Intrepid travellers are once again trickling into Iraq.
If you don’t mind braving the threat of daily suicide bombings and kidnappings, and the hassle of wading through innumerable security checkpoints, Iraq is back as a tourist destination. Though you still might not be able to sit down for a cup of tea at a roadside cafe, the Iraqi government has thrown open its various religious and historical sites, including some on the UN’s World Heritage list, after a lull of almost six years. And tourists have started trickling in. The month of March saw the first-ever tour group travel through Iraq from south to north.
Baghdad: Divided by the Tigris river, it is a mix of grand old mosques, structures built in Saddam’s reign and traditional Arab souks. Here you can start sampling the country’s cuisine, based largely around chicken, lamb, beef and the trademark dish of masgouf, or barbecued carp. Most meals also include small portions of salad, hummus and bread or rice.
Mosul: This city is the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq. It is a city that is said to be made for walking. The town centre is dominated by a maze of streets and attractive 19th-century houses. You will find various ethnicities that mix here — Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians and Turkomans — fascinating.
Babylon: It is the world’s most famous historical city, once ruled by 10 Mesopotamian dynasties, starting with the dynasty of King Hammurabi and ending with Nebuchadnezzar II, who is credited with Babylon’s existing ruins. It has been alleged that occupying American soldiers have damaged some ruins.
Ctesiphon: The historically important site is about 30 km to the south-east of Baghdad. Here you find the colossal arch of the great banqueting hall of the great palace of Sapor. It is believed to be the widest and highest single-span vault built of baked bricks in the world.
Al-Najaf Al-Ashraf: South of Baghdad, it is a site of great religious significance to Shia Muslims, as it is the shrine of Imam Ali. The shrine is enclosed in a mosque in the city centre, which is resplendent with a golden dome made of 7,777 tiles of pure gold and two 35-metre high golden minarets, each covered with 40,000 gold tiles.
The marshes: South of Basra, the area formed by the Tigris and Euphrates delta is an extensive wetland, home to a variety of birds, fish, plants, reeds, and bulrushes. It is home to the Marsh Arabs, who live in huts (known as sarifas) built from reeds with elaborate latticework entrances and attractive designs.