route to Lalish as well, the central place of worship for Ezidis everywhere and the site of the tomb for their prophet Sheikh Adi.
The town of Shekhan is a unique mix of Ezidis, Christians, Muslim Kurds, and Arabs. Christian churches, Ezidi shrines, and mosques all coexist alongside one another. Though frequently driven past without much thought, Shekhan is crucially important as perhaps one of the last, if not the only such town of its size remaining in all Iraq.
Next is Baadre, a town almost totally inhabited by Ezidis. It is filled with such a rich array of historic sites that it would warrant a day trip in itself, as an immersion into local Ezidi tradition and history. But while driving by, the most visible landmark is not Ezidi at all but actually an Iraqi Army fort.
There are identical forts (one courtyard with towers at two corners) constructed at nearly every major lookout point or junction across all of the Kurdistan region in Iraq. There was one after the river crossing at Kalak, and there was another after the river crossing in Khazir.
These forts’ ubiquitous but now largely quiet domination over the landscape speaks to the magnitude and inescapability of Baathist military operations in the Kurdistan region. These forts are now used by the Peshmerga or Asayesh, or for telecommunications.
After Baadre, there is a breathtaking and narrow valley route before the road opens up overlooking Duhok city.
While small forts were numerous, on the left, you will see something much larger: Nizarke Fort, built by the Iraqi Army for large-scale detainment and execution. Yet, while it once occupied a premium spot far from the city center, nowadays the main highway is lifted higher than the fort’s roofline and the area is effectively just another neighborhood of a sprawling, increasingly cosmopolitan and urban Duhok city. It symbolizes how much Duhok and all of the Kurdistan region has progressed.
The route to Duhok brings travelers into proximity with an assortment of religious and historic monuments — all without having to drive off from the route above from Erbil to Kalak, then on to Ruvia and beyond.
It is also common to drive from Erbil to Chemmah, then reconnect to the main road from Ruvia. There is also an even longer route via Akre, which also reconnects there.
The two-hour drive to Duhok traverses thousands of years of history and brings you past an enormous range of cultures and lifestyles. You may not visit every place, but nonetheless be grateful for having made this particularly remarkable journey.
Editing by Nadia Riva