The most affordable flights to Iraq are with Pegasus airlines from Istanbul that arrive in Baghdad at 2:30 am. Since 2021, when peace prevailed in the country and visa is issued upon arrival, some travelers have started to visit it, but definitely there is a long way before becoming a popular tourist destination. So this time I am legally in Iraq, the visa process doesn’t take more than an hour, but it costs $ 77. Credit cards are valid for ATM withdrawals, with the exception of Revolut cards. Otherwise The Baghdad international airport is not quite ordinary, as it is surrounded by a wider security area and there is a special process to get out of it. There are official taxis located within the security area with a fixed cost for a city royute at 45,000 dinars (€ 29). There are also minibuses that cost 8,000 (€ 5) per person until the outer gate which is about 3 kilometers far. From there, according to your negotiating skills, you may look for a cheaper taxi. Honestly, it was not worth all that effort, the amount finally saved was small. The young taxi driver doesn’t speak English at all, neither is smart enough to communicate with body language. Another English-speaking driver -not common around the country – helps us to make the deal and tries to contact the hotel for the exact address, but nobody answers the phone. I insist that I can find the hotel on my own map. The driver is not capable in communication but regarding to his driving skills he drives like in a rally. He has a very special hair, his hair forms an intense plume fixed by a quantity of gel, hairspray or something. I will find out that this hairstyle is a fashion adopted by a large part of Iraqi younsters.
The hotel is located on Saadoon Street which is considered to be a very central point of the city. Of course, there are no people around at this time. Iraq is not supposed to be a cheap destination, also confirmed by the prices of the few hotels that have online booking, such as Al Shadeer Palace, overpriced at €64.
After few hours of sleep we get back on track with a medium quality breakfast. It includes the thin local bread called khubz, more reminiscent of Indian naan, as well as other less digestible flavors with chicken or beef, diced cheeses like in Turkey, stuffed pies, eggs, chickpea soup and some tasteless sweets. We take a taxi to another hotel, Babylon Rotana where Hertz car rental agency is located.
Along the way, we encounter lots of armored humvee vehicles with a machine gun ready to fire. A green park along the Tigris River breaks the beige monotony a bit. Another armored vehicle along with fully armed soldiers, guard the gate of the luxury hotel whose outer fence resembles of a fortress. We get a first taste of the security procedures, including scanning for metal and body search. The hotel is really impressive, as it usually happens in such countries where the social gap is huge. Inside the main halls, antique cars are part of the rich decoration. Surprisingly, the car we receive is higher than expected, instead of a small sedan I had booked, we get a huge Toyota Fortuner 4×4, automatic, seven-seater. The rental price is $40 per day and I chose full insurance which costs $20 extra. I consider it necessary to have peace of mind in a country like this. Before we depart, we get to a nearby shop to buy a SIM card, which costs along with the data package an excessive amount of 35,000 iqd (€ 22), which causes a an arguement with the shopkeeper as we think he is cheating us. The process of registration includes sending a passport photo, a face photo and a fingerprint.
Whoever God has autority here, let him help us. I start driving in the chaos of Baghdad. It’s just taste of the driving and traffic conditions to follow, and it’s already ltoo much for me. The size of our car is not great for maneuvering in dense traffic. To claim the lane you have to be in a constant struggle, competing for every inch of the road, avoiding the sheet metal to touch each other. Priority rules do not apply, traffic lights neither, the boldest and bravest wins, in the roundabouts the situation becomes even harder. Vehicles are moving in opposite direction even on roads with multi lanes and middle barrier. While you drive on the left lane you may see a vehicle coming at you! In any lane you drive, following cars flash lights to make you move aside, regardless if there is space for such maneuvering. Along the way you become acquainted with this paranoid way of driving and you adopt the same rude behavior to claim your space on the road.
