The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

space aliens in red squareWhile in Moscow, I discovered that the space aliens who landed at Chelyabinsk have now set up camp in Red Square. A giant shimmering force field covers Lenin’s Mausoleum. Of course the authorities claim it’s a bubble tent to shelter repair work on the mausoleum, but this is Russia and who believes the authorities?

More seriously, I am curious whether we will see any noticeable changes when the repairs are unveiled.

Update 15th May 2013: The Lenin Mausoleum Reopens with no visible changes.

Titan Missile Museum

IMG_0059You enter the silo control room and take the command chair.   Bob enters the launch codes and takes the deputy commander chair.  The green “Ready to Launch” light comes on.  “One – Two – Three” and you both simultaneously turn your launch keys.  The “Launch Enable” light comes on.  The ICBM launch is now irrevocable and unstoppable.


IMG_0057Yes, it’s only a museum.  The silo has been decommissioned and the ICBM is only a training dummy.  But it’s still an amazingly spooky experience to be in a real Cold War ICBM silo going through the launch initiation sequence and turning the real launch control key.  Exactly as many crews were trained to do, but never executed.

This is the Titan Missile Museum, 30 miles South of Tucson.  It served as an active Titan II ICBM silo from 1963 to 1982 and then became a museum.   They run one hour guided tours every hour, taking you through the crew quarters, and into the control room for the simulated launch.    You also get to see the decommissioned Titan II sitting brooding in its launch shaft.

IMG_0097The silo is an impressive piece of engineering.  The whole complex is heavily blast resistant, with massive blast doors and lots of thick concrete.  There were also unexpected features, like flex joints in a concrete tunnel to allow movement during a blast, and giant springs in the command area to buffer shocks.  In order to execute a launch, the  crew needed to receive the launch codes from remote headquarters, so the silo has multiple layers of backup communications.  Two backup radio antennas rest protected in their own little mini-silos, ready to be pushed above ground if the main antenna is taken out.

Tour groups can be up to 25 people, but there were only 3 in our group.  If you want to be the lucky visitor to operate the launch controls, try to be at the front of your group when you get into the command room.

I found it a very striking experience.  Don’t miss it if you’re in Tucson.


Baghdad: National Museum

Some sections of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad are now open. (More PHOTOS.)

Lamassu and Nabu, God of Wisdom and Writing

Nabu, God of Wisdom and Writing, plus Lamassu

The star exhibit is a stunning collection of Assyrian works from Khorsabad, including two enormous larger-than-life carved scenes of courtiers bringing gifts to the King, two giant guardian Lamassu, a large statue of Nabu the god of Wisdom and Writing, and much more.



Mini Lamassu

Mini Lamassu

Lamassu are Assyrian winged bull or lion guardian figures, with Kingly human heads, typically positioned to guard gateways. The gods have wisely provisioned them with five legs, so that they appear stable when viewed from either the front or the side. I was greatly struck the first time I saw the ones in the British Museum. I’ve now seen others in Paris, Chicago, New York and Persepolis, so it was great to finally see some in their home land of Iraq. The Khorsabad hall has both the two giants and a mid-sized pair. An earlier Assyrian room has a very unusual pair of miniature Lamassu, each only about three feet high. The right-hand one in particular is very well preserved and a delight to see.

There is much more in the museum: I was led through halls of statues from 1st-3rc c. Hatra; of assorted Islamic coins, artifacts, and decorations, of small scale Assyrian pieces (some of very high quality) and a few older Sumerian pieces. I was allowed to briefly poke my nose into a room still under renovation where Assyrian ivories and other high-value items are being prepared for display.

Courtiers Greet the King

Courtiers Greet the King

Unfortunately the Museum isn’t yet generally open. My guide (Basim from Babel Tours) takes in small groups fairly regularly and was able to get us admitted. We had the place to ourselves! I hope the various renovations complete soon and the Museum becomes fully operational.

(More Tour Notes on Iraq.)

Ancient Babylon Rebuilt!

At first glance the Babylon site is a strange Disneyland vision of what Babylon ought to look like, with impossibly pristine new brickwork and fanciful towers and ramparts.  Just as though some Wizard has cast a magical “rebuild” spell.  But much of this fanciful reconstruction is built on original foundations.  Our site guide pointed at various pieces of the lowest levels of the walls as original, including the now mostly buried upper arches of old gates.  But while the bricks may be original, even those sections had clearly suffered extensive reconstruction and renovation.

We started at a small scale replica of the original Ishtar Gate.  This is good fun, but it’s a surprisingly low quality painted brick affair and is not a fair advert for the very impressive (albeit aggressively restored) original version now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.  Then we moved to the heavily renovated original gate foundations, mixing old and new bricks.

