Iraqi Kurdistan

I've flown from Basra in the south of Iraq, to Erbil the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. And beam me up Scottie.

Modern buildings English signage, neon lights, western style restaurants. The scenery in the north of Iraq is almost green. Khaki to sage maybe. And there are mountains, gorges and amazing views from on high. Clothing is more relaxed than in the south, with many woman flaunting their hair. Folded foothills with herds of sheep, arable land, potatoes, tomatoes and millet. Geese and turkeys meander across the road with the goats.

Some things don’t change. The buildings may look new. Most of them are, as the area was ravaged by Sadaam Hussein. But much is faulty, or simply not finished. The hotel in Erbil, stinks of kerosene. Fire alarms chirp relentlessly in hallways.

There’s still plenty of litter, especially plastic. Water bottles are ubiquitous throughout Iraq. They're delivered to the table with gay abandon, alongside any meal. The menu is almost identical to those in southern Iraq. Mezze and kebabs, kebabs or kebabs. I’ve picked up a horrible bug and vomited all day.

And, here, in Kurdistan the striped Iraqi flag is emblazoned with a yellow sun. And everyone is still very friendly. ‘Welcome to Iraq’.

My Kurdistan Tour

Now the group are six. All but two of the old crew from my Iraq tour have left and the new folk know each other already, so life is much quieter for me on the bus. I still have guide Ana. Our Kurdish guide, Omar, and driver Mohammed, are two cool dudes. Like all Kurdish men, they are incredibly dark and hirsute and pay great attention to their hairstyles and clothing. But they have no idea where the monasteries we are due to visit around Erbil today are, as they are Christian sites and therefore unimportant. They have to ask for directions at the checkpoints. There are still a lot of those.

On the Road, in Iraqi Kurdistan

The roads are either smoothly busy highways or hair-raising single carriageway routes, badly in need of repair. There’s a continuous game of chicken on the latter, as cars zoom across to our side of the road, not caring that there is a minibus careering towards them. And on the better routes we still have to U turn across countless dual carriageway barriers, as there are no overhead slip roads and very few crossroads. Traffic lights and roundabouts are almost non-existent.

So, car buying in Iraqi Kurdistan is a conundrum. A hardy vehicle, maybe with 4WD for rough roads or a sleek saloon for in town and the major highways? The latter might be an Obama. The Kurds can't pronounce western marques very easily, so they've given most of the major makes nicknames. An Obama is a Chrysler. A Toyota Land Cruiser is a Wanawsha. She's a sophisticated Kurdish actress and singer. (It used to be called a Monica, after Monica Lewinsky.)

All the petrol stations here are individually owned, with different names. And for the first time, an encounter with the traffic police. They don’t have them down south and we can tell they mean business, by the sour look on their faces. It seems that, heat notwithstanding, buses are not allowed to have curtains. Ours are all removed and a fine is duly issued.

The roadside stopping areas feature gaudy to kitsch stalls, with lurid coloured drinks. The lemon and lime glows so much it could be radioactive. And the bus also smells of the gas it runs on. My nose streams the whole time.

Facts and Factoids

The Kurds have had a rough time of it. Geographically, Kurdistan (with its language and distinctive culture and dress) roughly encompasses the north-western Zagros and the eastern Taurus mountain ranges. It includes regions in four countries: south-eastern Turkey (Northern Kurdistan), northern Iraq (Southern Kurdistan), north-western Iran (Eastern Kurdistan), and northern Syria (Western Kurdistan).

The Kurds have been consistently denied the opportunity to form a united independent country, although this was referred to in the Treat of Sevres, when France and Britain divided up the spoils, as the Ottoman Empire was disbanded, after World War I. The British took over Iraq including Kurdistan, The main excuse given for not following through was instability. There has been ongoing rivalry and conflict between various Kurdish tribes and political factions. But the discovery of oil was also, almost certainly, a factor.

British rule saw the beginning of a series of wars and insurrections by the Kurds, which lasted, through independence for Iraq, in 1932, until the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in 2003. First, in 1919 Mahmud Barzanji attempted to establish an independent Kingdom of Kurdistan, with himself as monarch. Then, there were several rebellions led by various members of the Barzani family. (no relation to Barzanji). culminating in two Iraqi-Kurdish wars (1961-1970) and 1974. In fighting - between the two Kurdish factions the KDP and the PUK did not help. (These erupted again in the 1990s).

After the Kurds supported Iran, in the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam's Ba'athist authorities reinforced large-scale displacement and colonization projects in North Iraq, aiming to shift demographics and thus destabilize Kurdish power bases. This was followed by a genocidal campaign, ( Al-Anfal), with an estimated 50,000–200,000 casualties. A chemical attach on Halabja resulted in the creation by NATO of a no fly zone and resulting autonomous state.

There has been continuing turmoil, civil war, disputed land areas (with Iraq) and ISIS to deal with, but Kurdistan has maintained its autonomy. Many Iraqi Kurds today take the view that they are safer within the protective confines of Iraq, where they are able to exist as an autonomous state.

Erbil, the Capital of Kurdistan

Erbil, (Kurdish name Hawler) is the largest town in Iraqi Kurdistan and its capital. Some sources claim that this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It dates back to the fifth century BC, which is ancient. but apparently there was no urban life until 2300 BC. (The title is hotly disputed but generally thought to belong to Byblos.) Its story is told in one of the museums in the citadel, perched above the modern city. This in its turn, is home to surprisingly western style restaurants, cafes and bars. We're also able to photo bomb some pre wedding photographs.