Google Maps unfortunately does not offer navigation in Iraq, only “estimated route”. Fortunately, Waze maps offer navigation but do not have good road coverage. Fortunately, we manage to get out of the urban area of Baghdad soon and find ourselves on the road to the north. The landscape is the same as the one I had encountered on my previous trip in Mosul. At the road side there are some small shops with signs in Arabic, all among dust, rubble and rubbish. Only the minefields of Mosul are missing, but at times I’d say that the landscape here looks like it was bombed.
Halfway through I stop for fuel as the vehicle is a strong consumer of hydrocarbons. The employees of the gas station, as expected, do not speak English, but they are excited about our presence and want to take selfies. The gas station owners aren’t sure about the fuel of the vehicle, they think that it’s diesel. I was informed by the office that it has a petrol engine and it was also written on the tank cap. Benzine, I keep telling them! They show great professionalism by smelling the tank with concern. But they are helpful, they call the office and confirm. I was asked to move the car to the next pump, but on the maneuver I didn’t notice that the concrete base of the pump was too far extending. I hear a creepy sound and at the moment I think I ruined the car. I go out scared and find that fortunately the height clearance of the chassis is exactly at the height of the concrete base, the car had ridden it with stuck wheels on either side of it, but there was no damage. I release the vehicle and park it by the pump. Is this gasoline pump my friend or will we have another disaster? He puts the pump on, pouring a couple of liters on the ground to show me. Fortunately, no one is smoking around and we avoid burning alive! I try to understand the price of gasoline but it does not make sense. 400? 400 dinars? Is this possible; € 0.25 per liter? Fuel is the cheapest good in the country. Welcome to Iraq.
Approaching the town of Samara, the checkpoints become dense, the military is polite and friendly, but vigilant. Of course they do not speak English, I do not understand their questions and I simply answer “Samara”. They give me a hand gesture by turning finger around and I answer positively that I am indeed going to the spiral minaret. Looking at passports they do not get along with our country of origin, they usually ask a question like: Espana, Alemania? so I understand and answer “Yunan”. They look impressed. Each one kilometer there is a roadblock and control of passports and vehicle documents. The officer asks me: GPS? Of course I tell him, I have, do not worry. He asks to show me the route on the map, I have to follow and avoid entering the city but go directly to the archeological site. Passing the 2nd bridge of the river Tigris, at another roadblock the passports are obligatorily handed over and we are given a card with which we pass more easily the rest of checkpoints at every 500 meters. This area, as well as the wider area around Tikrit and Kirkuk, continues to be attacked by the “Islamic State”. It is not allowed to approach the city outskirts, definitely not allowed to spend the night there. The famous minaret that I have been dreaming of for years, can be seen from afar. It is not as huge as its replica in the city of Doha, but this is the original.
The Great Malwiyah Mosque of Samara, of 9th century AD, at the time of its construction was the largest mosque in the world. The famous spiral minaret, 52 meters high, was unique in its kind. In 2005 part of its top was damaged by guerrilla fire against US forces who used it as a sniper tower. The ticket to the monument costs 25,000 (€ 16) and apart from the two guards there is no one else. Following the spiral external corridor that gradually narrows, the size of the mosque with its outer wall is preserved, is revealed. In the background, the golden dome of the modern mosque of the city dominates and we will visit later. At the other end, a small town in color matching with dust and sand is in oblivion under the hot sun and the idleness of Ramadan. No pedestrians or cars are moving on streets, no children are playing in the playground. At the top of the minaret the strong wind calms the 37 degrees of temperature and the panoramic view offers an unusual view and a non typical spectacle. Two guys wearing robes and Arabic headscarf appear at the base of the minaret and take selfies. They show enthusiastic and curious about us and like to take photos of each other. When we say goodbye, everyone gives me a kiss. In the ear! What’s about dude, is this a custom here? The guards are very helpful, they offer their WC that hasn’t got a cleaning in recent years, their living room to take a seat and bottled water in plastic cups. Water is offered everywhere for free in unlimited quantities, in restaurants, hotels, temples, so we will almost never have to buy it.
