20 June 2015

In the hall of the mountain king

On the road from Suleimaniya to the lakeside town of Dukkan, just after one of Saddam’s crumbling whitewashed prison fortresses, a small river flows out of a side canyon.  Turning off the main road, you climb above the valley plain, further up, and further in, until modern Iraq has passed away, except for you and the road.  The canyon-valley slopes up and narrows.  Steep sides rise from the gently slanting river bottom.  A ribbon of green laces its way down to civilization.  Here the road forks right to follow the steep walls.  This is the way to Qizqapan, tomb of King Cyaxeres.  

King Cyaxeres of the Medes led the coalition that toppled Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria, so despite his current obscurity he was a big deal for the ancient Near East.  And he's claimed in the Kurdish national anthem as an ancestor of the Kurds.

We visited Qizqapan on our way back from Suleimaniya a few days ago, climbing up the valley road until we came to a parking lot with steps along the cliffside to a white scaffold.  The scaffold sits about a meter away from the cliff face and at the top, 15 sheer meters up the side of the rock, is an inset carved gateway.  Two columns flank the door and carvings of humans, animals, and the sun decorate the entrance—along with graffiti. 
When we arrived, five men with guns—off-duty Peshmerga, we assumed—were just leaving.  I wondered why they had brought their guns, and, captivated by the historical romance and resonance of the place, I eagerly imagined they had come for a blessing at the tomb of the king who, twenty-five hundred years ago, had triumphed against the city they were now going off to fight. 

All the graffiti was in Kurdish and Arabic except for this:  “For remembrance we came here, but it was not much worthy.”  Strange that someone would want to record such tepid feeling on something so old.  I can't imagine not being impressed by the carving.  Still I resonated with the words, or at least the desire for resolution.  The whole scene was an unsettling mixture.  An empty tomb—looted God knows how many years before—a lush river valley full of life, and young men marching off to war.  

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