A journey down the Tigris

Fifty years ago, wooden rafts called keleks regularly plied the Tigris River, carrying people, livestock, and cargo – with loads up to 35 tons – from southern Turkey to northern Iraq. Built from logs lashed together and made buoyant by inflated goat skins, a fully loaded kelek could travel the 250-mile distance from Diyarbakır, Turkey, to Mosul, Iraq, in just six days.

Today, the rafts' long, heavy wooden oars push slowly through the brown, flat waters of the Tigris as they traverse northern Iraq. Sometimes their bottoms scrape the riverbed, the water levels low enough on a late September day for a tall man to stand waist-deep in the middle of the river. It takes a full day of hard effort to row eight miles.

Nice spot for note-taking.
Photo by Anna Bachmann.
When a last-minute invitation arrived last month to join the environmental group Nature Iraq as they paddled, floated, rowed, and (sometimes) towed a trio of traditional boats down the Tigris River from Hasankeyf to the marshes of southern Iraq, it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

Rowing the kelek.
Photo by Anna Bachmann.
My stint with their Tigris River Flotilla in northern Iraq included both gritty gravel mines and glorious natural vistas, a night excursion to a Turkish-built amusement park in Duhok, a long night spent trying to cross the border, lunch with a cliff-dwelling hermit, camping (and posing for pictures) with the peshmerga, and some seriously sore muscles -- plenty of fodder for numerous stories. My first dispatch from the trip was published last week by the Christian Science Monitor, marking my debut with that publication.

Read the rest of my article, "Dammed, dirty, drained by war: can Iraq's Tigris River be restored?" on the Monitor website.