You will not find many places on the map where you will not meet tourists. The places are mostly forbidden, localities and regions when the journey takes as long as vacation itself or conflict zones about which we hear only negative reports from media. Our lives are often formed by prejudices - that is why I am visiting countries where I can get rid of these prejudices. One of these countries is Iraq. Set off on journey to the fragile cradle of civilization with me.
Iraq - in the heart of the civilization
My fourth visit in republic of Iraq was really satisfying for me. During my previous visits I was roaming around Kurdish autonomous territory. Arabian part of Iraq was a big surprise (not only) for me. The secret which I was determinate to reveal in this turbulent era. After several attempts to travel alone it started to be clear to me that I will get to the country only with organized group. Nowadays, the individual journey in central and southern Iraq is not possible due to safety reasons. I connected myself with one British travel agency which was able to organize and arrange all permissions that were needed for touristic stay in the country. It is the work of enthusiast and explorer Geoffrey Hann who travels to Iraq for decades and he is willing to share his knowledge and experience with "other oriented tourists" (considered crazy by some people).
Babylon, Ur, Lagash, Nippur, Samarra, Karbala, Najaf. Just a short list of places that I managed to visit in hot September 2017. But let´s start from the beginning. Many of the readers may as one question - Why Iraq? The answer is quite simple. If we ignore the one-sided information from the media, you will find key places in history of humanity, unchained mountains on the north, unforgettable oriental atmosphere of Baghdad and mainly - hospitability and gratefulness of locals who did not forget their pride, faith and willingness to help to the travelers even after many decades.
It would not be Iraq without its diversity. Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians, Yezidis, Mandaeans and small community of Armenians lived with each other in peace until Iraq started to attract world powers which are moving with the stability of this country even today. But I will skip politics and I will be talking about different, more positive aspects of my visit to offer you a different perspective.
After landing in Baghdad and surprisingly quickly arranged visas I am meeting with other members of our group. Three English, one doctor from New Zealand, Chinese, American (I will come back to her later) and me - inconspicuous Slovak guy. Next one was local guide from Ministry of Tourism, driver and policeman dressed as civilist. We are accompanied by various armed escorts during longer transfers between provinces which we do not like (it drags too much attention), but the government cares about secure movement of only tourists in Arabian part of Iraq during this month. So, whether we like it or not, we must accept it. Our trip is supposed to take two weeks. We are starting in capital city, its area and then we are moving to the south. The weather forecast is pretty much the same for the next week - very hot - daily average 45 - 48 °C exceptionally more. We sleep mostly in the good hotels where we can rest after long exhausting days.
Good beer in Baghdad?
Baghdad lives his everyday life just like everywhere else in the world (if we ignore a lot of military checks and bases). People are surviving best as they can, go to work, trade in bazars, have a tea and smoke water pipe in the evening. And they discuss and discuss. You will find well equipped transport in the city. You can find double decker buses like in London here too! Two years ago, Baghdad opened re-built national museum which we visited. And it is beautiful. Every hall is dedicated to different era - Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Acadian, Seleucidan. Every era had significant impact on the history of humanity.
Baghdad is also only place where it is possible to legally buy alcohol (if we ignore Kurdish autonomy). On the main street Saddoun or near it you can find many of mini shops where you can get a beer (local is terrible - according to local it tastes like camel urine), wine or stronger alcohol. Sellers are Christians or Yezidis, Muslims of course can´t sell alcohol, which can´t be said about its consummation. These mini shops are often targeted by more radical part of local population which sometimes burn these shops. I tis not just a case of Baghdad, but in some cases, it happens in areas of more liberal Iraq Kurdistan (for example town Chamchamal).
Close to the touch of gods
"What is your reason for visiting Iraq?" asks me American with Indian origin. "I love these places, kindness of people, cultural relations and complete absence of tourists" I am answering. "What is the goal of your journey?" I am asking curiously. "You know, I am spiritual healer and from my previous lives I found out that my ancestors are from Iraq. Long time ago I was daughter of Babylonian god Marduk and I came here to understand my purpose."
I suddenly froze and stopped talking along with other members of a trip who heard these sentences and same as them, I was not able to react too. It seems that my visit of this unstable country reaches new dimension, I said to myself. American means it totally seriously and convinces everybody, that she must be the center of attention. For us it was suffering and unstoppable solving of here strange requirements, including here favorite toilet stops in military bases. These thing drives us English guide mad.
We are moving to the most important city in history of humanity in this country - to Babylon, where (already executed) dictator Saddam Hussain used to park his tanks. It is unbelievably hot, almost 50 °C, but if you drink regularly, rest in the shadow of palms and bushes with sweet figs, you can get through this. Babylon as the center of old Babylonia (on the territory of old Mesopotamia) is partially rebuilt today, including temples and palaces (also plundered palace of already mentioned dictator). You will find remains of mighty Babylonian tower (where the languages were mixed to not understand each other - according to the Bible) 18 kilometers south west from Babylon. And all that remained are literally just ruins. Similar towers, more precisely zikkurats (in that times ancient skyscrapers) and their remains are located on several places in Iraq, for example in well-known center of Summers and workstation of all father of all prophets Abraham, in the city of Ur, where to the no longer existing zikkurat leads 130 stairs and his age dates to 5000 years b.c. Most preserved (and perfectly rebuilt) is 52 meters high zikkurat in the city of Samarra northern from Baghdad. It used to be capital city of reign of Abbas family, which was later moved to Baghdad.