The other mosque, the one that is in full operation and grandeur, is the Haram of Imam Ali al-Hadi, also known as the Al-Askari mosque. Ali al-Hadi was the tenth of the twelve Imams of Shia Islam and the temple was built in 944 AD. It’s one of the most important Shiite shrines in the world. Covered with 72,000 pieces of gold and surrounded by walls of blue tiles, the dome was a dominant feature of the Samara skyline. The dome was destroyed by Al-Qaeda, which planted 200 kilograms of explosives in 2006, and two of its remaining minarets exploded in 2008, sparking widespread outrage among Shia muslims. The dome and minarets were repaired and the mosque reopened in 2009.
Parking on the street in front of the checkpoint is of course not allowed, there is a private parking a little further (2,000 IQD – € 1.3), from which the church is at least one kilometer away. The heat is intense and my travel buddy is forced to wear black female abaya at the first checkpoint, an extremely hot outfit under these climatic conditions. At the separate entrance of the men I get a thorough security check, a routine I’ll get used to along the way. The officer asks me to take a picture to confirm that my camera is real. Unfortunately, the camera is not allowed further inside the mosque, my backpack also has to be delivered to a special cloakroom, as well as the shoes, they do not accept carrying them in a bag. I am persistently trying to persuade the guards to allow me to use the camera, citing journalistic status and displaying an ID that proves it. The ID is real even though I am not a professional journalist, but still i don’t get a photography permit. Instead, it’s allowed to take photos and video with mobile phone, even at Ali’s tomb surrounded by stainless steel railings. The mosque is incredibly impressive. The whole interior is lined with small mirrors that form elaborate arabesques and shimmer creating an apparition. The religious dedication of the pilgrims and the energy of this place, create a peace of mind. I have been to other impressive Islamic shrines of Islam, such as in Iran and Uzbekistan, but the grandeur I find in the mausoleum of this small town is unparalleled. Like most places of worship in Iraq, it is divided into men and women.
Getting back to the checkpoint for get our passports, we meet a group of Spanish bikers, the only foreigners on the whole trip. The guard is socialising with all of us, he tries to explain through google translate that there is a “castle of love” or at least a beautiful castle, on the way to Tikrit. I tell him that unfortunately I do not have time, I have a long route ahead of me, I want to go south and reach Falujjah. After a while driving I see a castle indeed and realize that I took a wrong way. Errors are paid with delays, not only due to distance but also due to additional checkpoints. Back on the outskirts of Samara, the young soldiers of another roadblock probably have time for chat, even though they do not speak a word in English. They don’t understand even the simplest things that I try to them with semantics. But they assure me that the alternative route I want to take to Fallujah even if it’s not mapped in Google is … “tamam”. Indeed, the road is lonely, almost no other vehicles are met and the route is pleasant. The intersection with the main road is near Ramadi, another city that was hit by the war. As there is no signage, just half-finished road works, I get out on a bridge that leads to a dead end, then I find myself going wrong way at a junction and fortunately I follow another vehicle to get off the highway. If you take this road to the west it reaches the border with Jordan, towards east it reaches Fallujah and later Baghdad.
