SamarraOne of my ideas of happiness is to sit on a river bank waiting for a ferry. It is much pleasanter than dinner parties, which are spoilt by the fact that one has to think of more than one thing at once. Two donkeys agreed with me, or would have if they knew what dinner parties are. They stood head to tail, and practiced collective security by flicking the flies off each other's noses in a mute and happy companionship independent of the labours of conversation. A woman from Balad stood waiting also, swathed in black with tattooed lips; she took proffered slices of the oranges we were eating and wrapped them carefully in her long sleeve for her sick child. She stooped to the stream to pick up the rind which we had carelessly cast away; it also she kept to take home, saying that "the scent is good." There is not much riches in Balad.
The shahtur came stranding downstream beside us, like a large punt. The sheep huddled out while our car clanked on; the donkeys, the woman, two peasants and ourselves settled round it; and the men of Balad, pulling from the prow, sang as they rowed.
"We poured out to our enemies death" (murr, they called it, bitterness).
"We poured out to our enemies death." The pull came with the final word.
The master of the shahtur gave a new verse:
"The Turkish bullet flies fast." With the sixth verse we neared the opposite bank. The waiting woolly mass of sheep rolled towards us; their shepherds made gurgling noises to ask them to wait till we landed: and in less than half an hour over the flat East-Tigris lands, we had Samarra and its golden dome in sight.
It is the most Arab and least Persian of the four Holy Cities, enclosed in walls in an arid belt of ruins that overhang on a low cliff the garden oasis of riverlands below. It is clean and friendly and, completely surrounded and much used by the nomads, has lost some of that misanthropic feeling towards the outer world characteristic of Iraqi towns, the result of many vicissitudes, mostly unpleasant.
Samarra had one brief period of splendour, of less than fifty years: eight caliphs built or beautified successive palaces; and the stuccos, unique and lovely, with which they wainscoted their rooms are now being gradually unearthed to adorn the new Arab museum in Baghdad.
There is no European in the town, but three Iraqi archaeologists were furthering the work of culture on their own with a zest and enthusiasm delightful to anyone except possibly the pedantically trained expert. We found them charming. What more fascinating game than to be given a city of ruins twenty-eight miles long to play about with and a little money to do it? They had unearthed the base of the cone-shaped tower and their men were crawling up like caterpillars in long lines, renovating the spiral staircase to the top. They had propped the outer walls of the great mosque beside it, and took us wandering through the latest of their palaces, with the stuccos still in position round the labyrinth of rooms. Here we paused, to discuss with the workmen where the next site should be, in a friendly vociferous manner which made one think of the arguments of Odysseus with his crew.
After some waving of shovels, the site was chosen; the assembled workmen performed a little dance for our benefit as we stood in the uncovered rooms below --- their picks and shovels raised and lowered like spears against the skyline --- they gave a last wave and wandered off to their new site and lunch while the water-boys picked up the heavy oozing yellow jars and followed. Our host, slight, ascetic and gentle, with grey hair waved back from his forehead and European clothes, led us back, expounding shyly, to where, over cups of tea, in a court with flowering pomegranate trees and low rooms built around it, his two companions took up the tale.
There was something pleasantly restful about this archaeology; no clash of theory, no horrid criticism of people whose only crime is that they think differently about things that happened ever so long ago; all one does in Samarra is just to go and dig and produce objects out of the ground. Sir Henry Layard would have felt at home here. So did we. One thing only troubled us.
Some time during the Middle Ages, the lower part of the spiral tower and great mosque provided bricks for the building of the wall of what was then new Samarra. People went and took what they could reach, eating away the foundations of their ancient monuments in the recognized Eastern way, till the upper structure threatened to topple on their heads; now, say the archeologists, the bricks are to be taken back to where they came from, and the wall of Samarra is being demolished to the consternation of its inhabitants.
The inhabitants are in a fix, since the Government of Iraq prides itself on a state of security which renders all walls superfluous; to say that a wall may come in useful later on, is like advising a rich uncle about his investments --- it suggests he may not live for ever. So the inhabitants of Samarra lament in private and say nothing. The bricks are quite ordinary bricks, made --- to our untutored eyes --- exactly like the bricks they make to-day; and Samarra without its walls will be a dingy-looking place; so that if this page ever happens to fall under the eye of someone with power to do so, I hope he will yet stretch out his hand to save the medieval wall of Samarra and allow the Abba-side structures to be restored with materials slightly less chronological.
For my own part, not being an archæologist, I like ruins merely as places to sit about and think in; and one can usually do that much better before anyone has begun scratching in the earth. A certain minimum is necessary, just as in religion --- something of a peg for the imagination to clothe; but when it comes to catalogues and labels, the charm is snapped.
And so, in the afternoon, we drove to the untouched northern end of Samarra and there, in the twilight of a dust storm, stood in the mosque court of Abu Dilaf, and saw its broken piers gather immensity, like a Stonehenge around us in the declining light. We had driven for miles along the undeviating straightness of the buried highway, with mounds of houses, straight shapeless ridges, on either hand, and streets running into it outlined also by low, almost obliterated mounds. So New York, ruined and rectilinear, may look in the fullness of time. This place was once loud with the brawls of Turkish Prætorians; caliph after caliph was murdered; intrigue and violence walked the streets perpetually: now, on the borders of its loneliness, blue-headed thistles stand like little crucifixes with arms outspread, in endless rows along the edges of the mounds. The drab disc of sun, round and small like a moon, scarce shone through the scudding dust. In the ruins of the great court two jays flltted with brilliant elusive wings, under the dust-coloured colonnade, against the dust-coloured sky, and reminded us that out of this drab material, Life itself, so vivid and various, may spring at any time.--- From Baghdad Sketches
Journeys Through Iraq
©2011 Tauris Parke Paperbacks