The Hamilton Road


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Rawanduz river gorge is an utterly breathtaking spectacle : credit: © Emily Garthwaite
A journey through time in Iraqi Kurdistan, in a new Defender

Few things make tent canvas feel thinner than the snuffling of a grey wolf metres from your head. I’d wager there’s no better alarm clock, either.

Moments later the howl began, setting off a primal cocktail of nerves and excitement, a familiar feeling these last few days driving through Iraqi Kurdistan.

Then, silence. The wolf gone as quickly as it came, the vacuum filled by a rushing mountain stream swollen with glacial meltwater. It runs from the snow-capped peaks above our campsite, deep in the Zagros mountains of north-eastern Iraq.

I poked my head cautiously into the pre-dawn darkness. My fellow travellers – British photographer Emily Garthwaite and Kurdish mountain-guide Laween Mohammed – were still sound asleep. Our new Defender, home for the last two days, glinted reassuringly in the moonlight.

Why Iraqi Kurdistan? Like any Landy lover I can’t resist a road trip. In 2019 I spent four months leading the 19,000km Last Overland expedition from Singapore to London, recreating the iconic 1955 First Overland Expedition.

Grounded by the pandemic since returning, I’d spent lockdown dreaming of my next adventure. Nothing piques my interest more than a road trip steeped in history, and it was an open invitation from my friend Emily Garthwaite – an award-winning photographer who’s made Iraqi Kurdistan her home – that sparked an impulse buy of A Road Through Kurdistan.

Published in 1937, it’s the account of a New Zealand engineer sent to the Kingdom of Iraq in 1927. Iraq was under a British mandate (a form of temporary control sanctioned by the League of Nations) following the Ottoman collapse after World War 1. While the British knew their time was limited, they planned to leave Iraq’s government and economy firmly stacked in its favour.

As part of that plan, Archibald Milne Hamilton – barely 30 – was sent to construct a road connecting northern Iraq to northern Iran to boost regional (and ideally British) trade. There was one problem: in the way stood the formidable mountains of Kurdistan.

One of the few unmodified sections of Hamilton’s original single-track road, carved by hand into the limestone cliff, the Rawanduz River below

Even by today’s standards this 100-mile stretch of road was an audacious feat. It would take Hamilton four years to complete and remains a vital trade artery to this day. To mark the road’s 90th anniversary, I boarded a flight to Erbil – the capital of the autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq – to see this remarkable road for myself.

Kurdistan – and the Kurds – don’t feature much in British media, and when they do it’s rarely good. You’ve likely heard of them as the victims of Saddam’s war crimes, as heroes in the fight against ISIS, or as tragic casualties of people trafficking across the Channel.

The Kurds are reportedly the largest ethnic group without a state (the Kurdistan region of Iraq, although autonomous, is still part of federal Iraq.) More than 30 million Kurds living in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey share a language, history and culture, and dream that one day a ‘Greater Kurdistan’ will exist. It’s a dream viewed with hostility and suspicion by Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey, all of them fearful of Kurdish secession, and as such life for the Kurds remains precarious.

It’s a story Mr. Ranajit Sengupta knows well. The genial Manager of Jaguar Land Rover Erbil, originally from Kolkata, has lived here since 2010. As we sipped the Kurdish staple of scalding, sugar-soaked tea in his glittering new car showroom, Ranajit confessed the posting is not for the faint-hearted. Between 2014 and 2017, ISIS forces looked set to march on Erbil at any moment, and it was in large part due to the bravery of Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria that ISIS was eventually crushed.

A times the road literally cuts through the mountains

But today Erbil is a boom town, capitalising on its stability in this otherwise fractious region. Sales of Land Rovers have rocketed too. “Size matters in Erbil,” chuckled Ranajit. “The V8 Range Rover has been the most popular, but the new Defender has everyone very excited.” For the journey I had planned, we both agreed there was no better choice.

Emily, Laween and I left Erbil before dawn, thrilled to be escaping the city’s eternal orchestra of construction. The bulk of the Defender proved its worth instantly on the crowded highway where indicators and lane markings are optional.

Almost 95 years earlier, Hamilton departed in a similar state: ‘It was a thrilling prospect from every point of view,’ he wrote. ‘The road would be a romantic one, for it would pass through mountains where road-building had never before been attempted by any of the past civilisations…’

Hamilton knew the absence of a road was not solely down to formidable terrain. It was, he had been warned, due ‘mainly to the intractable character of the inhabitants’. Throughout history the Kurds have fought to keep foreign powers out of their beloved mountains.

Prior to Hamilton’s arrival they had seen off the Turks and Russians, and as late as 1920 had rebelled against their new British masters, only relenting in the face of an RAF barrage. In between, they mostly fought each other. The young engineer knew his mission was not solely trade promotion: ‘…all great nations have found roads essential for maintaining law and order. Once highways have penetrated a region, the wildest people are pretty sure to become peaceful simply by copying civilised modes of life’.

Rush hour on the Hamilton Road hasn’t changed much over the decades

Imbued with a sense of imperial hubris, in early 1928 Hamilton embarked upon the greatest challenge of his career. Fifty miles from Erbil, the scale of the challenge Hamilton faced started to become apparent. Up ahead a formidable rock ridge rose sharply from the desert plain. Between the valley floor and the village of Spilk above are six hairpin bends climbing 200 metres.