Fallujah became an important center of resistance during the Iraqi uprising and was the scene of fierce fighting that left much of the city devastated. In 2014, the city was captured by Islamic State and liberated in 2016 by government forces. Despite the devastation it suffered, I do not see any remnants of war, or images of horror like those experienced in 2018 in Mosul, fortunately they don’t exist here. Instead I see luxury residential complexes behind fortified concrete walls, shops of all kinds and intense activity as the daily fast of Ramadan has ended and the citizens rush to enjoy the “iftar”, satisfying their hunger in the local restaurants. In one of them, which was recommended by the Hertz employees, we end up with fatigue and hunger. The front room is for men only and the back for families. The big restaurant is in a frenzy, almost all the tables are full and the waiters are serving like crazy. There is no menu in English of course, but the appetizers (mezza) arrive automatically without you ordering them, this is how they dine in Iraq, I remembered that from my previous trip. They include dishes with tahini, chickpea soup, fried eggplant with vinegar, tzatziki without garlic, pickles and various others, not to be missed the flat bread. There are not many main course options, especially at this time, the typical menu includes kebabs and chicken with biryani rice. The restaurant starts to empty early, the waiters move us to a corner of the room and start cleaning by emptying buckets of water on the floor and sweeping with brooms. Upon departure we leave a tip and they call us back thinking we forgot the money. We understand that this practice is completely unknown in Iraq. In Fallujah we fail to locate a hotel, the few pointed on the map do not really exist. So we have to take the road back to Baghdad. However, we should have calculated the time needed not according to physical distance but also the time-consuming control points and traffic.
In the area of Abu Graib were once located the notorious high security prisons. During the war, members of the US Army and the CIA committed a series of human rights abuses and war crimes against detainees, torture, physical and sexual abuse, and murder. The heinous incidents have been made public by personal testimonies and photos of soldiers mocking prisoners while they are being tortured or killed. The leaked incidents caused shock and outrage that resulted in global criticism against the United States. The George W. Bush administration has claimed that these were isolated incidents and that some military personnel were tried for war crimes. In 2013, at least 500 detainees escaped, organized by the “Islamic State”. The detainees were senior members of Al Qaeda and had been sentenced to death. The prison closed in 2014 for security reasons.
Another checkpoint initially seems typical, but escalates into an uncomfortable, unpleasant process. The soldier asks us to stop at the side of the road and a captain checks the passports and license plates of the vehicle. Some things do not seem to match for him. He shows me something on the visa, but it’s written in Arabic. I try to explain him that indeed we arrived in Baghdad today, but our direction is rather strange for him. The car’s license plates are from Erbil, a thing that also doesn’t make sense to him. He is polite and asks me to follow him to the headquarters. There he refers me to the general who is dressed in plain outfit and reads a newspaper. He completely ignores me, he does not even look at me. I start to protest but no one listens to me. A colonel also checks passports, but he does not speak English either. I raise my voice, I tell them that what is happening is unacceptable for the tourism and the publicity of the country. Lastly I think they are going to arrest me. After half an hour, they finally let me go. I will be informed a few days later that there was an ISIS attack in the west and everyone was on alert. Another roadblock on the outskirts of Baghdad follows. There is no special treatment here. Each passenger exits the vehicle and a trained dog detects possible explosives. A long queue of vehicles is formed for the whole process.
We arrive exhausted at around midnight on Saadoon Avenue, looking for a cheaper hotel. The adjacent streets look spooky dark, with booze and drug addicts lying on the sidewalks. I hope the car will be safe parked here. Repair works are being carried out at the hotel despite the late hours and the entrance staircase has been completely removed. The surreal setting is complemented by a timber placed by the workers that we have to climb on to get to the reception. The property is managed and staffed by Bangladeshis and is surprisingly clean, the room spacious and costs just 50,000 (€ 30). All other nights in Baghdad will be slept at this hotel. Only the bathroom turned out to be shared, with a … rat, coming out of the drainage at night and leaving dirt on the floor. Breakfast was quite poor.
The 100 km route to Karbala is relatively easy and crosses only two checkpoints requiring short procedures. The landscape is again boring or even ugly, full of dust, rubble, beige buildings and armed military presence. A sole highlight is a bridge over the Euphrates River, one of the two rivers that form Mesopotamia. Unlike the Tigris, the Euphrates is a small river that doesn’t seem significant for the survival of prehistoric civilizations. Nevertheless, it is the longest river in the Middle East (2700 km) and 13th in all of Asia. I share the drive with my travel buddy and we notice at roadblocks and on route, people looking at us like aliens. Female drivers are not found outside of Baghdad and such a thing is unheard of.
