Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 5th February 2016

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War-torn Iraq a destination for daring travellers

Normally, Iraq is a place to be avoided, but surprisingly it is attracting adventurous visitors who are willing to take a calculated risk by travelling between ancient sites while escorted by heavily armed guards.

Visitors at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad

Visitors at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad.

London - Each member of the group had a different reason for embarking on a tour of ancient Mesopotamia – present day Iraq – and home of the world’s most ancient civilisation and heritage.

Paul Power from the United Kingdom is passionate for historic cities. Belgian Marie Anne Guery learns more about the home country of her deceased husband. Another member of the group, a librarian from California, was visiting every country of the world and collecting all the visas.

Normally, Iraq is a place to be avoided, especially by foreigners, but surprisingly it is attracting adventurous and curious visitors who are willing to take a calculated risk by travelling between ancient sites while escorted by heavily armed guards.

“For many years, I wanted to visit Iraq because of its pivotal importance in the development of civilisation,” Power said. “I have also had an interest in Islam and Arabic and not visiting Iraq left a large gap in my travel experiences… Even though security issues are obviously important.

“My impression after completing the 14-day trip was that it was all worthwhile.”

Power was among the very few adventurous foreign tourists who visited Iraq in the past few years despite rampant insecurity, turmoil and lawlessness.

For years, Iraq has been in the headlines as a conflict zone further propelled into notoriety with the takeover of large parts of the north of the country by Islamic State (ISIS).

For Guery, on her third trip to Iraq since 2011, getting to know the war-torn country and the Iraqi people is a personal and emotional matter. “I was in the country of my beloved (late husband) Kamel and I could see all what he saw. I talked to his people in the delicious Iraqi dialect. I was in paradise.”

“I saw Iraq as it is, a wonderfully beautiful country with lots of potential but stuck in the mud of a deep and sad misery; corruption and ineffectiveness of the political class at all levels,” Guery said.

While tourists must put up with Iraq’s poor infrastructure and often a difficult-to-navigate visa system, a handful of tour operators have been taking groups to the country.

“Despite the chaos surrounding Iraq and neighbouring countries during 2015, we were able to operate our tours successfully,” said Geoff Hann, an expert on Mesopotamian history, whose Hinterland Travel has also been organising trips to such unusual destinations as Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Kashmir.

“However, due to the security situation and the spread of ISIS, we did not go anywhere north of Baghdad but our travellers were greeted with much warmth by local Iraqis when we found our way to less well-known ancient sites such as Lagash and Telloh in the deep south,” he said.

The “unusual tourists” came mostly from the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand in addition to Germany and the United Kingdom as well as a few Chinese and Singaporean. The trip of 10-14 days costs $5,000.

An official at the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism said a small number of tourists have visited Iraq after agreeing to a clearly defined schedule restricted to certain sites in the south and Baghdad. “No more than three small groups have visited Iraq annually,” added the official who requested anonymity.

The trip starts in Baghdad with a city tour and a visit to the recently reopened Iraqi Museum and to Tell Harmal dating to 1800BC, which gives visitors an idea of what an ancient Babylonian town would have been like.

It includes a tour of ancient Mesopotamian cities south of Baghdad, including Kish, Babylon, Borsippa, Nippur and Uruk, the city where writing began.

Located to the north-west of the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, Lagash, is a top attraction on the programme, being one of the oldest cities in Sumer (3500-2000BC) and home to the E-ninnu temple, constructed by Sumerian King Gudea of Lagash in the mid-22nd century BC.

Also on the itinerary is a visit to the At-Tar caves, a complex of about 400 caves carved out of the flanks of a series of fine-grained sedimentary rock escarpments alongside the artificial Lake Milh.

Another highlight of the tour is the marshlands, Iraq’s first national park where shallow lagoons cover about 10,000 sq. km and are home to an endless variety of birds, fish, plants and reeds. Despite the exodus of many young people, Marsh Arabs still live in reed huts in their ancestral homeland as they did 6,000 years ago.

Hinterland Travel started organising tours of Iraq 30 years ago. The greatest problem in visiting Iraq is the endless number of checkpoints where a prolonged wait is not unusual.

After the 2003 US invasion, which toppled late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Iranian influence has increased, Hann noted.

“The young Shias seem to be indoctrinated with Iranian propaganda,” he said. “They are very strict with Western tourists: women have to ensure not a single strand of hair is showing beneath their hijab when they visit the mosques and tombs of the Shia imams in the cities of Najaf and Karbala.”