In The Mind of the Traveler: From Gilgamesh to Global Tourism Eric J. Leed speaks of the absence of much writing that focuses on being in passage. Rather, he suggests, travellers tend to write about being in a place or about their departures and their arrivals. On balance I think he might be right but twice in my life I’ve been challenged to write about being in passage. Both times it’s been from the air and while traversing two entirely different places, Antarctica and Iraq. Both were linked by the overarching reality that surface travel in such places was out of the question for me in the near future.
In the case of Antarctica, a friend had bought two days trips to Antarctica, a joy flight to the end of the earth. His daughter decided it was silly or beneath her, so he invited me. What an extraordinary flight. Opportunities for photography were limited as window seats had to be shared, but the sheer visual power of the event still enriches my sense of the seventh continent, its vastness, aridity and the immense challenge of surface travel being the most enduring memories. If I can find what I wrote at the time I’ll most certainly post it.
Now I’ve been prompted to write again this time about my most recent passage, flying from Dubai to Glasgow in daylight hours. The most direct route is over Kuwait, Iraq and Turkey and flying at about 10600 metres visibility improves as the dusty atmosphere of the Arabian Peninsula recedes. Closely following the Tigris River , where Gilgamesh had almost certainly been in times past, the signs of the recent tragic and unnecessary war were blurred but the sinuous course of the Tigris was most evident, so too was its vital importance to this land. Almost all signs of settlement clung to its meandering course.
Many say that wars in the Middle East are about oil, particularly in the era of Peak Oil. Certainly there is much truth in these observations since oil is a globally important resource at present, but there are alternatives to oil, global users aren’t locked into oil based solutions to energy problems, it just happens to be convenient at the moment. Two other resources, to me seem more fundamental to human survival and thes are grains and water.
Mesopotamia, over which I now flew, was an ancient garden offering both grain and water in abundance and to this day they remain inescapably important highlighting another basic reality in this region, that of riparian politics. Often neglected it is a key to understanding the geopolitics of the wider Middle Eastern region and beyond, examining issue, or cluster of issues, can shed fresh light on relations between Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia; Syria and Israel; and in this instance, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and the aspirant state of Kurdistan. Looking down on the Tigris, I was reminded of htis and of the extreme aridity of Arabia and Iraq in particular.
The green band of the Tigris was sometimes beneath before its serpentine swings saw it leave our more formal course arcing off into the desert before winding back beneath us to revealing fields and settlements. Few signs of Babylon remain from this altitude but that riparian construct, Mesopotamia, so persistently absorbed me, water and grain, the basis of its wealth and cultural importance.
Historically the flows in the Tigris and Euphrates available to that ancient entity were far greater than they are now. Some suggest that flows in the Euphrates at Baghdad are now a mere 20% the natural flows throughout much of the 20th century.
The question is why, the answer is obvious. Just to the north west of the predominantly Kurdish city of Mosul in northern Iraq, not far from the Turkish border and within the area, unofficially known as Kurdistan, lies the Mosul Dam, formerly the Saddam Dam.
The largest dam in Iraq it holds back 12 billion cubic metres of water and creates hydroelectric power for the 1.7 million residents of Mosul.
In a very short while the flight passed over a series distinct rises in the landscape, the sorts of topographic elements that signal traditional borders between countries. Now what lay below was Turkey. Both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers rise in Turkey. Here in the south eastern parts of Turkey the land is rugged, elevated is deeply dissected by at network of rivers feeding snow melt into the Euphrates and Tigris. Dams of various sizes became more common and my thoughts turned to the Gap Project. From this elevation its significance was most apparent. Visible was a distinct hierarchy of dams from the local and small scale to the vast dams of the Gap Project.
Turkey is building a large network of dams in the deeply incised snow melt fed tributaries of the Eurprates and Tigris. These southern and eastern parts of Turkey, once somewhat neglected by the Turks and home to Armenians in the north and Kurds in the south, has become ecnoomically significant given its immense potential as a source of irrigation water and hydroelectric power.
Turkey’s GAP Project plans the construction of 22 dams and 19 Hydroelectric Power Plants (HEPP) on the upper reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. There is also a plan to divert water through a tunnel to an area known as the Harran field, and open up 1.7 million hectares of land to irrigation.
Tensions between Turkey and its southern neighbours are understandably high on this issue. Kurdish demands for an independent homeland also have greater meaning when considered with rapiarian issues in mind.