Karbala is considered a holy city, especially for Shia Muslims. The holy shrines of Imam Hussein and Abbas ibn Ali are located here. Imam Husayn was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who was martyred during the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. Hussein’s tomb is one of the holiest places in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Every year, millions of pilgrims visit the city to watch the celebration of Ashura, which marks the anniversary of Husayn’s death. In the Arba’een rituals that take place forty days after Ashura, up to 45 million people move from the city of Karbala to the other holy city, Najaf, in an 80-kilometer hiking ritual. The pilgrims come from more than 56 countries and of course from all over Iraq, many of them arriving in Karbala on foot. It is considered the largest annual public gathering in the world.
The outer perimeter of the sanctuary includes an entire city with shops of various kinds, but during the Ramadan are closed within daytime. There are even hotels for the pilgrims inside this area. Again, abaya is mandatory for women, this dress code is also followed throughout the city. My travel buddy gets constantly notices if a little hair protrudes from the attire, in the midst of the stifling heat of around 37 degrees. Imagine what happens in summer when 50 Celsius are reached. After about a kilometer we reach the inner courtyard of the temple where at one of the 10 gates, I try again to convince the guards to allow me to take the camera inside. I use every persuading effort including my supposed journalistic ID, but with no result. They call the person in charge over the radio and for a while I am encouraged that I will finally receive permit. The manager explains to me that he can not break the rules and that only with written permission could I be allowed. The permit could be issued by the ministry of tourism or even the board of directors of the mosque, but these procedures are time consuming and from what I found out later, the public services never respond to emails.
The laws are partly understood, this place of worship has not been excluded from terrorism attacks. Suicide bombings have hit the mosque many times, with tens or even hundreds of victims. What I do not understand is why the use of mobile phones is allowed, they could easily be explosive or detonating devices.
The manager allowed me to take my camera bag inside but not use it, except for my mobile phone and GoPro. He offered an extensive tour of the site, with interesting information on history and Islamic customs in general. I was impressed by what he said about the visitors of the Mausoleum, people from all religions, Shia, Sunnis and even Christians. Muslims also take part in Christmas celebrations in Christian churches, mainly in Baghdad. Some of the pilgrims wear a typical green fez and along with others wearing black turbans, are descendants of Muhammad. Tens of thousands are all over the world. The gentleman called us to his office and allowed me to finally take the camera out of my bag and take some pictures from the doorstep. He did not allow me to do the same in the impressive VIP room that hosts the prime minister of Iraq and other countries at important events.
The mosque is even more impressive than that of Samara, the inner gates of the Imam’s tomb hall are made of pure gold. Mosaics of countless enameled tiles line the domes and arches, many red lanterns follow the architectural edges and add to the vibe of the place The main hall of the memorial is lined according to the local architectural style with small crystals and mirrors.
Karbala, like most cities in Iraq, in my personal opinion does not have many other points of interest worth visiting.
Babylon was the capital of the ancient Babylonian Empire in the region of Mesopotamia in ancient times, a city built on the banks of the Euphrates River. The earliest known reference to Babylon dates to around 2300 BC).
There is also a biblical reference in the Old Testament-Genesis which describes a united human race, who spoke the same language and aspired to establish a city and a tower – the Tower of Babel. God interrupted human arrogance by confusing their communication so that they could not understand each other’s language.
The famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon were described by ancient scholars as a remarkable achievement of engineering, consisting of stepped gardens containing a wide variety of trees, shrubs and vines, in an area with limited water resources. They were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World according to the ancient Greek philosophers.
After the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar B ‘, in 539 BC, the city came under the rule of the Achaemenids (Persians) and then the Seleucids, Parthians, Romans and Sassanids, until its abandonment in the 10th century AD.
Alexander the Great died in this city in 323 BC.
UNESCO has designated Babylon as a World Heritage Site in 2019.
