On a typical dream vacation

20.11.2022

After my eighth visit to the Republic of Iraq and after more than 10 years of active travelling, I realized that my travels have always been a bit of a search for something that is above us, something that gives a higher meaning and something that makes life worth living in this world. However, if you break through into the secrets of countries where the political situation is not exactly the most favorable, you will find the people who are most grateful for security, family, work and freedom. Last but not least, it is faith that keeps people on their feet and that brings a smile to their face every day even in a difficult conditions.

Introducing...

Iraq as a country (its majority part - the Arab part) began to open for individual tourism only in march 2021. Until then, movement was allowed only with armed security and an agency that provided you absolutely everything. Our recent visit to this part of the world only confirmed that tourism is actually borning here, although sometimes on certain places you can see a lot of tourists (mainly locals, but also a few foreign ones). However, you can be sure that you will find places here where tourists were not seen for a long time - for example, in Iraq's largest but least populated region, Anbar province - because of the big resistance against the central government. And this resistance came mainly from the cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah - the base camp of famous military group of Al-Qaeda. However, security is better and better and finally we managed to get there without any bigger complications and we reached city of Ramadi and Al-Hit. To telling the truth, my frequent visits to this republic always had a different goal. Once it was the city of Mosul, just after opening the country for free movement, the second time reaching the highest peak in the country - Cheekha Dar (3611 m), the third time visiting Kirkuk (in 2015 under the rule of the Kurds), the fourth time visiting old friends, and so on. This time it was a presentation of the country to my good friend Martin and at the same time a visit to the mentioned province of Anbar and the city of Tikrit, where (nearby) the dreaded dictator Saddam Hussein came from. 

Close to change

Anyway, we started with the capital - Baghdad, where we flew in. The biggest adventure waited for us immediately at the airport in Vienna, where we were surprised by very strict pandemic rules, which delayed us a bit, but with God's help, we finally flew out, even for a while it looked like I was going to fly alone. Baghdad, once known as the City of Peace, is also the second largest city in the Arab world after Cairo (population 9 million), and when you plan to see more than 3 sights in a day that are not next to each other, you can't do more, trust me. We planned to visit exactly 3 places and it took us the whole day. First was the Al-Kadhmiya Mosque, where you'll find the tombs of the seventh and ninth Imams in the Shiia Islam. If you know places like Najaf or Karbala, the atmosphere is very similar and you can feel a strong spiritual energy here. I like such places because they are full of humility and peace. While researching information about this mosque, I was surprised by the numerous bombings attacks that happened here between 2004 and 2016. The last recorded one was from the crazy guys from ISIS, whose reign has fortunately ended completely and security is getting better year by year. After the mosque, we moved to the so-called "Al Shaheed Monument" (or Martyr Monument), which was built mainly for the fallen Iraqi soldiers in the Iran-Iraq war, but also for the martyrs who died in other fights in this troubled country. We were lucky. During our visit, students from various universities and were celebrating their graduation here, so it was very lively and there was a lot of conversation between us. Iraqis are generally very nice, respectful and open. Many of them spoke to us alone or came to us asking if they could take a picture with us. This attention pleases yourself - for firsts days it is like this, then you are looking for place to hide, especially if you're more of an introvert like extrovert. Personally, I liked the smiles of the girls the most, who, although they speak to you exceptionally in this country, finally it leaves a pleasant feeling from being in touch of them. The last stop in Baghdad was the Mustansiriyah school on the left bank of the Tigris river - perhaps one of the most important madrasas in the Islamic world, where, in addition to religion, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and philosophy were taught here. Here we met a group of female tourists from the Kurdish part of the country, and I must say that it was a very nice meeting. To tell the truth, I was a bit surprised because the Kurds mostly do not speaking about Arabs well, because of the ethnic violence against them during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Some years ago they did not travel to Arab parts of Iraq if it was not necessary. This seems to be starting to change and I'm very happy because of it.

