Travel to Iraq, one of the cradles of civilisation. Situated between the Euphrates and the Tigris, ancient Mesopotamia pre-dates written history. Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires controlled the region, leaving behind a bounty of historical sites and artefacts. The diverse landscape, geographically and culturally, holds unforeseen adventures of lonely desert forts and spiralling minarets. A country better known for deserts also boasts marshlands in the South and the Zagros Mountains in the North, which play host to our ski trips each winter. The Arab Islamic conquest in the 7th century paved the way for the establishment of Islam, which continues to be an important part of the countries culture. Iraq is host to the two holy places of Shia Islam, Najaf and Karbala, as well as the spiritual home of the Yazidi people, Lalish. Beyond the awe-inspiring sites and landscapes, above all, the hospitality of the people across the country, from the Arabs in the South to the Kurds in the North, is often the most lasting memory.
Iraq’s capital, the nation’s capital and one of the great Arab cities of the world. At its peak, it was the centre of the Islamic world. Where the Abbasid dynasty built the fabled round city containing the Baytul-Hikmah (house of wisdom) and was the setting for many of tales from the Thousand and One Night tales. Some of this history still feels tangible in places such as the Mustansiriya Madrassah, the copper market and century-old tea shops.
Baghdad plays host to two of Iraq’s more ‘modern’ sites; the National Museum of Baghdad and the Al-Shaheed Monument. The Al-Shaheed Monument, otherwise known as the Martyr Monument, commemorates all those that have risked their life for Iraq particularly in dedication of the Iraqi soldiers that died in the Iran-Iraq War. The National Museum of Baghdad reopened its doors in 2015 after being looted in 2003 and successfully reclaiming approximately half of the stolen pieces, almost 100years after first being founded by British explorer Getrude Bell. Housing the history of humanity, the museum possesses countless artefacts dating back to the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires in the cradle of civilisation.
NAJAF AND KARBALA
The busy pilgrim towns of Najaf and Karbala in Southern Iraq are host to two of the holiest places in Shia Islam. Karbala is the city in which the Shia martyr, Imam Hussein, was killed during the battle of Kerbala. His death is commemorated every year by Shia Muslims on Ashura. Nearby is the Fortress of Al-Ukhaidir, famous for its unique rectangular defensive structure dating back to the 8th century. Further South is the other important Shia Islam pilgrimage site, Najaf. It is home to the shrine of the Imam Ali, found within the Najaf Mosque. The religious significance for Shia Muslims of being buried in Najaf has also led it to be home of the world’s biggest cemetery Wadi-us-Salaam, also known as the Valley of Peace. Al Khifal is situated between these two sites, with its ancient covered souk.
Saddam Hussein famously drained Iraq’s marshes in 1992, but a lot of hard work by the authorities and Marsh Arabs has slowly seen the UNESCO world heritage site being brought back to life. The unique culture found in the marshes was celebrated in Wilfred Thesiger’s book The Marsh Arabs. Home to a wide range of wildlife, the most imposing of which being the livestock of the tribes including the Water Buffalo. Best experienced on a small wooden canoe, it is possible to witness the mudhif the unique social and political house of the tribe, and taste the national dish of Iraqi carp fresh from the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris. South of the marshes where the two great rivers meet in Qurnah, the alleged site of the Garden of Eden begins the Shatt al-Arab waterway before it snakes its way into the Persian Gulf.
UR AND URUK
Ur and Uruk are two ancient Sumerian sites. Uruk, which is argued by many to be the world’s first major city, was continuously inhabited till 300CE when it’s importance started to dwindle. It wasn’t till 1823 when excavated that its historic importance was again acknowledged. Ur was a wealthy down due to its strategic position as a trading centre. The town used to be closer to the Persian Gulf, when water levels were higher. Both archaeological sites grant visitors an extensive glimpse into the history of Mesopotamia.
Babylon is one of the better-known cities of Mesopotamia, having forever been sought after as a prize for conquering empires. Famous for allegedly being the home of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the definite site of the Lion of Babylon and the azure Ishtar Gate. Much of the city has been heavily reconstructed with many of the bricks being engraved with Saddam Hussein’s name. Copying his ancient predecessors who adopted similar methods as a way to ensure they were written into the history of the city. It is also possible to visit Saddam Hussein’s palace he had built overlooking the archaeological site.
The Arch of Ctesiphon, the largest brick-made arch in the world and an iconic landmark of Iraq. Following from a huge scale heavy restoration project starting in 2013, the arch is an imposing structure. Ctesiphon was formerly the ancient capital of both the Parthian and Sasanian Empires, before being left to ruins when the capital moved to Baghdad.