The British East India Company carried out the first excavations in 1811 and in 1852 they largely excavated Babylon. However, much of the findings were lost when a cargo ship and four rafts sank in the Tigris River in 1855 after being attacked by pirates. The next excavation was carried out on behalf of the British Museum in 1879 and caused extensive looting.
The German Eastern Society conducted the first scientific archaeological excavations in Babylon in 1899. Objects, including fragments of the Ishtar Gate and hundreds of recovered tablets, have been sent to Germany and are still in Berlin, in Bergamon Museum.
In 1978, Saddam Hussein made an ambitious plan to revive Babylon, by rebuilding the ancient city on its ruins. Hussein placed a portrait of himself and Nebuchadnezzar at the entrance and wrote his name on many of the bricks, in imitation of the ancient king.
Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the area around Babylon came under the control of US and Polish troops. The occupying forces caused irreparable damage to the archeological monuments. Parts of the archeological site were leveled to create a helicopter landing site and significant damage was done to the Ishtar Gate, one of the most famous monuments of antiquity. U.S. military vehicles smashed 2,600-year-old bricks, archeological fragments were scattered throughout the site, trenches destroyed ancient relics, and military earthworks altered the site for future generations of scientists.
At the outer entrance, documents are checked once again and a guard is called to accompany us. The surrounding area is an oasis, a number of decorative plants that have been cut in skilled shapes, grow in the yard. The famous Ishtar Gate pops up. To be precise, not the real gate but a bad copy of it. The original is unfortunately in Berlin. The ticket of 25,000 (€ 16) also covers the tour guide, but I personally do not like guides, especially from employees that play the same show every day. Most of the city has been restored with new brickwork, but the original up to a height of the walls can be seen, as well as part of the larger of the two consecutive Ishtar gates. Also preserved are many reliefs of animals and inscriptions engraved on the plinths. The ancient ones are written in cuneiform script and the guide who claims to read them, gives the translation: “I am Nebuchadnezzar the Great etc etc”. Most of the surviving inscriptions are newer, in Arabic script, many of which mention Saddam’s name. Few visitors are in the area, no foreigners at all.
One of Saddam Hussein’s many palaces is built on a hill overlooking the ancient city. At the beginning of the spiral road that leads to the mansion, the guard asks where we are going.
The palace overlooking the Tigris River has many local visitors. A special feature is a group of professional photographers, a model with a light blue dress and intense make-up posing in front of the mansion along with a classic VW beetle. The bigoted, egocentric and arrogant Saddam had a luxurious mansion in almost every city and he may have visited each one just a few times. In 2003, US troops occupied and looted the area, only to be finished by Polish troops.
Surprisingly, the frescoes on the ceiling and some elements of the decoration have remained. The imposing multi-room palace has an amazing, panoramic view of the Euphrates Valley and all of Babylon.
Najaf – Kufa
Najaf is a city of one million inhabitants about 160 km south of Baghdad. It is the holiest city, not only in Iraq but in all of Shia Islam, being one of its spiritual capitals and the third holiest site after Mecca and Medina.
Najaf is the burial place of the second most important figure in Shiite Islam, Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin, Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (simply Imam Ali). The city is one of the most important places of worship in the world.