Lalish

Lalish Temple is the holiest pilgrimage site for the Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority of northern Iraq. thought to be Zoroastrian descendants. (Some consider them to be the original Kurds.) The Yazidis were persecuted over long periods for their religion. (The last time was the 2014 genocide by ISIS.) Consequently, many Yazidis now live as refugees in Germany and other European countries. The shrine is built around the tomb of Sheikh Ali (12th century AD) but Yazidis claim that the original building is several thousand years old.

At least once in their lifetimes, Yazidis are expected to make a six-day pilgrimage to Lalish to visit the tomb and other sacred places. Many of the visitors are garbed in their best clothes, Bejewelled, with hooped earrings. Sadly, I send most of my time there vomiting in the latrine block, but I do get to see some impressive turret like towers and doze in the guest room. Children in frilly party frocks queue up to converse, even though I have my eyes shut. And I get to meet the Yazidi leader, who is visiting with his family. ‘UK good.’ he says.

Mar Mattai

St. Matthew’s Monastery (Mar Mattai) dates back as far as 363 AD. The monks lived in caves then though. It’s a veritable fortress. high on the hills above a vast plain and it’s prettier up close than it looks from a distance. It belongs to the Syriac Orthodox Church (an Oriental Orthodox church that branched from the Church of Antioch) and the Liturgy is sung in Syriac (a Neo-Aramaic language; it has its own alphabet).

Another monastery is to be attempted briefly, before we reach Dohuk, but the checkpoints have again flexed their muscle. We’re not allowed that way. It’s closed. It’s certainly beyond dusk now, but the monastery is not supposed to shut for another 30 minutes.

Dohuk

Like Erbil, Dohuk, the third city of Iraqi Kurdistan is bathed in gaudy lights . A line of them run up a long slope, marking the gondola track. It’s been inhabited for thousands of years: Kurds, Assyrians, Yazidis and Arabs. The governorate currently hosts over 300 000 internal displaced persons in refugee camps, mostly Yazidis and Assyrian Christians (since the ISIS advance).

Our hotel vies for bottom of the gradings in accommodation on this trip. The cistern is faulty and tries to fill all night, the extractor fan rattles and the fridge whines. When I turn the valve to replenish the cistern the bathroom floor floods with water. Mysteriously, the toilet paper is mounted by the sink on the opposite side of the bathroom to the toilet. But it’s better than a tent.

Dohuk Dam

A brief stop at Dohuk Dam, for a walk across the 60 metre high wall. It's an earth-fill embankment on the Duhok River just north of Duhok. Here, the soldiers demand the selfies, but we’re not allowed to include their equipment. And there's a view of the lake from above.

Al Qosh

Back to the Assyrian Christian village of Al Qosh we were going to visit yesterday. Today, after some debate they let us in. There’s the Monastery of Rabban Hormizd, founded in 635, the tomb of Jewish prophet Nehum, a Chaldean Catholic Church and a delightful little open-air museum.

Up the windiest of hairpin bends, above Al Qosh, this monastery has another spectacular setting. though it's so well camouflaged, built out of stone from the mountain that I can't make out the actual building, until we've almost arrived. There's a warren of caves for the monks, up scrambly precarious paths and a church that’s locked up.

The monastery is named after Rabban Hormizd (rabban is the Syriac for monk) of the Church of the East, who founded it in the seventh century. He was venerated as a saint by the Chaldean Catholics - another Syriac branch of the Church of the East, the result of several schisms of the Catholic Church. It has its own patriarchy and the site, served as the patriarchal residence and burial site from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The building was revived as a monastery and seminary in the nineteenth century.

Al Quosh is, unsurprisingly, a very Christian village. There's even a house completely covered in nativity frescoes. The museum comprises rickety old buildings, a delightful little domed church, sundry wheels and more great views across the valley.

Charsteen Cave

Charsteen Cave is attained via another up hill scramble. It’s the site of a Zoroastrian fire temple, for the deity Anahita, dating from the first millennium BC. It has four carved stone pillars surrounding a fire altar. Fire, water, soil, and air, were the four sacred elements in Zoroastrianism. Perhaps more interesting is the visiting class of excitable. teenage schoolgirls. Selfie, Selfie.

Amedi

On, to the ancient Assyrian city atop a high plateau. It features the Great Mosque of Amedi (built in 1177), the Bahdinian (Mosul) Gate, the cemetery of Bahdinian princes (they ruled the area from 1376 until 1843) and the Bahdinian madrassa.

Our hotel, on a windy road in a mountain resort, has great views across to Amedi, but old sheets on the bed. The replacement sheets are also dirty. Apparently, Iraqi tourists don’t expect to sleep on clean linen. The manager says he’s been busy working all day . No soap no toilet paper. And a hole in the floor toilet, shared with Aussie/American Diana. It’s an ideal place to have another upset stomach.

Shanider Cave

The Shanidar Cave is fascinating for its antiquity. It was home to nine Neanderthal skeletons, astonishingly ancient (between 65000 and 35000 years suggesting very long continuity of use), found here in the 50s and 60s; parts of two of them are in the Iraq museum in Baghdad. One of them had healed bones, another was buried with flowers.

