We have a running joke of our adventures that has become a truism; you don’t know how to get somewhere in Kurdistan unless you’ve been there already. Maps are nonexistent, signs are a novelty, and locals’ directions are inconsistent.
When I’m riding around by myself I enjoy the ambiguity of the moments en route to places. I know where I want to go, and where I am relative to most other places I’ve been, but generally have no idea exactly where I am at any given moment. Simply how it works out here.
I sometimes tell people I’m building a near-encyclopedic understanding of these roads. There’s some truth to that, but there’s also the understanding that what I know is as fluid, changing, (and often as inconsistent) as the directions I receive along the way.
When I’m with other people it’s not quite as enjoyable because I’m aware of the collective trust people have in what I know (or often don’t) about the roads in Kurdistan, and that as the oft-designated navigator in a signless land going to places I haven’t yet been, there are bound to be a few unplanned detours.
Such was our trip to Khanis a few days ago, one of the few partially-intact ruins of the impressive Assyrian Empire. Although Google Maps placed Khanis correctly, there are little means of making sure you’re going the right way in transit.
I could of course pull open Google Earth and methodically plot and measure each road to know the exact distance and location of a road change to make for a smooth and foolproof drive, but doing so does take out the thrill of momentary disorientation. The thrill of short-term disorientation being the positive flip side to the frustration of poor directions and signage.
Khanis sits at the mouth of the narrow Gomel Gorge, one of dozens, if not hundreds of small gorges in Kurdistan that drain the southern edge of the Zagros Mountains onto the plains and desert of northern Iraq.
The remains of Khanis date back to about the 8th century BCE, during the reign of King Sennacherib of the Assyrian Empire. At around 700 BCE the Neo-Assyrian Empire was near it’s zenith, stretching from the Mediterranean coast south to Upper Egypt, north to the Anatolian plateau, and east to the fringes of the Zagros Mountains and Iranian plateau.
Khanis’ primary purpose seems to have been the harnessing of water’s volatile energy to serve the important cities to the south on the Tigris River plain. Most notably the Assyrian Capitol, Nineveh (which lies within modern-day Mosul, and by extension, Da’esh control).
Only a wide stone wall remains of the channel that once carried fresh water from deep within the Gomel Gorge.
Inscriptions still remain on the gorge walls, though often too eroded to interpret.
Probably the most remarkable sight within Khanis is a large piece of rock sitting on the edge of the riverbed. The rock contains a winged Lamassu, (a protective deity of Assyria) and although it is in a state of deep decay, it is still visible in a characteristically proud stance.
And as always, the ride back was beautiful.