Ayatollah Khomeini taught in this city for 14 years and many of the leading figures of the new Islamic movement in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon had studied in Najaf. Najaf, along with Karbala, is considered an important religious tourism destination and has grown even more since the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule. However, due to US sanctions on Iran, the number of Iranian pilgrims has dropped significantly
We arrive in Najaf at iftar time, after the end of Ramadan daily fasting, and we discover an excellent restaurant. The Anbar restaurant looks more like a palace, the interior has large tables with luxurious armchairs and crystal chandeliers, in the garden there are large palm trees and flower beds with water which are complemented by romantic lighting. The service is exemplary and the prices are quite low. We discover some new flavors among the many dishes that are served as appetizers. Tamarind juice and a local sour milk called laban are also offered. The hotel options in the city are many, but few are listed for online booking and generally have high prices. Ribal Hotel is brand new, luxurious, with design furniture, our best stay in the country. The price of € 60 was not negotiable. At night, the traffic conditions in Najaf are outrageous. The number of vehicles and the way of driving makes even the smallest distance a marathon. I have the brilliant idea to visit Ali Mosque at this time. What I’m not aware of is that today marks the peak of Ramadan celebrations because it is the anniversary of Ali’s death. Many intersections are closed and this makes navigation to the mosque impossible. Finally we return, leaving the car outside the hotel for a walking tour of the city, which is so fashionable that only women in black remind the geographical location. The Najaf city mall is not that big, but it is just as modern as the European ones. A noticeable difference is the separate entry of men and women and the metal scanning. Once again I am not allowed to take the camera inside and after an intense argument I am forced to leave it in the special lockers.
Time is never enough when traveling and usually trying to cover most points of interest, gets me in a fast pace. At this point we decide to relax a bit, to feel the place more, to listen to the pulse of the local community and to come in more substantial contact with their culture. We are also not in the mood to undergo other rude checkpoints that are many in the south, an area of conflict between local warlords from various factions. We will dedicate the remaining days to Najaf and Baghdad, instead of being on the road all day to cover the distances. One of the two main points that are omitted are the Mesopotamia marshlands, which as far as other travelers have informed me, they do not present a special spectacle and the boat tour is just a touristy experience. Instead, the large ziggurat of Ur (pyramidal, stepped structure of an ancient temple), is a monument I would love to visit.
The next day does not start well. In Kufa, next to the banks of the Euphrates, there are many cafes that, due to Ramadan, are closed during the day. They do not present a memorable view but such quiet corners are rare. On a small bridge over the river, I park the car directly in front of a police vehicle and we go out relaxed to take pictures of the river. Two police officers approach in a state of rage, ask for passports and scold in a loud manner. Of course there is no common language of understanding. Then another man appears in plain outfit and very intense, rude behavior. In fact, he “orders” my travel buddy to get in the car. That’s where I start to rebel, raise my voice and get ready for the worst. Fortunately, the temper is calming down and I do not end up in an Iraqi prison, I grab the passports from the hands of the policeman and leave indignant.
Kufa is about 10 km from Najaf but the expansion of cities has united them into one.
We visit a relatively small mosque called Ayatollah Al-Hakim and it has no security screening or clothing restrictions. It is a haven of calm and meditation after the incident with the police, something that is appreciated by some three or more pilgrims who enjoy a nap on the thick carpets.
The heat and exhaustion lead us to a bakery reminiscent of France, with all kinds of delicacies and pastries. We intend to consume the food in the car, but I can see a corner with a divider and two tables. I confirm with the employee who surprisingly speaks English if we can sit there and he answers yes. After a while, however, the owner appears and starts shouting rudely. We tell that we had asked permission before, but he made a gesture showing us that he will be handcuffed. I return the delicious kiunefe to the cashier asking for the money back, while for the other delicacies that are consumed more easily we consume to the car.
The Grand Mosque of Kufa is one of the oldest and holiest mosques in the world. The mosque, built in the 7th century, is believed to have been, among other things, the home of Imam Ali, the place where he was mortally wounded by a poisoned sword, the site of miracles. Islamic traditions also state that it was the residence of Noah and that this was the place where he built the Ark, as well as the place from which the waters of the flood were absorbed. The mosque is not very different from the previous ones, it is just as majestic, impressive and the security controls are equally strict. In the mosque I felt strong emotions watching people support their hopes, seek solace and alleviate their pain, through faith and seek posthumous redemption.
The Najaf cemetery
In Najaf is the Wadi-us-Salaam Cemetery, the largest in the world, with over 8 million tombs added over 1,400 years. It also contains the tombs of several prophets and many pilgrims from all over the world aspire to be buried here and resurrected from the dead along with Imam Ali on the Day of Judgment.
