Richard Coke writes in Baghdad: The City of Peace (1927) that: ‘In Iraq all major roads lead to the capital, Baghdad, a city that has risen like a phoenix from the ashes many times after being devastated by floods, fires and brutal conquerors. Despite its ever-changing fortunes, the city has seldom lost its importance as a commercial, communications and cultural centre.’

Market stall in Baghdad
©Thomas Koch, Shutterstock

Located in the heart of the historic Tigris–Euphrates Valley, Baghdad began life as a series of pre-Islamic settlements. In the 8th century it was transformed into the capital of the Muslim world and remained a cultural metropolis for centuries. But the story of the City of Peace is largely the story of continuous war. Where there is not war, there is pestilence, famine and civil disturbance. Such is the paradox which cynical history has written across the high aims implied in the name bestowed upon the city by her founder.

In 1258, after its destruction by Mongol invaders, the Persians and the Turks vied for control of the city, which was finally incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in 1638 as the vilayet of Baghdad, an important provincial centre. In 1932 it became the capital of modern Iraq.

What to see and do

Iraq National Museum

The looting of the Iraq Museum in April 2003 was the story of a cultural genocide. ‘If a country’s civilisation is looted, its history ends,’ commented Riad Muhammad, an Iraqi archaeologist. The museum, which first opened in 1923, occupies an area of 4,700m². It was expanded continually until 1983, culminating in 28 large exhibition halls, with displays pre-dating 9000bc and reaching right up to the Islamic era. The museum’s collections included some of the earliest tools ever made, gold from the famous Royal Cemetery at Ur, and Assyrian bull figures and reliefs from the ancient Assyrian capitals of Nimrud, Nineveh and Khorsabad.

Eventually, many of the objects looted from the museum were accounted for. Refurbishments are still continuing: the Islamic Halls and the Assyrian Halls are basically complete, as is building work on an annex at the entrance. Up until the beginning of 2015 the museum was open by invitation only, but it reopened to the public in February of that year and took the next step in its rehabilitation of becoming one of the world’s great museums.

© David Stanley, Wikimedia Commons

The British Museum has assisted the Iraq Museum with conservation, archaeological and curatorial assistance, as have other museums across the world. This inspires self-confidence and provides a fresh impetus to the study of ancient Mesopotamia.

Thankfully, the pessimistic view of the museum after the looting has been overtaken by optimism and the resurgence of culture and the museum has begun to blaze forth again.

The Abbasid Palace

This remarkable building on the corner of Bab Al-Moazam Bridge and Al-Rashid St/Ahmedi Square with its beautiful arch is a fine example of Islamic architecture. It was constructed during the reign of Caliph al Nasser Lidnillah (1179–1225).

The only Abbasid palace left in Baghdad, it has a central courtyard and two storeys of rooms, with beautiful arches and muqarnases (ornately decorated cornice supports) in brickwork, and a remarkable iwan (a rectangular vaulted hall, walled on three sides with the fourth side open) with brickwork ceiling and façade. When it was partly reconstructed in recent times another iwan was built to face it. Because of the palace’s resemblance in plan and structure to Al-Mustansiriya School, some scholars believe it is actually the Sharabiya School, a school for Islamic theology built in the 12th century, mentioned by the old Arab historians.

Kadhimiya Mosque

In the northern neighbourhood of Kadhimiya about 5km from the centre of Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris, Kadhimiya is one of the oldest districts in Baghdad.

©Hamed Malekpour, Wikimedia Commons

Today, Kadhimiya is home to the largest Shia mosque in Baghdad. The monumental entrance to the sanctuary is dominated by two gilded and glowing domes and four impressive minarets all coated with gold. A further four smaller minarets are also gold coloured. Entering the holy shrines, one is overwhelmed by a feeling of majesty and amazement.

Kadhimiya Mosque and Shrine has today become one of Islam’s architectural wonders, and the mosque is always very crowded, thronged with Shia pilgrims from all over the Islamic world.

Jwad Selim’s Nasb Al-Hurriyah (Freedom Monument)

Located on the east side of the Tigris near the Army Canal 4km from Fardous Square, this extraordinary monument of blue domes was designed by Ismail Fattah Al-Turki and built by Mitsubishi in 1983 as a shrine to the million or so Iraqis killed during the eight-year war with Iran. Set by two lakes, the shrine is imposingly huge.

In Saddam’s time there were glass cases full of belongings of the dead including pens, nail clippers, letters home, glasses and dog tags. Today it has become a monument to Shia and Kurdish victims of Saddam’s regime. Gruesome mannequins display firing-squad executions and the unearthing of mass graves.

The monument is not an easy place to enter as special police permission is required and in the past groups of tourists to visit found the interior completely locked. Although things have relaxed slightly recently, the monument still does not attract many local people.

Al-Zawra Park

A family-friendly place, Al-Zawra Park feels very secure. The park has two entrances, one from Al-Zaytoon Street (which is less crowded), the other at the side of Al-Rashid Hotel. The park is home to the Middle East’s second-largest Ferris wheel, which is 60m high and has 40 cabins with an overall capacity for 240 people.

©Mohammad Huzam, Wikimedia Commons

The amusement park has rides including the Happy Swing, Gravity, Pirates, Family Ship and Aerial Slides, and other roller coasters and water rides. If you visit in March you will be able to enjoy the annual flower festival where you’ll see (and smell) some of the best roses in the world. There is also a small zoo where a rare white Bengal tiger cub was born in 2013, and a lake with boat rides.

Where to stay in Baghdad

Baghdad has a wide range of accommodation, from five-star establishments to modest family-run hotels. One of the best-located hotels, the Golden Tulip (formerly the Al-Rashid) Hotel in the international zone, has recently been refurbished to very high standards and caters mainly for international businesspeople. You should note that many Baghdad hotels still don’t seem to have their own websites and there is no information generally available about prices.

Virtually all the hotels in the luxury and upmarket range can arrange airport pickups – just ask (and ask the price, if any) at the time of booking.

Getting to Baghdad

Baghdad’s airport is located 16km west of the city and there is a complicated entry system for passengers due to the strict security currently in place. A number of airlines fly to Baghdad airport, such as Iraqi airway which flies between London Gatwick & Baghdad via Ankara, Minsk or Moscow & Najaf via Amman. Emirates offers daily flights from between Baghdad & Dubai, plus frequent services from Basra.

Baghdad Central Station (Damashaq Sq) is the main railway station in the city and the largest in Iraq. Built by the British it is one of the best pieces of colonial architecture anywhere. Currently one daily service operates to Basra and back again with departures at 18.20, arriving in Basra at 05.30 the following morning. The service is slow and was in the past subject to attacks on the line. Subsequently, it has not been popular, but frankly it is very cheap by
international standards.

A network of well-paved roads connects Baghdad with all parts of the country. Travellers are advised to exercise caution when travelling to and from Baghdad by bus, as despite the good road networks buses and bus stations can be targets of suicide bombings. In the past the Nahda bus station in Baghdad (from which buses depart to the mainly Shia cities of the south) has been the target of car bombings and suicide bombers.