Barzan

Barzan is the home of the Barzani family, Kurdish leaders mentioned above. This is where the fabulous mountain scenery and gorges of Kurdistan begin. Dore Canyon, with its famous bends, snakes along to the small town of Soran. Barzan is also home to two imposing monuments of the Barzani victims of genocide, in the Anfal campaign during the 1980s. They're on hillsides with magnificent views.

Rawanduz

The Rawanduz area features more incredible peaks and a canyon with precipitous drops and numerous view points. Some spots are marked with memorials and statues. Hopeful stall holders brandish scoops of honey. Though I'm going to have to crop the litter lining the edges out of my pictures.

The Hamilton Road

Down below, running through mountains that were once considered impregnable, is the Hamilton Road: built by Archibald. Hamilton, a New Zealand born engineer. in 1928-1932. It ran from Erbil to the Iranian border. and has since been replaced with a modern road - Kurdistan’s Scenic Highway. Todays it's quiet and overgrown, except for the a group of Iraq picnickers, complete with fan assisted barbecue.

Korek Mountain Resort

Korek Mountain Resort, in the Rawanduz area, was built in in 2011. A hotel, villas and a couple of restaurants. We take the gondola up, to explore. It’s supposedly popular with Iraqis from the whole country (Arabs like to come to experience snow in winter), but today it's fairly deserted. At the top, far reaching views of the mountains, rugged and barren and a postage stamp of ski slope.

Bekhal Waterfall

Waterfalls in the Middle East tend to be resorts rather than tranquil places for relaxing. Cafes, illuminations and food stalls feature and Rawanduz's offering, Bekhal, is no exception.

Shaqlawa

Shaqlawa is another popular, if gaudy hill station resort, famous for fresh air, honey and nuts. It sits at the bottom of Safeen Mountain. The winding main street is lined with food and souvenir stalls: lokum, dates, figs and brightly coloured sweets.

Lake Dukan

Lake Dukan is an artificial water reservoir, also used for irrigation and hydropower. It's prettily blue, surrounded by some spectacular arid mountains. Assorted motor boats are lined up along the rocky beach, their owners idling under a canopy. Negotiations for a short ride come to a swift halt when it becomes clear that they won't interrupt their slumbers for under a hundred USD.

The Museum of Kurdish Martyrs

The Red Prison (Amna Suraka) once served as the headquarters of the Ba’ath (Saddam's) regime. It was used as a prison and place of torture for the Kurdish population. Today, it is left preserved as a museum and memorial to the thousands of Kurds imprisoned and killed there. The centrepiece is the astonishing Hall of Mirrors, which contains over a hundred thousand shards of glass. One for every victim of Saddam’s reign of terror against Kurdistan.

Like all these places, it’s almost unbearable. Yet another reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. Row upon row of photographs of those who have died either from the Kurdish genocide perpetuated by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath movement or later by ISIS.
The torture chambers are particularly gruesome, with no holds barred descriptions of the types of torture, the scenes bizarrely depicted with plaster cast mannequins.

The schoolgirls visiting here wear belted trousers and tucked in white blouses so the shape of their bottoms is exposed. Some also daringly flaunt their ankles with cropped legs. Their chatter and smiles not entirely appropriate for the occasion mitigate the horror somewhat.

Sulaymaniyah

The Road from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah is poor. Ostensibly, because the two cities hate each other and want to prevent interaction. Sulaymaniyah is the cultural capital of Kurdistan, but the smaller city of the two. It's the home of poets, writers, historians, politicians, scholars and singers, such as Nalî, Mahwi, and Piramerd.

Sulaymaniyah is also full of bustle and character. And the bazaar is another fascinating wander. The men, out for their pre-weekend relaxation, wear the traditional Kurdish costume, baggy boiler suits cinched in at the waist with patterned cummerbunds and embordered round caps or turbans. They don’t flinch at all at the approach of the camera and wave benignly over their tea. 'Hello. Where are you from?'

In the evening, the whole of the city turns out to wander around, eat from the many fancy food stalls lining the main thoroughfares, sip coffee and people watch.

The Halabja Memorial

At Halabja, there’s another memorial for the 5000 victims of the chemical bomb attack perpetrated on the town by Ali Hassan al-Majid under the direction of Saddam Hussein, on March 16th 1988. He earned himself the nickname “Chemical Ali”.

It's a fitting and sobering end to our trip in Kurdistan. Next up, Socotra.


Iraq

The Cradle of Civilisation, in modern day Iraq, has been on my Bucket List for a long time. This is the land where writing and the wheel were invented. During ancient times, (as we were taught at school), the lands that now constitute Iraq were known as Mesopotamia -'Land Between the Rivers'. Wealthy, because it comprised much of what is called the Fertile Crescent. Here, Sumer gave way to Akkad, then Babylon, and then Assyria. Next, subsumed into the Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires, before becoming a central part of the Islamic world, in the seventh century. I’m going to be working my way backwards in time on my tour, it seems. And I'm hugely excited. The Tigris and Euphrates were a big feature of RE lessons at school - it will be amazing to actually see them.

Iraq - in a Nutshell

Is Iraq a Safe Place to Visit?