We are delegation

But now let´s to move to Anbar province, which has been in my interest since last year, when I had a conversation in Erbil (in the Kurdish part) with a shop owner who came from this area and showed me the beautiful water mills from his hometown of Al- Hit. At that time, I thought visiting this place and this area was absolutely unreal. This year, at the end of march, we were there. Some may be wondering how we got here. First of all, we had a valid tourist visas, which were granted to us at the airport in Baghdad for 77 dollars, then - a letter in arabic, who we are and why we are here with a wish for good health (this was advised by an experienced traveler Martin Navratil from Travelistan and I thank him very much for that) and a photo of these mills of course.They let us go relatively without problems, just that the whole time we were in the city we had a company - a kind of head of security in the city, who, according to the licenses and stamps in the car, which he showed us, was a big chief. We passed any checkpoint around the city or in the city with just a wave of the hand. You can still only dream about free movement here. The mills in Al-Hit are similar to those you can find in Homs in Syria. Although you can find similar, reconstructed or preserved mills all over the world, their history started in current Iraq. The city of Al-Hit was founded 2300 BC. Our new guide, named Mahar, took us on a boat, and we sailed along the Euphrates river with local tourists (foreigners were already here, but you can count them on the fingers of one hand). The water was so clean that the Iraqis drank from it during the sail. I was thinking about it too, but I'd rather not go for it. With my sensitive stomach, I would definitely... . After this visit, we  decided to have an ice cream, which Martin did not like at all, and I had to finish it. Afterwards, we had a haircut at a local hairdresser. They cut me into a style, which I really didn't want it. This style we are calling in my country Slovakia - mushroom style. You have a hair like upper part of mushroom. I remember as a child, when my grandmother wanted to cut my hair like that, I protested very strongly. I thought it was funny when I saw children running around outside with this hairstyle. Now, the Iraqis made me that and I covered my hair with a cap next days. We spent the night in the stuffy, dusty city of Ramadi and in a hotel that looked not very well, but at least we had some sleep. There was also an idea to go to the city in the evening for a merry-go-round, but I personally was very tired, so we preferred to stay in the room and see the main mosque the next morning. After Ramadi, our steps led to Tikrit, where the oldest church in Iraq was supposed to be located. Either it no longer existed or the place became a military base. This is how the locals presented it to us, and we didn't really want to explore it anymore, because we had other plans. At least we took a picture of the destroyed Saddam's palace (necessary to said he had several dozen of them around the country) and we made a pose beside the sign I love Tikrit. Otherwise, there is nothing in the city, three main streets and "only" nice people. Our thoughts were already focused on Samarra. I was especially looking forward to visiting the Al-Askari Mosque, one of the most important Shiite mosques in the world, which was built in 944. Here you can find the remains of the 10th and 11th Imams and the so-called twelfth "hidden" Imam Mahdi. Its dome is covered with 72,000 gold bricks and, unfortunately, it has also been a direct witness to bombings, because the mosque is already in a Sunni area and as I read - although the Sunnis also respect this mosque very much, there were more attempts to damage it. I wasn't even sure if we can go inside. It is probably the most heavily guarded mosque in all of Iraq, and the entire security check took almost three hours. We saw about two dozen soldiers, in one case they kept us at one checkpoint and did not notice that they had left two Kalashnikovs leaning against the wall - right next to us. After a few minutes they realized they forgotten them and took them back to each other. While we waited at these point and the trust between us and the soldiers grew, we exchanged contacts on social networks. Sometimes it's really funny to see guys heavily armed, how they are actually curious about you and when all the prejudices fall away, you realize that they are completely normal people. I have to admit, I have never seen a more beautifully decorated mosque. I was particularly interested in the chandeliers above our heads. We were accompanied by an english speaking Iraqi and a security guy. I didn't notice it, but Martin later told me, that this "security guard" pushed the locals away from me when they wanted to speak with me or take a picture together. We were there as a delegation.

