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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.
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.
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.
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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
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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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