x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Ancient Kurdistan meets modernity

The Life: Behind Kurdistan's gorgeous countryside is fraught political history.

Erbil is locked in a dispute with the Iraqi government over borders and oil. Lee Hoagland / The National
Erbil is locked in a dispute with the Iraqi government over borders and oil. Lee Hoagland / The National

The chapel - a damp cave carved into the rock on the riverside - welcomed worshippers from both sides of the water for 1,300 years. Catholic families gathered for Mass every Sunday and afterwards in each others' homes, just a short walk from the church or across the shallow waterway.

But some 25 years ago, modern politics sliced the parish in two along the river's path.

"It's a political issue, you see. They are Syria and we are Iraq," says Yousif Gebow, the priest in Fishkabour, a village in the northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan.

Today, residents of Fishkabour, Iraq, communicate with their relatives in Khanik, Syria, only by telephone.

Kurdistan - the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq - is an amalgamation of identities and allegiances that sometimes come into conflict.

Turkey and Iran have built up billions of dollars of trade with resource-rich Kurdistan, even as Kurdish rebels skirmish with the Turkish and Iranian militaries.

The Kurdish capital of Erbil is locked in a dispute with the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad over borders and oil. Resources including minerals and fertile land are drawing investors to the region from Norway, France and the UAE and creating more reasons to venture into the stunning countryside and small villages outside the capital.

The development can be seen during the three-hour drive from Erbil to Fishkabour. Rolling green hills are dotted by oil rigs. A small town hosts a Chinese art centre. The rare stretches of newly smoothed asphalt were provided by foreign companies seeking goodwill. The drive will inevitably involve a local tea house - a welcome chance to sip sugary black tea from small cups.

In Fishkabour, visitors are fewer, and all the more welcome to Father Gebow.

Some 200 families still gather here on Sundays.

Their numbers are too large for the ancient cave chapel, so they worship at a pristine white church just above. It was built in 1861, but locals who view history over a 1,300-year trajectory still call it new.

The Quote: "In a flat country a hillock thinks itself a mountain." Kurdish proverb


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