Driving in the United States does little to prepare you for the fluidity, and occasional terror, of driving in the Middle East. In major cities, like Cairo, Damascus, or Tehran, traffic ebbs and flows independent of the restrictions of lane designations and traffic laws. These exist, but they often appear to serve as guidelines rather than rules. The experience is similar outside of the cities. Because there is less traffic, everybody drives faster. However, most of the roads are two-lane, which leads to a lot of leap-frogging as faster drivers pass their slower compatriots. At times like this, traveling cross-country is its own special thrill.
As part of RAP, I spend a large amount of time on the road at the start of the dig. We enter Iraq in Erbil, but we work in Soran, about two hours away. Since Erbil is the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government, we try to handle most of our bureaucratic necessities at their source. However, the wheels of the bureaucracy grind slower here than elsewhere, so we often have to travel back and forth between the two cities to get everything resolved. As of this writing, I’ve made the Erbil-Soran trip twice, with another planned for tomorrow.
The trip itself is pleasant and provides a great snapshot of the diverse topography of the region as well as its rapid economic development. I’ve produced a short video of our first trip into the mountains to give you an idea of what it entails. You start on the crowded streets of Erbil. From there, you head northeast through growing suburbs into the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. You continue on this track, going up over ridges and back down into valleys, until you arrive in the Harir Plain, where the road turns to the northwest. During the Neo-Assyrian Empire, this plain was the end of Assyrian control in the area until the last century of its existence.
The road runs northwest across the plain until it turns back to the east at Spillek Pass. The top of the pass has a dominating view of the plain, which makes it a great place for brigands. In the early twentieth-century, the British built a fort at the top of the pass, which is still present. Unsurprisingly, a modern KRG military outpost is in front of it.
From Spillek Pass, the road leads to Khalifan. This town sits at the west end of the Rowanduz Gorge, which towers majestically over it. For most of history, the path through the gorge consisted of little more than narrow dirt tracks. In the early twentieth-century, A.M. Hamilton built a road through the base of the gorge that leads to Soran. Later, Saddam Hussein built a high road that leads directly to Rowanduz in order to improve the access of his tanks. The gorge and the towns around it are now popular tourist destinations. The waterfall at Gal-i Ali Beg, featured on the 5,000 Iraqi dinar, is particularly well-known.
Rapid economic development is visible all along the road between Erbil and Soran. Unfinished cinder-block buildings sit side-by-side with tall, modern-looking hotels. Tourism and oil exploration are driving much of this development. The pace of the construction is quickly destroying the natural landscape that makes this area so popular as well as destroying cultural heritage. However, the population in the area is only likely to increase. A road system with tunnels through the mountains is currently under construction that will cut forty-five minutes off of the trip to Soran. This development will undoubtedly lead to better economic conditions for locals, but the environmental and archaeological repercussions of this development are hard to calculate.
**Read all of Darren’s posts from his field work in Iraqi Kurdistan**