Recent history of Iraq has been even more turbulent than it was in ancient times. The modern nation-state of Iraq was created, following World War I, from the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, ruled by the British. This, of course, has created most of today's problems. Three different cultures thrown under one government. Majority Shia in the south, Sunnis in overall majority mostly based around Baghdad. And the whole country a buffer zone between the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and the Shia of Iran.

Iraq technically gained independence as a kingdom in 1932. The monarchy was overthrown in 1958, and 10 years later the Baʿath Party came to power, in a bloodless coup. Oil brought immense wealth (proven oil reserves second in the world only to those of Saudi Arabia), ambitious projects were financed and a huge well equipped army developed.

The new leader, Saddam Hussein, needs little introduction. He ruled with an overly firm hand, oppressed the Shia majority (he was as Sunni) and the Kurd minority and engaged in various disastrous military adventures, most notably war with Iran, and then the invasion of Kuwait. Hussein had been provoked by the Kuwaitis undercutting of oil prices, but his actions led to worldwide condemnation and the Gulf War. His regime was overthrown during the ensuing Iraq War ,which lasted from 2003-2011. Since then, Isis (Daesh) have been and (hopefully) gone.

The whole country is coloured red on the FCO map and there are scary government advisories warning of violence and kidnapping. Those who work here confirm the need to be careful. 'Don’t go to the wrong areas', they advise. So I’ve opted for a tour and even the thought of that is giving me butterflies. I do hope the organisers know which the wrong areas are.

Arriving in Iraq

Arrival at Baghdad airport is fairly straightforward, except that no UK airlines fly direct. You can get a visa on arrival. No-one is remotely interested in what you write on the visa form. You hand it in to the little office by immigration, wait till they come back out with your passport and you give them the 77 USD, which is the point of the whole exercise. 'Welcome to Iraq', smiles the immigration man in his glass booth.

I’m travelling with what turns out to be a great group of ten people. Guide Ana, who’s Slovenian, and local fixer Raad, who looks just like Saddam Hussein. He has a great bushy moustache. but then so do all the Iraqis. Raad says that the women demand it. Most of the men also have their plentiful dark hair cut into fades or attention grabbing (to say the least) pompadour styles. Raad worked with the US military for six years during the Gulf War and his English is more than peppered with expletives. Every other word begins with f or s. But he has a big ego and a strong personality and gets the job done well.

It’s a challenge navigating the many checkpoints swiftly (they sometimes scan each passport, email it off to HQ and wait for approval before we can move on). As is getting us into sites that are deemed to be shut or off limits. He’s good at adjusting the itinerary if necessary, though we don’t always get told it's happened until we notice we're in the wrong place.

Travelling in Iraq

We’re touring in a Big Yellow Bus, so Beatles songs with suitably rearranged lyrics soon fill the air. The roads aren’t great - but not as bad as I’ve seen elsewhere and there are some three lane highways to compensate for the ridges and bumps. On the worst sections the bus sways from side to side.

Most of our hotels are comfortable, maybe even edging towards luxurious. But I’m reminded where I am by the constant (maybe 30 second duration) power cuts.

Changing money is problematic. I’ve been advised that GBP are okay to bring, but the local money changers don’t agree. And the ATMs are quick to decline my card too. So in the end Raad changes my cash for me, looking up the rate on the internet.

Toilets aren't generally an edifying experience. Mostly hole in the floor types, some with plumbed water, some without, some clean some decidedly not. Some with piles of rubbish and cracked porcelain littering the floor.

Most of us have constant sniffles – colds, allergies or just the dust and dry air? Who knows? And nearly everyone has a dodgy stomach by the end of the trip.

Eating in Iraq

Food is cheap. Meals cost about £5. The choice is always the same. Kofta kebab, lamb kebab or chicken, with rice, flat bread and a fish shaped pitta bread that is sliced open to fill with salad or falafels. Platters of humous, a sort of raita yogurt with cucumber and other odd sweet salads with apple and syrupy mayonnaise, a sort of sweet brown sludge that hasn't been named, tomatoes, cucumbers and flat leaved parsley. If we are lucky, mashed aubergine and tabbouleh also feature. Plastic spoons are provided, but the locals eat with their fingers. Aryan salty yogurt drinks and lashings (as Enid Blyton would say) of tea. We generally eat on the male section of the restaurants, but occasionally on the other side, with the families.

Facts and Factoids

  • In Arabic, the name Iraq means 'deep-rooted, well-watered, fertile' (after the Fertile Crescent). Ironic, considering the current widespread aridity, exacerbated by global warming
  • Iraq (including Iraqi Kurdistan) is home to six UNESCO sites
  • Forget the diet - it's very rude to refuse the offer of food here
  • The Iraqi desert is home to some unique scorpion species. Some of them can grow more than eight inches long. (I'm glad there's no camping here.)
  • It's believed that the superstition about black cats bringing bad luck originated in Iraq.

Baghdad, the Capital of Iraq

Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, a very ancient city, became the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate in the eighth century. At that time, it was the largest city in the world and the centre of Islamic culture. Later, it was sacked by the Mongols and only regained importance with independence Today, it's the second largest city in the Arab world, after Cairo.

We’re staying in an unexpectedly nice hotel, the Baghdad, no less, with a swimming pool, balconies with views over the infamous Green Zone, where local protests against living conditions have been held. (it’s out of bounds but we can at least see it) and a lavish breakfast buffet. It’s also a popular wedding venue. There are up to 60 celebrations a day with attendant photographers, bows on doors and balloons spilling out into the corridor.

