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. Querna 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.
Iraq – Mesopotamia – the land between the two rivers – is also the heritage of the world.
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 Iraq forces and the invasion of Iraq, the taking of Mosul, 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.
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.
It has taken some months for the Baghdad government to recover, to replace its ministers for a fresh approach to combat its own sectarianism, which has encouraged support for ISIS in some communities, notably in the north of Iraq, and for the outside world to also realise the consequences of what this could mean within the region. The resultant 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, has been immense. It has also exacerbated the divisions between the Kurdish regional government and the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
Both Bradt and the authors have thought hard about the wisdom of publishing a travel guide at this time. But Iraq – Mesopotamia – the land between the two rivers – is also 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 present restrictions visitors can still travel in many of the places described in our Iraq guide 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.
Author’s story – Geoff Hann
After the Second Gulf War, I was determined to revisit Baghdad. My friends were there – how had they coped? What damage had been done? Could we run tours again? What was the future for Iraq? I travelled to Baghdad alone. There were scary moments, once hurriedly leaving a restaurant to bursts of Kalashnikov fire. But the Baghdadis’ enthusiasm for freedom after Saddam’s constrictive regime was very infectious and apart from looting, there was little damage to the city. So with outrageous enthusiasm I embarked on my post-war tour of Iraq in October 2003, accompanied by people almost as crazy as I was. It was a wonderful experience. There were no restrictions and we totally bemused the military.
How could tourists be travelling past their checkpoints as they were hunkered down over their machine guns? The general air of relaxation extended to us mingling with the Pilgrims in Najaf and Kerbala, and being welcomed into the Great Mosque at Kufa. However, this freedom to travel did not last beyond early 2004. I consoled myself with exploring Kurdistan Iraq, a region difficult to visit under Saddam. In 2007 I arranged two tours. I was delighted to discover the Bavian Gorge with its Assyrian Reliefs. But there came a burst of reality when attempting to locate the site of Jarmo, a Neolithic village excavated in 1958, known for its pottery sequence dating back to 6000BC. Saddam had destroyed the local village and mosque, and we could see little of the site. Returning, we were suddenly stopped and arrested with brutal and fear-inducing efficiency. Our drivers were bound and we were driven at great speed to a police station. Four hours later, following a hilarious interrogation in German between a local interpreter and our German lady client of over 80 years, we were released. Surreal! The Chief of Police offered a guard for another visit, but I politely declined.
A visit to Iraq will always be an adventure. The delights of meeting new people and exploring are always there.
Author’s story – Karen Dabrowska
When I was working on the first Bradt guide with Geoff Hann many people advised me that the book was premature. ‘Wait until the situation improves,’ they said. But I soon realised that waiting for the new dawn in Iraq is like waiting for Godot. In 2003 I set up a good news website Another Iraq to highlight positive developments in the country and I hope and pray that the Iraqi people will not allow the extremists to win the battle for the soul of Iraq.
As this book was being prepared the world witnessed the ransacking of the Mosul Museum, an attack on the 2,000-year-old city of Hatra with bulldozers, and an assault on the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. But rather than cursing the darkness, the guide sheds light on Iraq’s beauty and heritage. The Iraqi people could once be compared to a necklace where the thread of nationality united a variety of unique and colourful beads. Let us hope the mud can be removed from this necklace and its jewels will sparkle once again.
Author’s story – Tina Townsend-Greaves
Having avidly read the adventures of Gertrude Bell, H V Morton, Agatha Christie, Freya Stark and dreamed, alas too late, of travelling across the Syrian Desert on a Nairn Coach, I couldn’t wait to actually visit Iraq. I got my chance in 2009, when I joined the first group of tourists to visit Iraq ‘proper’. Although much changed from the genteel, slow-paced country of a hundred years ago that I had read so much about, it was still a joy to be there and to visit places resonant with history – Babylon, Ur, Uruk.
What amazed me most was the interest our visit generated in Iraq and across the world. Suddenly everywhere we went there were journalists, cameras and film crews. On our final day in Baghdad our hotel was besieged by the media. Suddenly everyone wanted to know ‘Why Iraq?’
Why Iraq? Because it’s there. Because, despite everything, it still has beauty. To wander over 6,000 years of history, the pots of people long gone crunching under your feet. To see where the Hanging Gardens once grew, where the flood washed away the layers of civilisation, where the tree of life once flourished in the Garden of Eden. To walk in the bustling souks and see the faces of the people as they realise you are not a soldier, not an NGO; you are a tourist, a traveller visiting their country because you want to, because you can, bringing a small measure of normality back to the country and to their lives. Why Iraq? Why not Iraq!