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Iraq is a country with an immensely rich history, located in the area that was once known as Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. A fertile land, Mesopotamia passed through the hands of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires.
Unfortunately, this fascinating ancient history has been largely overshadowed by the current war in Iraq. For the few souls out there who desperately want to visit Iraq, patience is the key word. Iraq is not a safe place for visitors, with the threat of kidnapping and murder prevalent.
Iraq, known in Classical Antiquity as Mesopotamia, was home to some of the oldest civilizations in the world, with a cultural history of over 10,000 years, hence its common epithet, the Cradle of Civilization. Mesopotamia, as part of the larger Fertile Crescent, was a significant part of the Ancient Near East throughout the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Iraq was successively ruled by the Assyrian, Medo-Persian, Seleucid and Parthian empires during the Iron Age and Classical Antiquity.
The Islamic conquest in the 7th century AD established Islam in Iraq. Under the Rashidun Caliphate, the prophet Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law Ali moved his capital to Kufa "fi al-Iraq" when he became the fourth caliph. The Umayyad Caliphate ruled the province of Iraq from Damascus in the 7th century. (However, eventually there was a separate, independent Caliphate of Cordoba). The Abbasid Caliphate built the city of Baghdad in the 8th century as their capital, and it became the leading metropolis of the Arab and Muslim world for five centuries. Baghdad was the largest multicultural city of the Middle Ages, peaking at a population of more than a million, and was the centre of learning during the Islamic Golden Age. The Mongols destroyed the city during the sack of Baghdad in the 13th century.
After a series of invasions and conquest by the Mongols and Turkmens, Iraq fell under Ottoman rule in the 16th century, intermittently falling under Mamluk and Safavid control.
Ottoman rule ended with World War I, when the Ottomans sided with Germany and the Central Powers. In the Mesopotamian campaign against the Central Powers, British forces invaded the country and suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Turkish army during the Siege of Kut (1915–16). British forces regrouped and captured Baghdad in 1917. An armistice was signed in 1918. Iraq came to be administered by the British Empire until the establishment of the Kingdom of Iraq in 1932. The Republic of Iraq was established in 1958 following a coup d'etat.
In 1979, Saddam Hussein took power as Iraqi President. Shortly after taking power, the political situation in Iraq's neighbor Iran changed drastically after the success of the Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which resulted in a Shi'ite Muslim theocratic state being established. This was seen as a dangerous change in the eyes of the Iraqi government, as Iraq too had a Shi'ite majority and was ruled by Hussein's government which, apart from having numerous Sunnis occupying leading positions, had a pan-Arab but non-religious ideology. In 1980, Hussein claimed that Iranian forces were trying to topple his government and declared war on Iran. Saddam Hussein supported the Iranian Islamic socialist organization called the People's Mujahedin of Iran which opposed the Iranian government. During the Iran–Iraq War Iraqi forces attacked Iranian soldiers and civilians with chemical weapons.
Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003 following the US-led invasion of the country. After the invasion, the situation deteriorated and from 2007 Iraq has been in or on the brink of a state of civil war.
Iraq shares international borders with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iran. It lies between latitudes 29° and 38° N, and longitudes 39° and 49° E (a small area lies west of 39°). The total area is about 437,072 km2. Iraq is mostly desert and mountains except for the two main river valleys. The Tigris River and the Euphrates River run almost parallel to each on a northeast route across the country. Along these rivers is very rich farmland and many important Iraqi cities. The north of the country is mostly composed of mountains; the highest point being at 3,611 metres, known locally as Cheekah Dar. Iraq has a small coastline measuring 58 kilometres along the Persian Gulf. Close to the coast and along the Shatt al-Arab, there used to be marshlands, but many were drained in the 1990s.
Iraq is currently divided into 18 governorates. Several large geographic regions can be identified, divided along sectarian lines.
Although Iraq might not be the safest (to say the least) destination in the world right now, there are some magnificent cultural places to visit. So hopefully the country will open up within some time again and travellers will find there way to some of the sites on the Unesco World Heritage List. Unfortunately, the latter two are on the endangered list of the Unesco.
Hatra is a large fortified city in the central northern parts of the country and was used to be part of the Parthian Empire and capital of the first Arab Kingdom. Hatra has had several invasions by the Romans but thanks to its high, thick walls reinforced by towers, it withstood these with success. The remains of the city, especially the temples where Hellenistic and Roman architecture mixes with some Eastern features, still witnesses the greatness of its civilization. Hatra is on the Unesco World Heritage List.