Women have been advised to wear ‘modest attire’ on this trip, fully clothed to the wrists and ankles. Bums covered. The men of course, just have to be careful not to show their knees. So, in the morning, I turn up in the dining room, in my black abaya. The waitresses however, are all togged up in short, tight mini skirts. 'Am I visiting a religious site?' they inquire, looking astonished.

Exploring Baghdad

Baghdad is vibrant but in need of some TLC, rough round the edges, tumble down buildings. Baghdad (and the whole country) is still dealing with severe infrastructural damage due to the Iraq War, a substantial loss of cultural heritage and historical artifacts. Baghdad is also, supposedly riddled with underground tunnels which stretched for many kilometres. These were built for Saddam Hussein to include bunkers and be indestructible if there was a threat. Apparently, they came with a pool, gourmet kitchen, recreation room, and much more. It's a contrast with today's poverty and attendant unrest.

Battered cars and the odd horse drawn cart. Along the sandbanks and palms of the Tigris River, past a multiplicity of flea markets, goods strewn on tarpaulins. Some photo stops. The mosque on Firdos Square, where Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled by the Americans in 2003. Roundabouts with assorted sculptures from Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights. The Freedom Monument at Tahrir (Freedom) Square. Another setting for recent protests, especially in 2019. There is related graffiti all along the main underpass highlighting unemployment and living conditions. Raad says the situation is even worse now.

American Monty is a pun meister, so we’re in competition. Where’s your Bag Dad? As in many cities, services and equipment are grouped together by area. We bump along a road lined with garages and decorated with vehicle parts, sometimes whole cars on the roof. We dub it Park Avenue.

Old Baghdad

Across the Tigris River, to explore Old Baghdad. Alongside the water is a madrassa, Al Mustansirya restored in the 80s, and the imposing Quishleh Ottoman Palace, with its colonnaded façade and lush gardens boasting statuary, and a clocktower.

We whip through the souk to bustling Ar Rashid Street. A cinema converted to a shop, all manner of bric brac on trestles and the Shahbandar Coffee House. This is a renowned meeting place for local men who sip tea and smoke their hookahs. It soon becomes selfie central as we are accosted, politely, from all directions, whilst we sip our delicious hot lemon tea.

Another stop in a small bar for ginger cake and raisin juice. Thousands of calories and thousands more selfies. We’re creating a sensation as we wander past all the stalls. Olives, kebabs, books spread on carpets .'Hello, welcome. Where are you from? Selfie selfie.

Back through the book market on Al Moutanabbi Street. Volumes spilling over plastic covered low tables. It would take all day to peruse every one.

Mosques of Baghdad

There are plenty of mosques in Baghdad of course. Amongst the most interesting, the Sufi mosque of Sheik Abdul Khader Algilani (twelfth century), with a subterranean tomb - the oldest tomb in Baghdad. And the Abbasid Sitt Zumurrud Khatoun tomb (end of twelfth century ) has a spiky minaret which leans slightly to the left. Inside the minaret, the spiky forms become gorgeous muqarnas.

Food and Drink in Baghdad

The coffee houses in Baghdad are atmospheric, some highly decorated and gorgeous with a warren of rooms, balconies, divans and ornate coffee pots.

One lunch at a small cafe - Al Serai. It’s kubbeh - ground meat wrapped in Bulgar wheat, to form dough balls with very tomatoey soup to pour over them and very sour green pickles of unidentifiable origin. It’s extremely heavy on the stomach and the taste is with us all afternoon, sadly. In complete contrast, another lunch at the Bloom Hotel with plate-glass rooftop views and eager waiters. The menu is the ubiquitous, chicken or lamb kebab, preceded by houmous heavy mezze.

A dinner at Al Baghdadi restaurant on the Tigris. Masgouf - grilled carp prepared on an enormous flaming barbecue, the fish arranged on foil plates around the edge of the circular fire. This one is delicious.

The Iraq Museum

The Iraq Museum is not to be missed, but we are body searched twice before we are allowed in, and again on the way out. Presumably to make sure you haven’t pinched anything, though it wouldn’t be very easy to break into those heavy glass cases. It's perhaps not surprising, It was looted during and after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Despite international efforts, only some of the stolen artifacts have been returned. After that it was closed for many years for refurbishment. Neither will they accept USD, so Raad has to go in search of local currency before we can purchase tickets. He’s obviously done too much exchanging currency.

There are 24 chambers and a convoluted system of arrows pointing the way through huge galleries and up and down stairs. They trace the history of Iraq from Paleolithic times (Stone axe/tool heads from 100000 BC and Neanderthal skulls from the 45th century BC). There’s a huge amount of extraordinarily ancient pottery. (5000 years BC so 7000 years old ) and displays covering the various empires up to the Islamic era. But the best hall, by a mile is the one dedicated to the Assyrian Empire, with its amazing friezes and gate statuary from Mosul and Hatra. Needless to say, I lose the rest of the group in the labyrinth. And I still can’t escape the demands for selfies.

The Martyrs' Monument, Baghdad

On the edge of the city, are the striking turquoise half domes of the Martyrs' Monument (Nasb Al-Shahid). It was built in 1983, dedicated to the victims of Iraq-Iran war and now also symbolises the Shia and Kurdish victims of Saddam's regime. Beneath are cases full of artefacts and moving rows of portraits of the dead.

