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Shooting Iraq — With a Camera

How has Iraq changed since 13th-century explorer Marco Polo's journey there?

December 14, 2002

How has Iraq changed since 13th-century explorer Marco Polo's journey there?

The route from the Persian Gulf to the extreme tip of Asia is, in a certain sense, more difficult today than in the 13th century. While Marco had only one empire to cross, we had many.

During Marco Polo's lifetime, that empire spanned 4,400 miles — from China's Pacific coast to the gates of the West in eastern Europe.

Today, that area is broken up into nations and people in conflict with one another. Along his way, Marco received various forms of green lights, easing his passage through Mongol territories.

Though we had equipment to get us over physical borders, political boundaries proved much tougher to cross. Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan all have closed or restricted borders.

Receiving permission to enter Iraq was our first hurdle. It was not an easy one. Direct relations between Iraq and the United States have practically ceased since the Gulf War, and journalists — especially U.S. journalists — are rarely welcomed.

We explained that the purpose of our trip was to research and photograph sites for our story on Marco Polo — and that we had no political agenda. The Iraqi ambassador must have been convinced, since we were issued a two-month visa, our own "paiza," as it was called in Marco's day.

Marco Polo's exact route through Iraq is not entirely clear. Nonetheless, he provides surprisingly accurate information on travel through the country.

He arrived in what is now Iraq with little idea of who the barbarous people inhabiting the land were, nor had he ever seen an oil well. But he became the first European to describe one — a natural well not far from Mount Ararat and the Caspian Sea in what is now Azerbaijan.

He said the oozing liquid is "not good to use with food but tis' good to burn." He was oblivious to the importance that this "black gold" was to have in the future.

He also spoke of the Kurds in what is now northern Iraq — calling them bandits who preyed on merchants and a warlike people who never parted with their weapons. Once again, Marco's 700-year-old descriptions sound completely modern.

Though they may no longer be "bandits," many Kurds, both men and women, go about their daily routines with AK 47s slung over their shoulders. This is regardless of whether they are grazing their animals or celebrating a wedding.

Though the Kurds of Marco's day may indeed have raided caravans, Iraqi Kurds today live in conditions that justify bearing arms. War is a fact of life for them.

I discovered that even stopping by the road for a picture can be dangerous, as one step off the asphalt onto the grass might mean setting off a mine. These hidden threats make such fertile land completely unusable.

Near Kurdistan lies Mosul, situated in the heart of ancient Mesopotamia on the Tigris River. As Marco describes it, it was a center of religion and commerce. The Venetian tells of large communities of Moslem Arabs, Nestorian Christians — and members of the Jacobite Church.

While Marco must have had relatively open access to these areas, armed with his paiza — we were constantly accompanied by official "minders." These erstwhile guides were supplied by the government.

On most assignments, a photographer works with a "fixer," a local who makes arrangements and reservations, obtains permissions and generally makes sure we have what we need to get the best possible pictures. A minder's goal is to make sure we get the stories or pictures that show a locale only in the ways the government wants to be seen.

One afternoon, I wanted to photograph from the top of Al Hadba minaret the great Nuraddin Mosque, which was built in the 13th century.

Marco had almost certainly seen it, but my implacable minder was determined not to let me photograph anything which — in his opinion — the government would not have authorized.

As I later found out, he was most worried that I might shoot a military installation, or one of Saddam Hussein's many palaces. He finally allowed me to climb to the top just to have a look. I charged ahead, quickly climbing up the narrow, twisted stairway that led to the top.

Half way up the tower, I suddenly realized that my guide was not behind me. It seems that he suffered from claustrophobia and was experiencing a severe case of it in the cramped stairwell below.

Without looking back, I climbed to the top and began shooting. I photographed the expanse of courtyards, low houses, porticoes and the occasional dome of the flat city of Mosul — a place virtually unchanged since the 13th century.

By the time my guide made his tortured way up to meet me, I had all the pictures I needed. As he caught his breath, I grinned and reported that I hadn't seen anything of interest and was ready to head back down.

Heading south, Marco describes Baghdad ("Baudas" to Marco) as the equivalent in the East to Rome in the West. He compares the Caliph, the title of the spiritual successor to Mohammed and the leader and spiritual guide of Moslems around the world, to the Pope.

As it was impossible to reach Baghdad without infringing on the no-fly zone imposed by the United Nations after the Gulf War to protect the Shiites and Kurds who had been slaughtered en masse by the Iraqis, we had to travel ten hours overland from Jordan.

That is where we crossed the same bare, monotonous desert wastelands that Marco had traveled through into the palm fringed "Fertile Crescent" of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Baghdad, a city of modern sand-colored buildings, is known as the city of mosques and is distinguished by domes, of which there are two principal types: those built to glorify Allah — and those used to mask the miseries of war with glory.

At dawn, the gold of the domes of Khadimain Mosque ignite, moving both the faithful and the visitor — with the elegance and natural balance of Islamic architecture.

By evening, the blue half domes of the Martyrs Shrine war memorial that commemorates the one million Iraqis who fell in the battle against Iran (from 1980 to 1988) cast an eerie glow across the city.

It is one of Baghdad's most popular sites. Almost everyone in the country knows someone who died in that war.

Everywhere in Baghdad the presence of Saddam Hussein is inescapable. Venerated like a Caliph of the past, his picture hangs in every office and public place.

And a mosaic portrait of one of Iraq's staunchest enemies, George Bush, with the words "Bush is Criminal" decorate the floor at the entrance of the Al Rashid Hotel, where many official foreign visitors and VIPs are housed.

It is impossible to enter or leave without walking on the face of Saddam's nemesis.

Hoping to get a picture of the mysterious and elusive Iraqi leader, we went to a birthday celebration for Saddam in his birthplace of Tikrit. A gigantic cake — iced in pink and green — floated like an island in the midst of a sea of TV crews, officials, and military personnel who thronged the square.

Though the guest of honor never showed, I tried to at least get a picture of the immense cake, but found myself being pushed further and further forward by the crowds until my stomach was squashed into the creamy mass.

In the end, the closest I came to Saddam Hussein was when I posed beside his smiling image on a propaganda poster.

Marco wrote of the many artifacts of the area that were prized for their quality especially the local carpets, so before leaving Iraq, I hoped to buy a souvenir for my daughter.

However, the embargo that has shattered the economy of Iraq makes it illegal to export items from the country. Even if I had been able to find a carpet to purchase, it would have been confiscated at Customs.

In the end, I found a small rug, printed not with tribal patterns or intricate designs, but Mickey Mouse. I figured a Disney character wouldn't raise too many eyebrows at U.S. Customs, though Saddam would probably not have been thrilled to know that my one memento of his country was such a prominent symbol of his arch-enemy.

Perhaps the reason the Iraqis were willing to have us stay for two months was their hope that we would report on the impoverished conditions there, helping to lift some of the world sanctions that have crippled the economy of Iraq.

Yet, despite the poverty, children still play under the loving eyes of their parents in the old streets of cities like Basra — even while their wonderful traditional houses that date back to Marco's time are falling into ruin around them.

There are few signs that the situation is likely to be reversed in the foreseeable future.

And our ever-present official government watchdogs notwithstanding, we found the Iraqis to be a friendly people who are happy to talk, people who do not even realize that they are seen as an enemy of the West.

But ironically, we discovered that most Iraqis had never heard of the man who first brought tales of the former glories of their culture back to the West 700 years ago.

Adapted from “Marco Polo: A Photographer’s Journey” by Michael Yamashita. Copyright 2002 by Michael Yamashita. Used by permission of White Star Publishers.