Meeting with Jackie Chan

One of the most visited sights in Iraq is certainly the minaret in Samarra (Al-Malwiya) belonging to the palace complex. At the past times (around 850 AD), it was the largest mosque in the world. There are spiral stairs leading up to the minaret, and since there are no barriers on the sides, you have to be very careful not to fall, especially when you are going around other people. The minaret is 50 meters high. Again, we were lucky with the students. It was very busy here. But what surprised us was a very similar minaret which we found on the way to Mosul. It was almost identical to the previous monument, only smaller, and approach to the minaret was much more dangerous (in the final exit passage, we literally leaned against the wall of the minaret with our whole body and finally not fall). Martin managed to find out that it is the Abu Dulaf minaret located 15 kilometers north of Samarra and rising to a height of 30 meters. I guarantee you that you will hardly meet anyone here. We saw only a few picnicking guys, one of whom was playing Jackie Chan poses, and all his movements invited me to do the same. The road to Mosul is dusty and very long. If you want to move around the country, buses don't work much here, only shared taxis that wait until they are full or you can pay more if you want to go without waiting for others. Someone can ask if it would be possible to hitchhike here. Unthinkable. Just on the way from Baghdad to Erbil, you have about 30 checkpoints and you are strongly checked at each one. If someone see you on the side of the road, soon some authorities will come to check you. Traveling in the Arab part by taxis and staying in hotels is real. Even without a guide and an armed guard. Hitchhiking or sleeping inside the houses of locals is not possible at the moment. The police would immediately come and you would have a problem. You must not forget that you are in a country that is after the war just a short time and you, as tourists alone, arouse suspicion. Why? Because many fighters from the Islamic State also came from Europe, and these people first pretended they are tourists. But the smiles and easygoing mood will break even the toughest soldier. So always be relaxed and you will go everywhere more easily. But it is even more important to have respect and reverence for these people. 

Talking with the "secret"

I visited Mosul for the first time in June 2021. It was about 3 months after they allowed foreigners to enter the country freely. The problem was that many soldiers did not know about it and the city center was under strict control. So at that time I ended up in interrogations quite often. Now it's much more relaxed, only one "secret" was checking us together. It went like this. A guy in civilian clothes came up to us: "Hello, I'm from the police, show me my passports." Me: "Why should I show you my passport?" He: "Well, because I'm from the police." Me: "And how do I knowing you're from the police - you're dressed normally, anyone could ask me that. You show me your authorization." He: "What, I have to show you the authorization?" Me: "Yes, of course, otherwise we won't give you passports." He: "Okay." After showing it, we then showed our passports and everything it was fine. Then he directed his hand to Martin head with the words: "Here you have one kiss from me for the corona." And that was the end of the inspection. But what was before this scene? Before this "secret", some guy on the street shouted at us to go to him. From the beginning he was very unsympathetic and seemed aggressive. We ignored him and he probably called the police on us. The city was full of churches and Christians before the Islamic State invasion. Not many of them returned and started to reconstruct the churches. However, walking through the city center is still a sad story, because of the war. It is easy to destroy, but difficult to put back together. Anyway, it has improved since my last visit. Even the mosque, where Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared the Islamic Caliphate in 2014, started to be a reconstructed. It looks for a better times. Our great desire was to see Hatra - an ancient city founded in the 1st century BC and the first monument in Iraq to be taken under the wing of UNESCO. Unfortunately, we were unlucky, they wanted a permit from us and we couldn't get it because no one knew who was supposed to give it to us and they sent us from one place to another. This is Iraq too. So we managed to visit at least Nimrud - an ancient Assyrian city, unfortunately strongly destroyed by the Islamic State and forbidden to take photos. However, Martin dared and took one good photo, although he risked that if they found out on the spot, the guard who accompanied us, would lose his work. I have to mention the oldest monastery in the world, Mar Mattai Monastery, from the 4th century AD, which is once located in the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan and the second time in the territory of "Arab" Iraq. Every time I come here, it's different and I wonder how it si possible. The fact is that it is one of the most impressive monuments in Iraq at all with fantastic views of the plains of Nineveh and the outskirts of Mosul (only in good weather). This visit, we are really lucky to meet students. There was a bus tour with a large number of girls. I liked the girl named Nur the most, whose name means light in translation. And light is exactly what this country needs. So let's wish it for Iraq.