Equal time here is devoted to Ana’s heroic rescue of a pigeon stuck in the foaming waters of the underground fountain, which falls to the ground with some ferocity. Both emerge soaked, but otherwise unscathed.

Samarra

Most of our day trip to Samarra is taken up with sitting in traffic jams. Several roads out of Baghdad are blocked ,as protestors are expected and the army is out in force. We follow the Tigris River north on the route to Mosul. The road is lined with black Shia flags and posters of the missing Mahdi. And litter But it’s a good opportunity to get to know my fellow travellers. I’ve discovered that Monty has a journal. He has written a biography of each person and guessed their age. His estimates are not always hugely flattering.

Samarra has only recently been made accessible. It’s an important Shia site and security in the area is heavy. It was actually in the hands of ISIS for a short while, but survived unharmed. There are multiple checkpoints and we have to leave our passports at the last one and pick them up on the way back.

Samarra is a UNESCO world heritage site and former capital of the Abassid Caliphate. Though it wasn’t the capital for very long. They built the iconic spiral minaret and adjacent mosque, lived there for about 50 years and then moved the capital back again to Baghdad.

There are six stages on the 52 metre spiral, if you count the cap shaped top and it’s a dizzying and windy ascent. There is very little in the way of handrail on the outside, just a sheer drop to the ground for the most part. Again ,we’re welcomed with smiles, waves and demands for selfies. The mosque is sadly out of bounds, though peeping through the surrounding heavily buttressed walls seems to indicate that there isn’t now, a great deal to see. It was the biggest mosque in the world when it was constructed.
There are souvenir stalls laden with miniature golden minarets. Spanish Xavi is delighted to buy one.

The Dar al-Khalifa, Samarra

Then onto the Caliphal Palace, the primary residence of the Abbasid caliph al-Mu’tasim and several of his successors for a period of nearly fifty years during the middle of the ninth century/third century AD. This is one of the largest and most extensively excavated Abbasid palaces, although only a tiny fraction of the site has been uncovered. It’s actually a whole complex of palaces, part of the city that included barracks for his soldiers, administrative bureaux, horseracing courses and grand boulevards.

The Dar al-Khalifa is relatively remote from the city and has sweeping views over the Tigris and its floodplain (they’re now enjoyed by an army post). Perhaps scenery trumped over practicality for a short while. Extensive reconstructions were begun under Saddam Hussein (as the many plaques tell us). There are gardens, huge arched gates and a large circular pool, situated by the harem, for the use of the Caliph’s ladies.

The itinerary says that we are also to visit a ziggurat on the way back. These are unique to Mesopotamia, from approximately 2200 until 500 BC. Pyramidal brick stepped temple towers with a core of mud. But it’s closed. The programme is definitely a moveable feast (very reminiscent of Saudi Arabia), depending on the will of the authorities.

Babylon

Babylon is iconic and not just because of the Bony M song. It features heavily in the Bible through its two most important periods:

  • The Hammurabi period (-1780 BC) when Hammurabi united Mesopotamia; ruling an empire from the Persian Gulf all the way to the Mediterranean. Babylon was the capital and cultural centre. But most of this layer of the city lies unexcavated, another 10 metres down, due to underground water.
  • The Neo Babylonian Empire (604-562 BC ) when Nebuchadnezzar II ended Assyrian supremacy and resurrected Babylon to its former glory. The Babylon that we see today dates from this period. It’s been heavily renovated. Saddam spent 40 million USD and used 60 million bricks for his project. It’s overly pristine, and the works didn’t go down too well with archaeologists. UNESCO only included Babylon on its list in 2019.

The Sights of Babylon

The main sights of Babylon are:

  • The Processional Way (two parts; original and asphalt), which passed through the famous Ishtar Gate (she was the goddess of fertility, love, war). I saw the original in the Berlin Pergamon Museum. (The Germans excavated/pilfered here in the late 19th and early 20th century.)
  • The Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, where Alexander the Great died in 323 BC (he wanted to renovate the city). After his death city was plundered for construction materials for the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon.
  • And the Lion of Babylon. This is 2600 years old, 12 tonnes, made of basalt and probably stolen from the Hittites in Syria or Anatolia. It’s a symbol of power as well as of Iraq. (There were once lions living in the Middle East.) And speaking of lions. Daniel's Lion's Den was here, in the time of Darius. As was previously Belshazzar's Feast - with the writing on the wall. (Belshazzar ignored the warning and poor Daniel and so his kingdom was given to the Medes and Persians.) And before that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into a fiery furnace here by Nebuchadnezzar.

As to the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? No one has any idea where they actually were. Sadly, there's even a suggestion that they were just mythical and might not even have existed.

Above the Euphrates and Babylon, with a grand view of both, sits one of Saddam’s huge palaces (he built more than 100 of them all over Iraq). It’s derelict and graffiti covered. We’re told there are plans to make it into a museum - one day.

The Shia Shrines of Iraq

Southern Iraq is home to Shia Islam’s most important shrines. Raad says that they are hugely more significant than Mecca and Medina, although other sources disagree with this. Whatever, the centres at Karbala and Najaf attract 30 million visitors a year, many of them Iranian. They generate an annual revenue from pilgrims of about 2 billion USD. 14 million come for the Karbala weekend festival, as opposed to 2.5 million for hajj (I’m told). People also want to be buried in these places.. corpse traffic is big business.

