If the oil should ever run out, the twin rivers will still uncoil like giant pythons from their lairs in High Armenia across the northern plains, will still edge teasingly closer near Baghdad, still sway apart lower down, still combine finally at the site – who knows for sure that it was not? – of the Garden of Eden, and flow commingled through silent date-forests to the Gulf. Whatever happens, the rivers – the life-giving twin rivers for which Abraham, Nebuchadnezzar, Sennacherib, Alexander the Great, Trajan, Harun Al Rashid and a billion other dwellers in Mesopotamia must have raised thanks to their gods – will continue to give life to other generations.

Gavin Young, author of Iraq: Land of Two Rivers

Iraq, the land between the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, is a jigsaw puzzle with three main pieces: the mountainous snow-clad north and northeast making up about 20% of the country, the desert representing 59%, and the southern lowland alluvial plain making up the remainder.

The history of Iraq has often been a history of conflict and bloodshed, but during periods of serenity, splendid civilisations have emerged to make numerous indisputable contributions to the history of mankind: it is the land where writing began, where zero was introduced into mathematics, and where the tales of The Thousand and One Nights were first told. Iraq was the home of the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the mythical Tower of Babel. Al-Qurna is reputed to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden. Splendid mosques and palaces were built by rulers who insisted on nothing but the most magnificent. Through trade, Iraq absorbed the best of what its neighbours had to offer and incorporated the innovations of others into its own unique civilisation.

In the 20th century Arab nationalism was nourished in Iraq – it was the first independent Middle Eastern state and developed a strong Arab identity. Art was encouraged and Baghdad became the venue for many international cultural festivals.

But the 20th century was also the time of the Iran–Iraq War, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent war. The Iraqi people also suffered from some of the most stringent economic sanctions ever imposed by the United Nations, and from Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime.

The dream of a better future after the 2003 war, when the US-led Coalition toppled Saddam, soon turned sour and there began years of sectarianism, insurgency and sheer misery for the ordinary Iraqi. Much of the budget originally allocated by the USA for a massive rebuilding programme was diverted into maintaining security.

However, with the departure of the US occupying forces in 2007 and the establishment of Iraqi rule and with good, free elections in 2014, the country was beginning to stand on its own two feet. Iraqis are a resilient people. The mistakes are theirs, the triumphs are theirs, the future is theirs.

But how could anyone have envisaged the advent of ISIS (Daesh) in June 2014 and the rapid and almost total collapse of the Iraqi forces and the invasion of Iraq, the taking of Mosul and Kirkuk, Barji and Tikrit, the advance on Baghdad and the taking control of the desert lands of Anbar Province by the so-called Islamic Caliphate based in Raqqa in Syria.

After many battles, ISIS were defeated by a combination of Iraqi and Coalition troops. Following this, and the months of political and civil unrest at the end of 2019, it will take time for the Baghdad government to recover, to replace its ministers for a fresh approach to combat its own sectarianism, which encouraged support for ISIS in some communities, notably in the north of Iraq. The chaos and fleeing of vast numbers of people, both inside and outside of its borders in response to the atrocities of ISIS, destruction of their homes and the fighting back of Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army against this invasion, was immense and exacerbated the divisions between the Kurdish regional government and the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

This is an opportune moment to update the current Bradt guide to Iraq. Mesopotamia – the land between the two rivers – continues to be the heritage of the world. Its civilisations, the ancient and historical sites, and the advances of knowledge that took place at these sites over thousands of years, have changed all our lives. Despite Covid, many of the restrictions in place over the previous few years are gradually starting to be lifted, meaning that visitors can again travel in many of the places described in this book and we look forward to the day, hopefully soon, when access to all areas of Iraq is possible. As we have said, the Iraqis are resilient people and with a little help from their friends, the country will recover.

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