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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 is iconic and not just because of the Bony M song. It features heavily in the Bible through its two most important periods:
The main sights of Babylon are:
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.
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 (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. The tombs of Hussain and Abbasi are the foci of the two shrines, here at Karbala. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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.
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 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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