It was at Spilk – ‘a lonely spot with an unsavoury reputation for robbery and murder’ – that Hamilton made camp and began recruiting his army of workers. Spilk was a microcosm of Britain’s empire at the peak of its pomp and scale. Joining the New Zealander would be sappers from India and Gurkha guards from Nepal. His overseer was an Assyrian Christian, his explosives expert an Armenian Jew, his surveyor a Hindu from Bengal. They readied cutting-edge machinery made in Britain and transported on an international network of ship and rail all under its control.

The hard labouring, as ever, would be done by more than 1000 locally recruited workers – Arabs from the south, Persians from the east, and Kurds from the mountains themselves. Even though during summer in Spilk it topped 40°C in the shade, Hamilton and his team worked seven days a week. Finding a rotation that satisfied the Muslims, Christians, Jews and Hindus on his staff  was a nightmare – to make things simpler they had no holiday.

Being from New Zealand, Hamilton was not your average stuffy imperialist. It’s clear he quickly grew close with his recruits. For the next four years he would be employer, doctor, policeman and pastor, spending night after night under canvas beside them. To complete their mission together they endured searing heat and bitter cold, withstood bouts of malaria and typhoid, and survived Kurdish blood-feuds and RAF bombing campaigns.

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As we drove deeper into the mountains, the full extent of their achievement dawned. The landscape is as beautiful as it is hostile. Above us mountain peaks obscured the sun, and far below the Rawanduz river – to which the road weaves parallel – frothed with menace. But Hamilton’s road, now widened and resurfaced many times , ploughs ever onwards, conquering valley after valley.

The crowning achievement was still to come at the 70-mile point: the crossing of the Rawanduz river gorge, ‘said to be the finest of its kind in Asia’. The gorge seemed impassable, but Hamilton and his team remained undaunted, designing a bridge that would inspire the Bailey model of WW2. As they lowered it cautiously into place: ‘…up from the depths of the canyon there arose the exultant roar of men’s voices that reached almost to the mountain tops. They knew that night… I must stand them a banquet. No light matter to feast 1000 men, but well worth it’.

Camping near Choman, the Zagros mountains and Iran behind

Today their road is busier than ever and their achievement is clearly not forgotten. Just last year a local committee erected a bust of Hamilton on the Rawanduz bridge. On it are Hamilton’s words: ‘Our number exceeded 1000 and despite speaking in multiple languages we established one road for the passer-by of peace’.

To really understand the road-builder’s life, we needed a night under canvas. Laween knew the perfect spot, but to reach it would mean crossing a 2000-metre mountain pass on a crumbling track – heaven for the Landy lover. Crowning the pass, the full array of the Zagros range unfolded beneath a cloudless sky. There’s a Kurdish phrase that says ‘A Kurd has no friends but the mountains’. As we parked on the roof of the world, I thought better friends would be hard to find.

We descended down the sunless side of the pass and the temperature plummeted. The season’s first rain loomed as we pitched our tents. As night fell we huddled close to the fire grilling delicious kebabs, and I raised a silent toast to Hamilton and his men out here night after night, year after year.

I had read his book, driven his road, slept under his stars, but 90 years on I couldn’t help but hope there might still be a living link to Hamilton. “People here rarely live beyond 75,” Laween cautioned, “but I’ll do my best.” Within the hour two possible centenarians were identified. Moments later one was reported dead, the other rushed into hospital that morning. Our hopes crashed, but Laween’s phone rang again: “The old man is back out of hospital – he’s very happy to talk.”

Haji Karim Ahmed Ibraham: sole surviving road worker

In the quiet back streets of Soran town we found an elderly Kurd reclining serenely on his left elbow, as if ready for a portrait, and Emily was quick to oblige. He was smartly dressed in the traditional Kurdish style – baggy trousers, a thick waistband and a simple jacket, topped with a woven black and white turban.

Haji Karim Ahmed Ibrahim had piercing eyes, enormous hands and a voice that was guttural, but strong. He could have passed for 80. When I asked him his age, he pondered: “98 or 99 – I can’t be sure, but I must be the last one alive who worked on that road!

“It was in the time of old King Faisal. I was seven when I began. Three years I moved rubble by hand with 40 other men from my village. We worked eight hours a day, seven days a week, breaking for winter. We earned one dirham a day – good money.

“I saw Hamilton only once. He was always further east towards Iran. He gave a speech to us all at Rawanduz – I’ll never forget it. A tall, young man in a pale suit. Mahandis, we called him – The Engineer.”

When I asked how he remembered Hamilton, his eyes gleamed. “He changed our lives. Before the road we only knew what was happening in our village; there were no towns, no cities. We never dreamed of going to Erbil, then suddenly we could – by car. Hamilton is still a hero for we Kurds.”

While the empire, Hamilton and all but one of his workers are gone, the ‘Rê Hamilton’ remains, and it’s as busy as ever. The road hasn’t brought the wider peace Hamilton had naively hoped, but it has played a part in forging a sense of common identity among the people he so deeply admired, and in time will – I hope – bring much-need tourism to their beautiful home.

As we drive back to Erbil, a journey that would once have taken three days by mule, Haji Karim’s parting words rang in my ears: “Perhaps the British built it for their own reasons, but for we Kurds, it connected us to each other, and to the world.”



Local traffic caught on camera

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