After a short night’s sleep in Karbala, we hit the road again, heading south towards the city of Najaf.
First stop Khan al-Nikhailah — a khan is a rest area created for travelers on the trade routes back in the Ottoman era — located along the route to Najaf. Weary travelers were able to stop here and rest up before heading into the desert. There are covered areas for sleeping and cooking, a water supply, and a large uncovered open space in the center. I imagine it must have incredibly lively and colorful when it was filled with all the caravans camped here. We were allowed to wander freely and even climb on top of the domed roof tops.
The town of Al Kifl holds a historical shrine for both Jews and Muslims alike at the Al-Nukhailah Mosque complex — the tomb believed to be that of prophet Ezekiel. At some point in history, Jews began to make the pilgrimage here, while Muslims passed through on their pilgrimage from Najaf to Karbala. There was a large Jewish population here until the Palestinian exodus from their homeland in 1948. The Iraqi government retaliated against the local Jewish population which created another exodus, this one with Jews fleeing to Israel. Ok… enough history!
In order to enter the Jewish shrine, we first had to enter the mosque, which meant that the women in our group had to wear an abaya. However, we left those on the bus as our guides thought we would be allowed in with just our heads covered. Nope. Rent-a-burqa to the rescue. Except I was the last in line, and no more abayas to be loaned. Our female security guard indicated I could wear her long black SWEATER… it is 115 degrees out there now and I am not donning a sweater, sorry and no thank you. So she graciously takes off her own black abaya and places it on me. I am instantly touched by her kindness, though soon after slightly aware of a fragrant odor emanating from the cloak… oh, and honestly the heavy thing is probably as warm as the sweater. Nothing to be done about that but grin and bear it if I want to see the shrine, so grin I did.
The inner sanctum is small and ancient, and one can visibly feel the age and history of the place. How many have passed through here since it’s early beginnings? Just amazing.
We entered and exited the mosque via a dark and rather dismal bazaar of shops, including one with US military gear for sale — oh did some of us have fun with that one. The locals were all extremely friendly. One tea vendor that some of us visited insisted that we not pay him as it was a gift from him to us, touching his heart to indicate this kind gesture came from the heart.
Our next stop was a fig and apple farm right on the Euphrates River. The farmers kindly provided us with afternoon tea under a canopy of grape vines right alongside the water. Soooo peaceful and lovely.
GREAT MOSQUE OF KUFA
Another important shrine in Iraq, and one of the earliest and holiest mosques in the world — from the 7th century. There is a legend saying that is was built upon a site where there was a temple built by Adam (of Garden of Eden fame.) Another story says this is the site where Noah built his ark, and that the remain’s of Adam were buried here. Some believe this is the mosque referred by the angel Gabriel when he declared, “Twelve miles of lands from all directions of the mosque are blessed by its holiness.” Lots of stories!
The men in the group entered the mosque close to where the bus let us out. However, it was roughly the equivalent of two city blocks to access the women’s security entrance in near 120 degree Fahrenheit … we were less than thrilled about that. By the time we ladies had finally entered, the guys were calling us to see if we were finished seeing everything as they were ready to move on. Hmm…
Beautiful mosque, though. Peaceful, too. I was not allowed to take photographs inside on the women’s side… a different story on the men’s side as well. Sigh…
We head to the city of Najaf for the rest of the day. Our hotel tonight is ZamZam and it fairs slightly better than our previous night’s stay which now seems like a gazillion years ago considering all we have seen and done since departing early this morning. We are invited to view a private museum with archeological and historical documents next door.
Evenings festivities are optional — some tour Iman Ali mosque. Some of us are a wee bit shrined out, so we head to the hotel cafe to watch a football game — the cafe was not airing it so we crowded around a young man’s phone. After the game, he was very interested to know why we would come to Iraq. He could not wrap his mind around it… said he would never visit Iraq if he lived elsewhere. We then headed to the night market — I had no idea that I would need my abbaya, luckily they had a “rent-a-burka”. I made it through 4 checkpoints before one guard noticed my naked feet. I was required to purchase stockings to wear with my flip flops, a lovely look. I truly felt like a second class citizen. The night market, however, was fun and festive.
Before heading out of town the next morning, we visited the cemetery in Najaf, considered the largest in the world at over 5 million graves. It was quite a sight to behold.