By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Iraqi Kurdistan: More Surprises (Part 3)

with 5 comments

Many of us learned in school that Mesopotamia’s Tigris-Euphrates Valley cradled the world’s earliest civilization. Unending waves of conquest would sweep over this well-watered land, obliterating much —  but not all — of its history. Recent violence in northern Iraq spotlights once-isolated ethnic groups, such as the Yazidis and the Chaldean Christians; Aramaic-speaking villagers as well as remote members of the Muslim Kadri sect. Some of these far-flung peoples and languages date back thousands of years.

And, archeologists have long suspected there were important artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia still awaiting discovery in caves in Kurdistan. I learned this after a journalistic trek on foot and by donkey through the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan “recently” — only fifty years ago.

Welcomed by the, as yet, little-known Kurdish peshmerga guerrilla fighters, I was doing a photo story on their long-running struggle for autonomy within Iraq and Turkey. At one point my hosts showed me broken, thick stone rock carvings a local sheik had had dragged out of a cave. Evidently he wanted to sell them to me, but I was not in that business. It would have taken an expedition to move them. I took pictures of them, with their hieroglyphic writing. The next year, in London, I showed the photographs to the British Museum. The experts became quite interested, and wanted lots of details, including the exact location, which I was unable to provide other than “oh, we just happen to stop there for tea last June on the march from point A to point B, somewhere north of Sulaimaniya.” Nonetheless the British Museum reproduced my pictures in a scholarly publication.

Given the destruction of the once wonderful Baghdad Museum occasioned by the Bush-era invasion, I sometimes wonder if that stele, and others (?) like it, are not safer staying in their caves. During Saddam Hussein’s ruthless bombings and gassings of isolated ethnic villages — as under the current Isis marauders — some of these thousand-year survivors have themselves reverted to living in caves. Again, I photographed one group all too briefly before hurrying on to rejoin the peshmergas’ march. I always wanted to go back and explore these other ethnicities of Kurdistan, but that was not to be. This year, 2014, the Kurds invited me to fly into Erbil, now a modern city built on oil revenues. We would have loved to, but pushing 80, I hesitated — luckily, just before a new wave of gunmen surrounded the city.


Iraqi Kurdistan 1965 photographs © William Carter


Member of the Muslim Kadri sect celebrates spring ritual near the Iraq-Iran border


Members of Muslim Kadri sect celebrate spring ritual near the Iraq-Iran border


Christians sheltering in a cave from aerial bombing — Iraqi Kurdistan


Christians sheltering in a cave from aerial bombing — Iraqi Kurdistan


Mesopotamian stone carving hidden in cave, Iraqi Kurdistan


Mesopotamian stone carving hidden in cave, Iraqi Kurdistan


Hieroglyphics on stone in cave, Iraqi Kurdistan

Copyright statement: William Carter papers, © Stanford University Libraries. Click here for a detailed usage guide.


Written by bywilliamcarter

September 19, 2014 at 1:16 am

5 Responses

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  1. thank you so much for ewery think


    a son of kurds

    December 26, 2016 at 6:36 am

  2. Truly fascinating! You are never too old to discover, all this will pass and you should take the invitation to expand this amazing story you started so many years ago!
    My best,



    September 21, 2014 at 3:17 pm

  3. Most grateful for your works of art. I have know Kurdistan and places near and am reawakened by your work. Jane


    Jane Miller Chai

    September 21, 2014 at 2:47 am

  4. Fascinating. Fifty years ago I was the USConsul in Tabriz, next door. A Scottish-Australian historian, John Bowman, stayed with me for a while. He was looking for Nestorian relics in caves near Maragheh, south of Tabriz, and as I recall he found some. This would have been in the earliest days of Islam when the Nestorians, or some anyway, became refugees. He wrote it up in some scientific journal.

    As the son of an anthropologist I shall always be interested in stories like yours, and concerned that modern yahoos not further destroy the few remaining traces of ancient peoples that once inhabited the region.

    Carleton S. Coon, Jr.


    carlcoonCarl Coon

    September 19, 2014 at 8:52 pm

  5. We wish you were younger ans stronger too, so you could return to bring us many more fine pictures of the people, the region ad its history! Betsy



    September 19, 2014 at 1:30 am

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