Karbala - A Brief History

Karbala (or God’s Temple) is the site of the Incident of Tuff ( the most important event in Shia history) between Hussain (ibn Ali) and his family and Yazid's army (representing the Umayyad dynasty) in 680. 72 of their family members were massacred, including Hussain and his half brother and standard bearer, Abbasi. (72 is now a magic number in Islam). They have since been regarded as martyrs. What are said to be the tombs of Hussain and Abbasi are the foci of the two shrines, here at Karbala. (There is at least one other competing claim, in Afghanistan.) The commemoration of the massacre is known as the Day of Ashura. Self-flagellation is often involved, though it was banned for 30 years under Saddam, (it restarted in 2004). Arba'een, 40 days after Ashura is one of the biggest gatherings in the world. 15 -25 million Shia pilgrims walk from Basra or Baghdad to Karbala and Najaf.

The Shrines at Karbala

Karbala is Blackpool in the desert. A holiday atmosphere, ritzy hotels, illuminations, souvenir shops and restaurants carrying out a roaring business. The shrine of Abbasi is a glitzy palace, with huge overhead chandeliers and glittering muqarnas. This branch of Islam isn't known as Shiny Shia for nothing.

And there’s also an assault course built in. Us females are not allowed in the men's section of course. Black clad women shove, push, wail and brandish feather dusters in their efforts to get through the various halls to the tomb. It’s a veritable tidal wave of bodies that threatens to turn into a football match like riot. I’m black and blue. We’ve been made to purchase hideous flower patterned cotton abayas with tiny T-Rex like sleeves that cover us entirely. The most unflattering garment ever. Even so a few tendrils of hair escape. A woman admonishes me. She has one whole breast exposed, as she is feeding her baby.

The tomb of Hussain is similar, but deemed to be more important. He was the son of Ali, the first Shia Imam and Mohammed's daughter Fatima. A fervent Lebanese lady shouts out her adoration for Hussain, with Hitler like arm salutes and tears in her eyes. The ongoing pilgrimage to Karbala is live streamed on TV and, we discover, prime viewing at many of the roadside restaurants in Iraq.

Karbala to Najaf

We’re supposed to be visiting Ukhaider Castle, but it’s off. Instead we are clambering up a rocky outpost on the shores of Lake Razazah to some of the At-tar Caves. There are several hundred caves containing burial places from the second millennium BC, (but mostly from 300 BC-300 AD).

Well, I thought we were climbing to the caves, but you can only them from the ground and we are instead admiring the view of some sandstone hoodoos. There are overhangs and it is literally a headbanging experience.

Next up, Al Kifl, where abayas are required again to visit the shrine/tomb of Ezekiel/Dhul-Kifl, (now named An-Nukhailah Mosque). Ezekiel is important in both Jewish and Muslim religions, as a Jewish Old Testament prophet when the Jews were in exile in Babylon. It was a big Jewish site of pilgrimage from his death and especially in the fourteenth century. The Ottomans rebuilt the shrine in 14th century. And it has both a leaning minaret and a spiky minaret, above the shrine. We can see the courtyard and the mosque, but not the shrine. It’s closed.

And a short amble, following Raad through the authentic old souk, barrow boys selling tea.

Najaf

At Najaf we’re ensconced in the (great name) - Zam Zam Hotel. My toilet doesn’t flush, as the cistern isn’t filling (there’s a leak and they’ve disconnected the pipes) and the fridge whistles. And we’re off (clad yet again in the unflattering abaya garment) to the second most important Shia shrine. Ali, the cousin and brother in law of Mohammed is recognised as the first Shia Imam, stabbed by his servant in Kufa in 661. He is buried here, as that is where the camel bearing his body finally stopped, exhausted. .

The cemetery here is the biggest in the world. There are between six and seven million graves, with photographs on hoardings, marble and domes. Shrine trade became difficult when the water ran out, but supplies were restored via a canal in the 1800s. The Ali shrine is just as glittery, but more relaxed than the two in Karbala. There are even women with a little hair showing – though there are even more feather dusters.

Uruk

South eventually, past oil fields and herds of camels. It’s very, very flat semi arid desert. But we never entirely lose the green. Low hills and small wadis. Grey cuboid houses, black flags fluttering.

Further back in time, to the late fifth millennium BC (until the seventh century BC, when it was deserted for lack of water and because of Arab destruction) to Sumerian Uruk. This is where writing began (excitingly, there’s a sign, though I doubt it marks the exact spot) and the wheel was invented. Cuneiform script (it means wedge shaped) on clay tablets was used to document sacrifice and gift to the gods. The wheel was (big surprise) first utilised for pottery making.

A whole series of subsequent civilisations followed: Ur, Babylonian, Achaemenid, Seleucid, and Parthian Empires. In the fourth millennium BC, this was the largest city in the world (the title later went to Baghdad). Uruk was the political and religious centre of Mesopotamia, home to 50-80 000 people. It's hard to believe that this is where the first cereal crops were planted and agriculture began in the so called Fertile Crescent, which spread across Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Cyprus. It's brown and dusty in every direction.

