Our morning started at our new home for the next two days, Baghdad Hotel, a high-rise hotel with a pool, restaurant and bar, situated next to the Tigris River in the Green Zone… our best hotel yet. Not-so-fun-fact: there was a car bombing attack outside the hotel in October of 2003, though concrete barriers absorbed much of the blast.
Our bus took us north of Baghdad to see the ancient sights in Samarra, with a stop along the way at a massive ziggurat called Dur-Kurigalzu, built in the 14th century… BC! Yes, BC. There were ruins from a palace here as well as the giant ziggurat which was a temple dedicated to the worship of the Mesopotamian gods.
This amazing site feels rather abandoned — apparently at one point there was a museum, gift shop, and restaurant — it was heavily looted after the death of Saddam Hussein and nothing much has been done since for restoration purposes.
The police collected and kept all of our passports at the final checkpoint before entering Samarra, a Sunni-majority populated city governed by Shia militia. In other words, this area was more dangerous than any of our previous excursions in Iraq. In fact, on the Wikitravel website, there is this warning: Samarra remains extremely dangerous and is emphatically NOT safe for tourists. Those who are going there on business are strongly advised to consult their own government first, and have an armed guard with them. Having said this, the sites here are absolutely amazing and worth the risk if one is comfortable doing so.
Grand Mosque of Samarra
First stop, the Minaret at the Grand Mosque of Samarra, built in the 9th century. Looks like a wedding cake, doesn’t it? It is possible to walk up the spiral ramp on the exterior, and several in our group climbed up. Between the heat and the wind there, I stuck to the shade and a view instead.
Our next stop was dar al-Khalifa, or Palace of the Caliph, near the city of Samarra. It was built in 836 AD. and is thought to only have been occupied for 50 years. There were three excavated buildings we were able to visit here: the Public Gate, where public executions were probably held; The Public Palace, where the Caliph held court; and a smaller building which is thought initially to have been the private residence for the Caliph but later converted into a prison.
German archeologist Ernst Herzfeld worked on excavations in Samarra in the early 1900s, both at the Grand Mosque and the Khalifa palace — the Metropolitan Museum archives note from his finds: It is perhaps the largest complex ever built in the Islamic world. Its buildings and gardens encompassed approximately 125 hectares. It included the caliph’s private residence, called al-Jawsaq al-Khaqani, and a public palace and sporting grounds. The Dar al-Khalifa was built around interior courtyards, had canals and fountains to temper the heat, river views and esplanades, sophisticated latrines, piped water, bath houses, stables, and cellars.
The Public Palace had an ethereal feel to it, partly because to enter, one has to descend a long, steep, and dark stairway; the ruins are actually 14 meters below the ground. The walls are elaborately carved stone down below — these are not original but from Saddam Hussein’s restoration efforts — and after making your way towards the light, you find yourself in a large open circular courtyard, almost like a Roman colosseum. One theory for this space was that it held water and served as a respite from the heat, perhaps even dolphins swam in it.
I explored the rooms on my own, just loving the way the light looked coming through the arched doorways. There was so much to explore and such beauty between the ruins and the light there. In one area, I encountered bats flying in and out of the rooms. It may sound rather appalling, but seeing the bats fluttering through the darkness with the occasional dust-particled beams of sunlight streaming through felt completely magical — you can watch them in the video from my visit, though it hardly captures the moment or enchantment.
The prison building felt less magical, more creepy, to me. And there were strange unidentified black smudges on almost every wall… eww… I couldn’t get out of this place fast enough.
After exiting the prison, one of our guides seemed nervous for our group to get moving and get out of militia-controlled Samarra. Two members of our group were anxious to see a shrine in the city so the rest of us waited in the bus alongside a road while they did that. This was the only time I felt nervous for our entire time in Iraq. All was fine, though. We exited Samarra, received our passports and headed back to Baghdad.
Dinner was at a very popular rotisserie chicken restaurant within walking distance of our hotel. Soooooo delicious. Afterwards, most of us gathered around a table by the pool.
Our group now feels like family, and actually we still regularly chat via a group text, even 6 months later.