Samarra is home to an 8th-century mosque, perhaps at some point the largest in the world, and an iconic spiral minaret. When first built, a bridge connected the two buildings. The spiral minaret is unique in its form. Walking up to the top grants spectacular views over Samarra. As a UNESCO world heritage site and former capital of Abbasid, it holds importance for Shia Muslims.
A semi-autonomous region in the north, Iraqi Kurdistan has largely escaped the violence that has plagued the rest of the country and is a great way to get a flavour of modern Iraq.
Capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil is a city rapidly transitioning from a small town into a strong economic centre for the region. The highlight of the town is the 7000+ year old Citadel, the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. Erbil is also host to the annual Erbil Marathon. You can also find more information on one of our guest’s blogs who we guided for a visit around Iraqi Kurdistan.
SULAYMANIYAH & HALABJEH
Considered to be the cultural capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Sulaymaniyah has long been the center for pioneering creatives, politicians and scholars. In the city is the Sulaimani Museum, which is the second biggest museum after the national museum in Baghdad. Nearby, the town of Halabjeh can be found, made famous by the tragic Chemical Attack by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1998.
Lalish is the holiest temple of the Yazidis and dates back 4000 years. Built by the early civilisations of Mesopotamia, it is believed by the Yazidi people to be where Noah’s ark first encountered dry land. Pilgrims come to drink the holy spring water and are expected to make the journey at least once in their lifetime. The spiritual importance of Lalish also means that whilst visiting the holy town all must walk around barefoot.
Most nationalities can obtain a visa on arrival at the airport.
Please note, if you arrive at Erbil Airport the visa will only be valid for Iraqi Kurdistan and NOT southern Iraq.
Contact us for further information.
Iraq has a hot and dry desert climate throughout the year, with summer temperatures rising to almost 50°C. Winters can be a bit cold with temperatures ranging from 9-24°C in the lowlands. Winters in the mountains are much colder and snow is a frequent occurrence. Please check the weather for the region you travel before departing and ensure you bring adequate clothing.
The local currency in Iraq and Kurdistan is the Iraqi Dinar, IQD.
For up to date exchange rates please have a look at www.xe.com
Power is generally reliable across all of Iraq.
Iraq power plugs and sockets are of type C, D and G.
Most guesthouses and hotels have adequate Wifi. 3G works in cities.
Masgouf is the national dish and is made from fish, although there is a mix of many cuisines, such as Persian, Iraqi and even Indian. Most meals centre on meat, so not ideal for a vegetarian although very good vegetables and fruit also widely eaten.
Southern Iraq: Alcohol, while technically legal, is difficult to obtain.
Iraqi Kurdistan: Alcohol is available in certain hotels in Erbil.
Arabic and Kurdish
Southern Iraq: Iraq is a conservative Islamic region, please ensure you wear long trousers and a t-shirt or shirt for men. We suggest women wear a headscarf, a long top that reaches the wrists, covers the chest and stretches to the thighs and covers the bum. Also long trousers. Clothing should hide the shape of the body. This is essential for visiting shrines but also respectful everywhere.
Iraqi Kurdistan: Although it is not as conservative as some of its neighbours, Iraqi-Kurdistan is still an Islamic region and as such women might be more comfortable wearing a headscarf (although it is not compulsory) and long sleeved clothing that covers the shape of the body. Men should wear long trousers.
SAFTEY & SECURITY
The FCO Advises against travel to Iraq. This is due to anti-government forces operating in the certain parts of the country. We avoid travel to parts of the country and take precautions in the areas we do travel. Contact us for information on where we do and do not guide in this region and how we work to minimise risk for our guests and staff.
We have twice been asked by the ETIC to assist in arranging their conferences. A meeting of some of the world’s most travelled people. In 2017 we arranged the conference in Mogadishu with an add-on to Puntland. In 2018 we arranged for the conference in Baghdad with an add-on to Karbala, Najaf and Ur.
Adventure Not War
Adventure Not War is the story of three U.S. veterans traveling back into the mountains of Iraq on a mission to heal wounds and experience the country and its culture without the shadow of war.
In 2017 we arranged the first-ever commercial ski trip to Iraq. 2020 will be our fourth year taking skiers to Iraq and third year of taking skiers to compete at the Iraq Ski Rally. For a country more associated with deserts, Iraq has some great mountainous terrain in the northern semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. We’ll explore the area together with a qualified international ski guide. Through Untamed Borders previous skiing and climbing trips to Iraq, we have identified areas that offer exciting ski touring terrain. Click here to view more details about Ski Iraq trip.