Basra vies with Mosul as Iraq’s second city and is the principal port of Iraq. The city is penetrated by a complex network of canals and streams. These canals were once used to transport goods and people throughout the city, hence the misnomer ‘Venice of the East’ ascribed to Basra.
Today the drop in the levels of water and the extreme pollution of the waterways has made such use impossible. The budding port of yesterday has diminished and moved south of the city centre, and the Shatt Al-Arab is no longer so crowded with large shipping and boats scampering in all directions.
What to see and do
Ashar is the heart of the city, the old commercial centre, home to the merchants of the 18th and 19th centuries. Situated one street north of the bazaar area, its covered bazaar and mosque mark the end of the narrow creek that links it and the river to Old Basra.
Today the older parts of Ashar are still attractive. A few of the beautiful old-style houses with walled gardens and balconies leaning over into the narrow streets remain with beautiful wooden façades in the style of old Arab architecture (called Shanasheel). They have character and are worth wandering through – a delight to see, giving you an idea of what Old Basra must have looked like. They are quite extensive: explore some of the alleyways behind the houses and note the old shutters and doorways and interestingly shaped windows; the shops smelling of spice, herbs and coffee, and the old-world atmosphere that pervades there.
Scattered in this area are also mosques and churches. The churches are very difficult to gain admission to, not surprising considering the persecution Christians in this area have been, and are still being, subjected to.
Head towards the bazaar area in the direction of the Shatt Al-Arab where you will find the many streets of the Central Bazaar. Although crowded, the myriad streets are full of almost everything that a port city would import from around the world.
Saddam Hussein’s Palace Area
Foreign visitors need to show their permission document to enter. It may be possible to obtain permission from the military by telephone, but be prepared for a long wait. If you can gain admission the palace area is well worth a visit.
There are four major buildings, with many smaller outbuildings. One palace has been taken over by a major TV centre, so is not open to the public. But the other palaces, in various states of dereliction, are viewable. Occupied by British troops when they seized the city, they initially suffered little damage, but were looted and vandalised after the British left.
The modern interior woodwork, ornate plaster ceilings, fine glass and general design, albeit larger than life, is completed with superb workmanship. The design of the exterior doors and lanterns are in harmony and the fine bas-reliefs in stone are reminiscent of Mussolini’s 1930s architecture.
Basra Antiquities Museum
Opened on 27 September 2016, it heralds a new start for culture in the region and Iraq in general. Although originally only including one gallery, this had grown to three by 2019. Assisted by the British Museum and others, it will provide training for Iraqi archaeologists and collection facilities for a new generation of young Iraqis. Work is underway to turn the whole area into a cultural centre. ‘It will be the principal museum in southern Iraq and we hope people will look to it as a model museum in the region,’ said John Curtis, keeper at the British Museum, but work is progressing slowly and it will take a long time to be completed.
Imam Ali Mosque
The Al-Imam Ali ibn Talib Mosque was the first mosque to be built in Iraq at the beginning of the Arab conquests, and the first mosque outside the Arabian Peninsula. It is an important place for pilgrimage as Imam Ali prayed here.
The mosque has been rebuilt many times, the latest reincarnation being completed by Saddam Hussein. All that is left of the first mosque is a remnant of the minaret and the columns and slabs of the original courtyard which faithfully reflect the very first mosque of Muhammad in Medina. The mosque is controlled by the Mahdi militia and it is absolutely forbidden for women to enter unless clad in the abayah provided.
Where to stay in Basra
Basra lacks good, European-style, reasonably priced hotels, and some of the top-range hotels will use this fact to try to rip off customers. You will find that in some hotels room rates fluctuate dramatically, and you can be quoted from US$200 to US$800 for the same room depending on the season or if they are hosting a conference in the hotel or not.
Around and behind the Basra International Hotel are many mid-range and budget hotels and restaurants. These mainly attract local Iraqi and foreign workers so don’t tend to advertise internationally or have websites. Many are heavily, or even fully, booked for months in advance, being the only places to stay for the influx of businesspeople and workers in Basra. Standards in these hotels vary enormously. The best advice is to visit the area, check availability and price in person, and view the room and facilities before making a booking.
Getting to Basra
Basra International Airport is located 20km northwest of Basra city. Emirates offer frequent services from Basra and Dubai. FlyDubai have flights between Baghdad/Basra & Dubai, and Fly Baghdad offer flights between Baghdad/Basra & Minsk/various hubs in the Gulf.
An overnight train service from Baghdad departs daily at 18.30 and is scheduled to arrive at 06.10 the next morning; however, delays are common. The train usually carries a restaurant car and sometimes ‘tourist class’ carriages. The railway station is a somewhat bare, basic building with minimum facilities. Tentative attempts have been made to promote tourism on this route; however, the infrastructure is not yet in place for this to attract international tourists, although it is used by local visitors and offers a good, inexpensive alternative to driving or flying.