There were 10 kilometres of city walls built by King Gilgamesh – famous for the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written story in the world. Sources are vague about where the tablets are now. As far as I can ascertain One - the Dream Tablet - was imported into the USA and eventually returned to Iraq. There were copies too, stored at Nineveh. The eleventh of these tablets is in the British Museum.

The Sights of Uruk

The most obvious sights are the ziggurats of the deities Anu (male sky god) and Inana (female). These temples were once covered in Afghan lapis lazuli. Today, they are serviced by an old railway line. Stacks of cone mosaics decorate the paths, their purpose unknown. A welcome wind mitigates the fierce heat. Only 5% of site has been excavated, by German archaeologists (1912-1970s). There have been no excavations since then - but the site is protected with 14 kilometres of fence.

The desert disappears far way at the horizon, like the sun.

Nasiriyah

Nasiriyah is a city of some 500 000 inhabitants, founded in 19th century by the Ottomans. And this is definitely the worst hotel of the trip. Is it finished? Equipment hangs off the wall and wires dangle. A bird tone sounds incessantly from the hallway. And diarrhoea has caught up with me.

Ur

We’ve come forward slightly along our timeline now. Ur replaced Uruk as the great capital of Sumer in the 27th century BC. It was excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s & 1930s (Both Ur and Uruk, are, of course, UNESCO sites). Here, there’s another ziggurat, built by king Ur-Namu in the 22nd century BC (known as the Renaissance period) and rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar II in the sixth century BC, a Royal Palace and Royal Tombs. we're allowed to clamber up the ziggurat and take turns capturing pictures of each other, with the view behind.

Ur was also known as the city of Abraham, but his supposed home is, guess what, closed. For renovations. The city was captured by the Persians in 539 BC, and deserted in 4th century BC. As is so often the case, lack of water could have been a .factor. Uruk was built on the banks of the Euphrates, which, over the passing years has moved 10 miles away.

So far, we’ve been the only tourists around, except for a group of Portuguese, who we encounter astonishingly dressed for any destination ,in flimsy knee length shorts and weird transparent tops. We’ve spotted their bus approaching, as we leave the checkpoint close to the arkeological site at Ur. It’s annoying to think that our solitary wanderings might be disturbed. But they don’t have a Raad on board. They’re still held up at by the passport checking officials as we depart.

The Mesopotamian Marshes

The marshes of southern Iraq cover an area of about 10000 square kilometres along the floodplains of the Tigris River, stretching to the Euphrates. This is the edge of their confluence – where the two rivers become the Shat al Arab. It was once the largest wetland ecosystem of Western Eurasia. home to the Marsh Arabs, descended from the Ur, Sumer and Babylon civilisations. They have developed a unique culture tightly coupled to the landscape – harvesting reeds and rice, fishing and herding water buffalo.

But draining of portions of the marshes began in the 1950s for land reclamation and oil exploration. The work was expedited by Saddam Hussein, in an attempt to to flush out his opponents and army deserters hiding there. By 2003, the marshes were drained to 10% of their original size. Since 2004 they have been partially restored, but are still threatened by the lack of water in the rivers. This is a problem throughout the country, as the Turks, Syrians and Iranians have all been damming the upper reaches of both rivers.

There’s not a great deal to see on our boat ride through the dry reed mace. Water buffalo grazing and one local with a cattle shed. Replica reed houses. A shiny silver domed monument forms the background. Very little bird life. A couple of pied kingfishers and oxpeckers on the back of the buffalo. But it’s tranquil and there’s a welcome breeze, wafting hydrogen sulphide past us.

Al Qurna

A little further south, to Al Qurna, and another boat ride to see the actual confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. There are steps, a smaller version of the ones at the Deutches Eck (German Corner), on the Rhine in Koblenz. From here, the Shatt al Arab flows 200 kilometres to the Persian Gulf. The area used to hold the largest date palm forest in the world. 17–18 million date palms: an estimated one-fifth of the world's 90 million palm trees in the mid-1970s. By 2002, more than 14 million of the palms had been wiped out by the combined factors of war, salt and pests.

We also find out that today Iraq got a new president. They haven’t had one for 13 months. The president has to be a Kurd. Now he has to try to form a government. There was a small rocket attack over the Green Zone in Baghdad this morning, to celebrate.

Basra, Southern Iraq

Basra is Iraq's main port, famously right in the south of the country, on the Shatt al Arab, close to both Iran and Kuwait. It's consistently one of the hottest cities on the planet. 45 degrees is not unusual. It dates back to the ninth century. We wander around old Ottoman Basra (the Ottomans were here from the late 17th century until the outbreak of World War I). We’re told it was then known as 'The Venice of the Middle East', but it’s hard to imagine. The canals are filthy, full of rubbish and reek. The sewers are being rebuilt. Most of the house are in a sad state, though a couple have been renovated. Other potentially grand timber dwellings are swathed in scaffolding. And there’s a museum/café with assorted items, mainly from the last century.

The souk, on the other hand, is huge and very friendly. It’s a brilliant way to spend a couple of hours. Xavi has to be forcibly extracted from a souvenir shop that sells 'nicer’ Samarra minarets. The Shia influence extends to the trinkets which tend to gold and shiny and are sometimes even gloriously encased in snow domes.

A third boat ride brings the tour to a fitting close. The sun goes down behind the port and yet another of Saddam’s huge palaces (now mainly government offices), as we chug up and down the Shatt al-Arab.

Next stop, Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

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