The ancient city of Ashur is located a bit to the west of Hatra, along the Tigris River in northern Mesopotamia. The city dates back about 5000 years and used to be the first capital of the Assyrian Empire from about 3000 tot 3500 years ago. The city-state was an important international trading platform and served as the religious capital of the Assyrians as well (Ashur was the God). After destructions by the Babylonians, Ashur revived again during the Parthian period in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Ashur is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Samarra Archaeological City was an Islamic capital city that ruled over the provinces of the Abbasid Empire extending from Tunisia to Central Asia for a century. Samarra is located on both sides of the Tigris River in the central north of the country and is made out of an area over 40 kilometers long and about 5 or 6 kilometers wide. Architecture and art both developed here and were spread to the other regions of the Islamic world. The Great Mosque dating back to the 9th century and its spiral minaret is one of the most impressive architectural monuments of the site but there is still much (almost 80%) to be discovered and excavated. Samarra is placed on the Unesco World Heritage List.
The Assyrian New Year takes place every year on April 1 in all countries where Assyrians reside. Marked by festivities, the day is celebrated with long parades in colorful outfits and ancient costumes. Students, dignitaries, men, and women alike join in the parties, dancing in the streets and parks for hours. Just like the rest of the world, Iraqis also celebrated the Georgian calendar New Year on January 1.
Established in 2005, the Iraq Short Film Festival celebrates movies made by and for Iraqis. A series of short films are shown in the Arabic or Kurdish language throughout Baghdad. The event is held August 1 through September 30.
Held once a year, the Babylon International Festival encompasses all aspects of arts and music. The event represents different cultures and civilizations, celebrating science and culture through folkloric ensembles, singing, musicals, stage performances, seminars, workshops, and other activities. Its main goal is to preserve ancient traditions by passing them on to the younger generations. The annual event takes place September 22 through October 1.
Christmas Day (December 25) is celebrated differently in Iraq than in the west, observed by the few remaining Christians in the country. The day is marked with a ceremonial reading of the nativity story from the Arabic Bible. During the reading, family members hold lighted candles as they listen, and once the story is finished, a bonfire is lighted using the candles and a pile of dried thorns in the courtyard, symbolic of the future of the household in the coming year. Once the thorns have completely turned to ashes, family members jump over the remnants and make a wish. Religious services are also held in local churches, followed by processionals.
Throughout the year, Iraqis celebrate historical milestones like Army Day (January 6), Baghdad Liberation Day (April 9), Republic Day (July 14), Ceasefire Day or End of Iran-Iraq War (August 8), and Iraqi Independence Day (October 3).
Iraq has a hot and dry desert climate throughout the year, although winters can be a bit cold, especially at night and more in the north of the country. In the central and southern deserts though, temperatures are still around 20 °C during the day but can rise up to almost 50 °C during the hottest summer days. Even at night, tropical temperatures are normal during the months of June to September and rain is scarce.
Iraqi Airways is the national airline of Iraq. Based at Baghdad International Airport (SDA), offically it has several flights to countries in the region and to London and Frankfurt, but due to instability in the country schedules vary and may change often. Although Basra and Erbil have international airports as well, flights are irregular but should include Frankfurt and Vienna from the latter.
The central and southern parts of Iraq are off limits to travellers. At least it's not recommended to say the least, though technically it's possible. Borders with Kuwait are closed, though you could enter from the west or east from countries like Jordan, Syria and Iran. Most people enter Iraq from Turkey though, paying a visit to the relatively safe (but certainly not that safe!) northern part of the country, Iraqi Kurdistan. You can also cross borders from Iran but don't count on it because it has not been open always during the last couple of years.
Before the war, but uncertain now, there were trains running from Baghdad both south to Basra as well as north to Mosul. There were also trains to Kirkuk and Arbil. Several sleeping cars as well as restaurants and aircon carriages were even available. At the moment, it is unlikely that all train service still exist.
At the moment it is advised to drive in convoy, but even more it is advised just not to use any road in Iraq except for the Kurdish region in the north. If you must, rent a car with a driver!
Bus services exist throughout the country with the main long distance services being from Baghdad to Basra and Mosul and a number of places in between. Buses, minibuses and shared taxis are more used by travellers in the north visiting the Kurdish region.
Although two of the best known rivers in the world, the Euphrates and Tigris, run through Iraq, there are no passenger services. This also applies to the small coastal part in the south that borders the Persian Gulf.
Entry will be refused to citizens of Israel and to those who show stamps and/or visas from Israel if arriving at airports in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul or Najaf.
All visitors, except nationals of the Arab League, need a visa when visiting Iraq. These can easily be obtained at the nearest Iraqi embassy or consulate and even at some borders. Of course you have to question yourself whether or not you are going to cross a border into Iraq, but the ones from Turkey are generally the safest and visa can be obtained upon arrival by most nationals.
