The Hamilton Road stretches 185 kilometers from Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, across the imposing Zagros Mountains, to the town of Haji Omeran on the Iraqi-Kurdistan-Iran border. The road is not only considered one of western Asia’s most spectacular routes, but it is one of its most audacious feats of engineering. Something to save for your bucket list perhaps, but not such a good idea right at this moment, given the region’s political situation.
Built between 1928 and 1932, the Road was named after lead engineer A.M. Hamilton, a New Zealander working for the British, when they took control of Iraq following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One. The road was part of a grander plan to form a British-controlled trade route linking the Persian Gulf with the Caspian Sea, and it was built across largely unmapped terrain in the face of extreme weather, widespread pestilence and tribal conflict.
An article I read describes a journey taken down The Hamilton Road with a local guide called Omer Hussein; that description follows:
“Many Kurds still consider Hamilton and his workers as heroes for what they achieved,” said Omer. He advised that there are conditions for a successful trip.
“Every journey should begin with a cup of tea, but it should be drunk the Kurdish way: Sip the unsweetened liquid through a sugar cube held between the teeth.”
“What used to take forever on a mule can now be done in a leisurely two days on smooth tarmac,” he added. “The Hamilton Road takes you into the most beautiful parts of Kurdistan in the process.”
Once we cleared the suburb’s of Erbil, we passed by glittering new mega-malls, and mosques, until we came upon a much older construction, 27 kilometers away, near the village of Banaman.
Khanzad Castle, is the former residence of Khanzad, the so-called “Kurdish Warrior Queen”, who ruled over parts of the region in the 16th Century.
Hamilton also recalled Khanzad Castle in his memoir, “Road Through Kurdistan”, in which he described the rough track of road near the fortification that he was tasked with upgrading as “an endless zigzag… with an unfinished surface of sharp rocks”.
“That was a comparatively easy job for Hamilton,” said Hussein. “Far more difficult and dangerous terrain lay ahead: places with no tracks at all, places where few people had ever set foot.”
We continued north-east for 40km to Shaqlawa, the site of one of Hamilton’s earliest road-building camps. Back then, Shaqlawa was just a tiny village; today it’s one of the largest cites on the Hamilton Road, home to 25,000 people and renowned for its honey.
Hamilton met his first major engineering obstacle 32km north of Shaqlawa: a 198m-high ridge rising from the desert plains to the village of Spilk, which he described as “a lonely spot with an unsavoury reputation for robbery and murder”. To build a road up through the “great boulders higher than a standing man”, he assembled an eclectic army of Kurdish, Arabic and Persian workers for the hard labour, while the project overseer was an Assyrian Christian, the surveyor a Bengali Hindu and the explosives expert an Armenian Jew. With so many religious beliefs to accommodate, Hamilton proposed that as a compromise, nobody should have a holy day of rest, and so they toiled seven days a week, enduring temperatures of 40C, poisonous snakes and outbreaks of malaria.
We crested the ridge at Spilk, where the road narrowed from four lanes to two. Hamilton described the path ahead as a “50-mile maze of gorges and canyons”, but he relished the scale of this particular challenge, setting up camp near the waterfalls of Gali Ali Bag where he would remain for two years. Following ibex and goat tracks, he began mapping out the shortest possible route through the canyon lands, and ordered specialist equipment from England, including jackhammers, air-compressors, steam rollers and steel bridge parts that were shipped by boat, train and truck thousands of miles to Shaqlawa, before a caravan of camels carried them up to his mountain base.
Hamilton and his 1,000 workers then laboured day and night, toiling under the light of hurricane lamps after dark, when the roar of snow leopards could be heard on the mountaintops. Over many months, they drilled and blasted their way through the ravines in searing heat and bitter cold as they endured attacks of dysentery and “plagues of locusts flying in clouds so dense they darkened the sun”. Eventually, they cleared a way through the rock labyrinth with a smooth ribbon of bitumen and five new river bridges.
We stopped for the night at the foot of Mount Halgurd, in Hussein’s hometown of Choman, where we dined on the much-loved Iraqi national dish of masgouf: roasted, spatchcocked carp. We shared the earthy, muddy-flavoured fish with his friend Sadik Dealzi, a sociologist, who told us he saw two principal side effects of the Hamilton Road for the Kurds. The first was that schools were built in a region with high illiteracy rates, which led to the education of male and female doctors, lawyers and engineers – something unheard of at the time. Secondly, it linked the scattered mountain communities, giving them a sense of common identity and a desire to preserve their traditions and beliefs.
The next morning, after a traditional breakfast of flatbread, sheep’s yoghurt and honey, we set out again. As the road climbed, the landscapes softened into broad, gently sloping valleys. For Hamilton, construction of this final serpentine stretch of the Hamilton Road was a breeze: “What was left to do, we could take in our stride,” he wrote.
“Even though the road has brought the farmers new markets for their mutton and tail fat (popular amongst mountain Kurds as cooking oil), in many ways, their lives are just as hard as they were centuries ago,” said Hussein. “Brown bears and wolves kill the sheep, and eagles steal the young lambs.”
We finally pulled into Haji Omeran, a scruffy, scrappy kind of town with a frontier feel. By the time his job was complete, Hamilton had fallen in love with Kurdistan – so much so that he was too emotional to bid his team farewell. Instead, he described his final glimpse his heroic efforts as “wilderness of snow-bound peaks, barren as the mountains of the moon”, adding “the picture of it all will live forever in my memory”.
A definite bucket list journey for the adventurist. Currently, a dangerous expedition into a war zone as the President of Turkey conducts an attempted extermination of the Kurds, and Kurdistan. May he soon be un-elected, or deposed.