The grand Processional Way is mostly new, but includes a few old bricks, some with the original Babylonian cuneiform stamps.  The embossed brickwork dragons and lions are entirely modern, plain replicas of the colorful glaze brickwork originals now mostly in Berlin.

Many larger interior sections are similarly reimagined, with a grand new temple and several vast rambling palaces.  But, at least in theory, this is all rebuilt on the original site groundwork.  To add even more confusion, some of the surviving original brickwork sections have been given modern overlays to both protect and prettify them. We saw one spot where the modern plaster had peeled away, revealing ancient bricks.

Our guide led us to a palatial Throne Room and told us this is the exact spot where Alexander died, in 323 bc.  Maybe true, maybe not, but a big “gulp” anyway.

We entered one section that was supposedly a reconstruction of a defensive maze.  Here occasional bricks are grandly stamped in Arabic with Saddam Hussein’s name.

Further in, past the Disneyland rebuilds, there is a large area of (apparently) authentic undisturbed original ruins, with large chunks of mud brick walls and buildings.

On a rise next to the site is one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, with good views over the Euphrates.  This is a finely built palace, now much decayed, with grand reception rooms, now vandalized and covered with Arabic graffiti.  Two of the bigger rooms had been adopted as convenient skating rinks by groups of in-line skaters.

I’m traveling in Iraq on a private tour with Babel Tours. It’s been good fun. I recommend it! (Tour notes.)


The Uruk site is well organized, with large explanatory signs, a strong perimeter fence, and (wonder of wonders) an actual ticket office, which doubles as a guard post.  We were the only visitors of the day so it took a few minutes to round up the ticket seller.

Uruk was the first great city, the home of writing (!), prospering from around 4000 bc onwards.  The site was also occupied by many successor civilizations, so there is a wide range of material, from early Sumerian to Seleucid and even Parthian.

Uruk, Red Temple

Red Temple Mound

The site covers about 7 sq km, with many acres of scattered shards, occasional lumps of mud brick, and two major temple mounds.   As we walked, our site guide pointed out a mud brick wall from the time of Gilgamesh; many mud bricks with Babylonian cuneiform stamps; a mud brick with a much simpler early Sumerian cuneiform stamp; and much more.  Frequently Sumerian and Babylonian and Seleucid work is all intermingled.

White Temple (3000 bc)

The most prominent mound is the mud brick platform of the Red Temple (around 3100 bc), distinguished by a modern concrete marker pillar on top.  Alas, almost nothing visible remains of the temple itself.

The White Temple aka the Sky God Temple, from 3000 bc is also at the top of a tall mud brick platform.  The temple is now only a few low mud brick mounds, perhaps from pillars or a wall.   But given its vast age, any remains at all are still damned impressive.  I thanked the Sky God for sending me reliable GPS and prayed for better wireless internet.

We also visited Agee Gal, a very large Seleucid Temple.  Only the two ends have been excavated – a long central section is still untouched.  A few of the exposed bricks have the original bright blue glaze akin to the Ishtar gate, but most of the glazed bricks are very faded.

I am in Mesopotamia in placid Southern Iraq (yes this part of Iraq is genuinely safe) on a private tour with Babel Tours.  (Tour notes.) If you are seriously interested in ancient history I recommend a visit!

Ancient Ur

There are very few tourists in Iraq at the moment, so I was expecting the ancient city of Ur to be almost deserted.  But no, as we approached the great ziggurat, we saw about 40 tour buses parked and hordes of teenagers cavorting around the site.  Say what?

It turns out it’s the last month of the school year, and ancient Ur is a favorite site for local school outings.  (This seems like a good thing!)  The younger kids also found a visiting Scot a fine additional attraction, so I had to dutifully pose for some group pictures.

I’m glad they were having fun: drumming, dancing, and maybe even absorbing a little history.  But it was also kind of a relief when the buses moved on and we really did have the site to ourselves!

Ur is very ancient, but the ziggurat, is from only (!) around 2100 bc.  Unfortunately it has suffered aggressive modern restoration.  The ziggurat core is original, but almost all the outer facing and stairs are an imaginative reconstruction.  Near the top, some of the ancient brickwork is visible.  Both old and new brickwork was built with included layers of asphalt for water-proofing and flexibility.

At a few places near the top it’s possible to see the pristine new “restored” walls melding into battered original sections.

There are a number of other excavated buildings, including the Royal Cemeteries of Ur and a large (reconstructed) residential building, rather optimistically identified as “Abraham’s House”.

And here are some overall tour notes.