Iraq is unique mainly due to the fact, that wherever you go, you are literally walking on history of civilization. Besides already mentioned sacred and political places I can´t forget to mention Nippur - religious center of Mesopotamia sacred to god of wind and storm - Enlil, where we also took a 30 minutes' walk through the desert. This trip cost us as much energy as 7-hour trip in High Tatras.
There are so many things to write about. I guess I should not miss the cities like Karbala and Najaf which are the most sacred places for Muslims (mainly shiia branch) on the Earth right after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Imam Husayn Shrine - shrine of grandson of prophet Muhammad and the most important martyr of shiia Muslims in Karbala is impressive. That's a shame that they did not let us enter with cellphones and cameras to record this beauty. Security is stricter there than in Baghdad. After a little bit of effort, we could touch the sanctuary where this martyr is buried. We could honor his memory that way.
Dialogues with the dead ones
In the city of Najaf the largest graveyard in the world called Wadi Al-Salam is located. There are buried approximately 5 million people and there is working business with moving people from other Muslim countries. The legend says, that prophet Abraham bought this territory and people consider it as part of the heaven now - that means that every Muslims wants to be buried here. This graveyard (which is part of the UNESCO) is so big, that between its main streets is working city transport. You can also see there driving taxis and private vehicles. After personal warning from our leader of our small expedition about movement for my own risk I could enjoy the atmosphere early in the morning alone, while our security was sleeping. One of the strongest experiences for me ever. I will not tell you what was happening inside of me - I can´t.
South way to the marshes
We are stopping by the Adam´s knowledge tree (where the rivers Euphrates and Tigris meet) which according to Bible is connected to the first sin of the human. Everybody will make his own opinion about it according to his beliefs and faith. So far, I did not know that such place really existed. Our English guide Geoffrey suggest a visit of a nearby port, about which is said that was ordered to be built by Alexander the Great. Of course, we are all happy about this idea, except of our policeman, who refuses this change of plan unconfirmed by government. We can´t convince him even we are trying hard. At least, the reader will make his own image how is it working with movement in this country.
Not many of the readers will know, that in south Iraq are also marshes except of deserts. In these marshes, the time completely stopped and the way of living here is the same as thousands of years ago. It was good for us to freshen up by riding the motor boats with our armed guard - they perfectly enjoyed this trip and laughed even under the mask of skeleton teeth. The situation was not always as idyllic as now. During the sunni era and regime of Saddam Hussain were marshes rapidly drained because of hiding shiia rebels who found the perfect cover during the attack of sunni armed forces. Luckily, they are working on repairing the damage and the indigenous people are coming back.
"Come here Peter, let´s smoke from a water pipe," orders Raad, our local guide who I befriended since the first moments and we are in contact even now. I couldn´t disagree and we are walking around the streets of various cities during the evenings (even around these ones, where there used to be shootings few years ago), we discuss each other lives and we understand each other perfectly. Sometimes I realize, that I can´t feel more alive anywhere else but here.
Visiting the followers of John Baptist
One of our numerous visits was specific. The program included the visit of Mandaeans - one of the first Christian sect. Their followers in the second biggest town in Iraq - Basra, make about 5000 citizens. Others few 10,000 are spread all around the world - mainly because of many repressions from the Muslims. It is the gnostic society, which survived until now from the ancient times and the part of their teaching is not publicly know. We know that it is the group which follows the teaching of John Baptist, does not worship the Christ as a savior and do not accept everybody - so, if you want to be Mendaean, you need to be born like that. I understood it immediately, after they explained their teaching, which looked really opened to other religions and I think I fulfilled criteria for the membership. But after saying this out loud they expressed strong disagreement. Anyways, it was a unique experience and I am sure I will remember it.
Every vacation ends one day
Our vacation is approaching to its end and I wonder how fast these two weeks ended. Many people think various things about my idea - visiting Iraq, but my dream became true and I wish that to everyone. And who wants to go there - safe and without doubts - it is possible. Maybe Iraq will become the top destination of this year?
- individual tourist visas do not exist, but you can travel only in
an organized group with plan of journey and reserved accommodation.
In case you would cross the border with Kurdish autonomous area
(where there is possible to get individual tourist visas) ilegally,
state organs submissive to central government in Baghdad have right to
arrest you and deport you from country for your money. These cases
SAFETY - on a high level, in Baghdad there are many control bases. In south Iraq, mainly in sacred places, the checks are even more strict, even though terrorist are sometime successful with coordinated attack, which is mainly targeted for shiia pilgrims. Islamic state is not controlling any big city in Iraq anymore, except some Kurdistan territories are controlled by shiia units. For tourists who respect the rules, there is not potential risk or threat.
SIGHTS - most of the well-known sights are located in central or southern Iraq - some of them have been rebuilt, some of these are not preserved very much, they are without any check and sadly, often plundered by local population. Bring a lot of water with yourself and do not take any "souvenirs" this crime is heavily punished.
SHIA AND SUNNI MUSLIMS - after the fall of the Saddam Hussain and intervention of foreign militaries, the relationships between sunnis and shiias became worse. Differences between them are not in worshiping of prophet Muhammad. Shiias muslims believe in related line of successors while sunnis stood by Muhammad's friend Abu Bakr who became first Arabian khalif. Shiias separate politics and religion, sunnis do not. There are some differences in the way they pray, but they share the faith and basic beliefs.
Date of trip: september 2017
Author: Peter Gregor