What to see in the country:

Iraq has monuments older and more precious than in Egypt.

Ur: Sumerian city-state in Southern Mesopotamia. The hometown of the father of all prophets - Abraham.

Uruk: also an ancient city in Mesopotamia associated with the "birth" of cuneiform writing.

Babylon: the largest city in the world during the Second Babylonian Dynasty. The Etemenanki ziggurat, better known as the Tower of Babylon, also stood here.

Hatra: the first UNESCO monument in Iraq. An ancient city located between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers - a religious and commercial center. Founded in the 1st century BC.

Lagash: Sumerian city-state. One of the oldest states of Sumer and Babylonia. Eridu: the oldest city in the world, founded around 5400 BC.

Agargouf: a temple dedicated to a Sumerian gods.

Ctesiphon: the residence of the kings and the administrative center of the Middle East. 7th century BC.

Samarra: in the 9th century, the capital of the Abbasids - the second dynasty of Arab caliphs.

Al-Askari Mosque: Shiite mosque hiding the remains of the 10th, 11th and 12th Imams. The spiral minaret of Samarra: once part of the largest mosque in the world (9th century), over 50 meters high.

Nippur: Sumerian religious center dedicated to the god Enlil (later Marduk) - god of rain, wind and storm.

Najaf: the city where you can find the tomb of the first Imam of Shia Islam - Ali. The largest cemetery in the world, Wadi As Salam, is also located here, where more than 8 million people are buried.

Karbala: the battle that divided Muslims into Sunnis and Shiites took place here. Here you will find the tombs of the 3rd and 4th imams (Husayn and Hasan).

Mar Mattai Monastery: the oldest monastery in the world - 4th century.

Security: Better and better. As I mentioned above, there are roughly 30 checkpoints on the road from Baghdad to Erbil, and at each one they check you. Control of your documents by the security forces will probably delay you the most. Bombings have reduced, Mosul has never been safer in the last 5 years. In the evenings in Baghdad, there are often demonstrations against the central government, which is strongly anti-American - better to avoid them. It is not recommended to go outside the big cities without a guide.

Accommodation: Every major city has at least one good and comfortable hotel. You have to expect regular power outages, as the public power grid is only available in Baghdad for about 3 hours, and then everything is handled by noisy gasoline generators. It is also possible to pay in dollars. Some hotels can be booked online. Food and drink: Iraq is not a country for vegetarians. Everywhere you will come across restaurants that serve meat: chicken, beef, lamb. Fish are popular near water sources. Iraqi cuisine is not spicy and is relatively simple. The meat is usually served with rice, Arabic bread, various sauces, vegetables, fruits, yogurts. Alcohol is available in most places, except the pilgrimage ones (Karbala, Najaf). Many alcohol stores were burned down in the past, due to the disapproval of the more radical-minded population. Iraqis don't drink much coffee, rather tea. Practical info: Print out a piece of paper in arabic, who you are, where you are going, along with photos of the places you want to visit. You won't be able to solve much here with English. Don't wear short pants, don't shake hands with women unless they shake your hand first, and don't enter mosques during Friday prayers. Do not take pictures of military buildings and take pictures with soldiers only when they invite you to do so. Do not drink alcohol in public.  

Date of trip: march/april 2022

Written by: Peter Gregor

Photographed by: Peter Gregor, Martin Durikovic, Thomas Pastierik  

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