Guest Post – Destination Iraq!

Howdy all. Today we have Tim Blight from urbanduniya.com doing a guest post. And he’s taking to us IRAQ! Last year Tim visited Iraq in October, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask him to write about it! 

So you’re looking for a holiday destination, wondering where to go, somewhere different, a bit off-the-beaten-track and a bit out there. You finally settle on a place and date, you book the ticket, and start counting down the days. Finally the big day arrives, your bag is packed, you head to the airport and board your flight to… Iraq.

Yep, this is not your typical destination, but it is an opportunity to see a country which has been off limits to tourists for a very long time. And the big news is that Iraq is doable.

You might think I’m crazy for saying this, but I’d like to think I have the goods to back it up – I went there in October last year.

However Iraq, after years of war and prior decades of diplomatic isolation, is not a place to just jump on a plane and fly off to. Nor is it the next stop on a first-time-overseas trip after cocktails on the beach in Bali. Iraq rewards planning, caution, research, awareness and understanding. Not everywhere is accessible – in fact not everywhere have the guns yet fallen silent. Where you can go, and how you go about it, will determine the success or otherwise of a visit to this intriguing land.

 

What to see

The Tigris River flows through Baghdad
Al-Kadhimiya Shrine, Baghdad

Baghdad is the capital and centre for business, although it’s looking quite rundown these days. Definitely stop by the Baghdad Museum, Abu Hanifah Mosque and Al-Kadhimiya Shrine.

The shrine of Abbas ibn Ali in Karbala

Karbala is one of the most important cities for the Shia, whose third Imam, Hussain, was brutal murdered along with scores of his followers here in 680AD. The whole city revolves around the shrine to Imam Hussain and his half-brother Abbas ibn Ali.

Religious students mingle in Najaf

Najaf is Iraq’s third biggest city, and another important city for the Shia. It’s a cosmopolitan city, and like Karbala, is home to an important shrine – that of Hussain’s father and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Ali ibn-Talib.

Babylon (known in Arabic as Babil) was once the largest city in the world but is now a shadow of its former self. You can still see some remains, and history buffs will revel in the significance, but the hanging gardens exist only in imagination.

Ziggurat of Ur (Image Kaufingdude)

Ur is home to a giant ziggurat (stepped pyramid) which dates back to the days when a city stood here. Now an impressive, but lonely, ruin.

The shrine of Imam al-Hadi and Imam al-Askari in Samarra

Samarra is home to an important and very beautiful Shia shrine, but has also seen violence in the recent past, so is best visited as part of a religious pilgrimage group.

Kharand Valley in Iraqi Kurdistan (Image Leviclancy)

Iraqi Kurdistan is an entire region in the country’s northeast, centred around cities like Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, historic sites like Amedi and and mountain scenery at Soran and Rawandiz. I didn’t actually go to this region, but I can recommend the excellent Against the Compass which covers this region.

 

When and how to visit

Iraqi Kurdistan is, by all accounts, reasonably safe for travellers to visit independently, and visas are reasonably easy to obtain (if necessary at all).

The rest of Iraq is another matter. If you have contacts inside Iraq, they should be able to help you organise things, and as long as you are sensible you should be fine.

If, like most of us, you don’t have any contacts in Iraq then you should consider booking on a tour. Journey to Mesopotamia is one company that can organise trips around the major sights. Security will be provided.

Another option to visit Iraq semi-independently is to visit during Arbaeen, a major pilgrimage to Karbala which currently takes place in October (like all Islamic dates, the timing changes according to the Western calendar each year). With anywhere between five and twenty million mostly foreign pilgrims present, dress the part and you’re going to blend in. It will be easy to navigate places like Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad and Samarra with little trouble, although Babylon and Ur would still require separate arrangements. Of course, travelling during Arbaeen involves other considerations, especially if you are not of the Islamic, or particularly Shia persuasion – more than ever, it’s a time to show respect.

Spring and autumn are the best times to visit.

Check that your travel insurance covers Iraq – many policies are voided if you enter an area that your government warns against.

Safety

Read the travel advice, but take it as just that – advice. Understand that you need to keep a low profile for your safety, don’t go wandering off in paddocks where there might be landmines and take precautions for your own safety. It’s impossible to give prescriptive safety advice as each traveller is different, and the situation is always changing; Iraq is not a 100% safe travel destination, but then nor is it impossible.

Iraq has major hurdles ahead to rebuild its shattered infrastructure, let alone its tourism industry, but what is certain is that the doors are open and the trickle of travellers has begun. Travel to Iraq will one day be easily possible…the question is of how soon you can get there!

A HUGE thanks to Tim for this incredible insight into a place not many get to travel! Thanks for reading today and May the Journey Never End!

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