See also Money Matters
The Iraqi dinar (IQD) is the official currency, however you will also be able to spend euros (€) and US dollars (USD) almost everywhere. Be aware that most people do not like to make change for large banknotes. Also note that any defects in the bills (creases, ink stamps from banks, tears, etc.) will raise suspicion that you are a counterfeiter. Don't bring old bills with you, either. Carry mostly small bills in the form of Iraqi dinars for daily spending cash. Since the introduction of the new Iraqi dinar, its widespread acceptance and confidence has reduced the prominence of the US dollar, and many shopkeepers are now refusing to accept them. However, most people will still pay large hotel bills or rent payments using US dollars or euro due to the sheer volume of notes required to pay with dinars.
Work in Iraq pays very well. Typical foreign contractors can make up to USD100k per year for security and administrative work.
Arabic is the national language of Iraq, but English is so commonly spoken there that most travellers will get by in the various shops, markets and cafes. The downside is that speaking English will immediately identify you as an outsider. This is dangerous because of the strong underground network of Iraqis who inform attackers of possible target opportunities.
Kurdish is spoken in the Kurdistan region, in one of two varieties: Kurmanji and Sorani. Kurmanji is spoken in and around Dohuk while Sorani is spoken in and around Arbil (Hewlar) and Sulaymaniyah. These two varieties are mutually unintelligible. However, Arabic is also widely spoken, and the number of speakers of English is on the rise.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, there are plenty of hotels and although they are hard to find in any travel guide, anyone on the street will direct you to a nearby place. There's no shortage in Zakho, Dohuk or Arbil. Rates run about USD15-25 per night for a single room with bathroom.
Alcohol is legal in Iraq and Street vendors can usually get alcohol if you really need it, but again this is just asking to be identified as an outsider. Furthermore, while alcohol is legal many insurgent groups in Iraq have targeted alcohol vendors and users.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Iraq. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Iraq) where that disease is widely prevalent.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Iraq. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid. Vaccination against hepatitis B, tuberculosis and rabies are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Malaria is prevalent in the country, but only in the provinces of Duhok, Erbil, Ninawa, Sulaimaninya and Ta'mim below 1,500 metres and during the May to November period. It is recommend to take malaria pills when going to these regions during these months. Also use mosquito repellant (50% DEET) and sleep under a mosquito net.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
After the war was declared officially over on December 2011, the political situation is very unstable. In May 2013, a series of deadly bombings and shootings happened. In December 2013, clashes in Anbar occurred. In January 2014, the control of Fallujah is divided between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Sunni anti-government tribal militias.
Iraq is beset with numerous problems that make travelling risky and difficult. The security situation is perilous in just about any area of the country, and continues to deteriorate under continuing terrorist attacks. Resistance to continuing military occupation, U.S. and UK forces, and Iraqi military, police or anyone associated with the Iraqi government, as well as increasing factional and sectarian conflict make street warfare, bombings, and other acts of armed violence daily occurrences.
The central third of the country is the most volatile; the southern ports are less dangerous, but only relatively so. However, northern Iraq, or Kurdistan is safe and has suffered from very little violence since 2003. Major cities, including Baghdad, are fertile grounds for political upheavals, kidnappings, and other underground activity, so tread lightly. The Kurdish peshmerga (military) is over 100,000 strong and every road, town, city and even village has checkpoints going in and out. All non-Kurds are searched thoroughly and occasionally followed by the internal secret police. However fear not, this is why there is almost no chance of terrorism in the North. The police are friendly and everyone is happy to meet foreigners, especially Americans.
Travelling alone makes you an easy kidnapping target, and is best avoided – if possible travel with a translator/guard. There are comprehensive private and state security services available for your personal protection - you are strongly advised to use the available options for your own safety. If employed in Iraq, consult your employer on how to handle your personal safety. Independent contractors will usually have security provided by their clients, if no security is provided you should seriously consider not travelling to Iraq, if you must go you should hire armed security and get proper training in appropriate protective gear, survival, and weapons.
See also International Telephone Calls
Ask kichikacha a question about Iraq
Travelled in Kurdistani Iraq
Ask aysar a question about Iraq
Regular traveller to Middle east, fluent Arabic speaker and recently returned from a 2 month trip to Iraq and Jordan.(feb 04-Apr 04). Toured many locations in mid east, happy to give travel tips, language tips, local customs tips, and just about anything you can think of. Even tips on travel to Iraq as i just spent over a month there. Just ask. Aysar.
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