Babylon, Ur, the Tigris and the Euphrates. They’re names out of childhood religious studies lessons, and Michael Palin got to see them all! As well as Kurdish New Year celebrations, Islamic holy sites, oilfields, marshes, salt flats, and so much more. This was brilliant.
I was expecting ancient ruins, war damage, historic souks and the Rivers of Babylon from the start. Instead, the first episode was all about Kurdistan. Well, that’s the least that the Kurds deserve after the way the West let them down after the war of 1990. The programme actually started in Turkey, with the very delicate subject of Kurdish rights there and an emphasis of how limited they are, before moving into Iraqi Kurdistan where everything was far more positive. We were shown signs of how wealthy a minority there are now, and, although it *is* a minority, even less well-off people seemed very positive about life for Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan. We also got to enjoy the incredible Kurdish New Year celebrations.
The second episode included a lot of different aspects of this very complex country. We saw Michael visit some of Iraq’s oilfields, and hear about how oil was discovered in the country during the period of British rule in the 1920s, then have to wait at military checkpoints as operations were being carried out against ISIS. He visited the 9th century Great Mosque of Samarra, before going on to Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, and hearing about a horrific massacre carried out by ISIS. Then on to fascinating Baghdad. He also noted that very few women were out in public, and that women weren’t even allowed to sit in certain areas of restaurants, or any areas at all unless accompanied by a husband or fiance, and spoke to a young woman about the problems that that presents.
The final episode saw him visit Babylon. How amazing to be able to visit one of the most famous ancient cities in the world. Unfortunately, little of what he saw was actually ancient: Saddam Hussein reconstructed it in the 1980s! Oh well. Then on to the Shia holy city of Karbala, which was incredible. He also visited a school, where a classful of quite young children spoke perfect English. Then on to Nasariyah, from where he visited the Great Zigurrat of Ur. Yes, Ur, the Sumerian city from which Abraham is supposed to have set off. Bizarrely, there was no-one else there, whereas Karbala had been heaving. And then by boat to see the marshes, now thankfully recovered from the damage done by Saddam Hussein, but sadly threatened by rising temperatures. And then on to the coast, where he saw the salt pans and also the ambitious construction of a vast new port. It really was very interesting and at times awe-inspiring. It was just such a shame that the ruins of ancient Babylon had disappeared under walls put up in the 1980s!
Michael Palin’s a very engaging presenter, and there are so many different facets to Iraq. Very, very interesting series.