The cemetery like any cemetery is sad, but this one has its own peculiarity. Among the memorials are large photographs of children and young people who, translating the texts, state that they died under martyrdom. There are similar messages in the photos above the graves of many military men. It is estimated that about 250 corpses were buried daily during the war. Since 2014, with the rise of ISIS, landfills have been depleted, resulting in many being stolen and resold illegally.
In the vast area of the cemetery, I take a bad choice of approaching with the car through a narrow alley, between the tombs. However, the alley and its even narrower paths are much busier than I thought and after a while we are trapped among many other vehicles. The massive Toyota proves to be too big for such conditions and in my attempt to maneuver on reverse I hear the sound of a collision with a car that was in a blind spot. How to deal now in Arabic with the furious driver? With meanings I humbly apologize, fortunately no harm was done. All I know how to spell is… tamam. Tamam? he replies in disbelief. After checking his bumper helmets me go ahead.
On a city street, I see one of the typical “barkers” of restaurants coming out on the street, but it’s still noon and we are in Ramadan. I know there are very few restaurants open, but I did not expect anyone to suddenly appear in front of me.
The Imam Ali holy shrine
The site is visited by tens of millions of pilgrims every year. Many Shia muslims believe that Ali did not want his grave to be desecrated by his enemies and asked his friends and family to bury him secretly. This secret tomb is supposed to have been discovered later, in the present-day city of Najaf which developed around the sanctuary.
As in Karbala, after the external checkpoints, an entire city develops around the temple with busy markets. In the evening the souks – the traditional Arab bazaars – are full of life. In addition to all kinds of products, clothes, jewelry and more, the pans with the delicious sweets, baklava and countless sweet variations, are abundant. In a juice shop we meet Mustafa, a middle-aged local man accompanied by his daughter and mother. He speaks somewhat limited English and suggests that we meet upon return in Baghdad.
The Imam Ali Mosque is housed in a majestic structure with a gilded dome and many precious objects on the walls, gold and enamel dominate, along with the typical red lanterns. The courtyard is crowded with people eating on the floor. Hundreds of women in black abayas create a uniform pattern. Inside the temple the overflow is more intense than anywhere else. Under the psalms of the muezzin and the spooky, red light, believers in ecstasy pay homage to the holiness of Ali. In the sacred sanctuary, above the sacred tomb, pilgrims kiss the iron railings and the walls. Some guards, holding a stick with feathers like the ones for dusting, regulate the flow, allowing only a short stay in front of the tomb, among them myself filming with my mobile phone. Let me point out that here, as in the whole country, almost no one wears a protective mask for COVID. Even in the mosque, in the souks around but also in other parts of the holy city as well as the whole country, you can see openly gay men, something unexpected in a strictly religious place.
The chaotic capital of Iraq will not easily enchant the visitor. Despite its mythical name and long history, it does not present many points of interest, while its large area and unbelievable traffic conditions discourage anyone from exploring it in depth. Otherwise, Baghdad contains many modern elements and the wealth is obvious, with luxury malls and expensive cars, which coexist with deep poverty, beggars on the streets and the ugliness of abandonment. The capital also enjoys greater liberalism and freedoms, especially for women. Depending on the neighborhood, many women drive cars and walk around in fashionable outfits, with their heads uncovered.
The trademark of Baghdad is the monument also known as Al-Shaheed and is dedicated to the soldiers who died in the Iran-Iraq war as well as the subsequent wars. The construction of 1983 consists of a turquoise dome divided in two, 40 meters high, which resembles a mosque dome of the Abbasid era. The two halves of the dome are displaced and in the middle is a sculpture that forms the flag of the country. The rest of the site consists of parks, a playground, parking lots, sidewalks, bridges and a lake. At the time of the visit, a school class is visiting monument and a schoolgirl is crying because she lost her earring. We all went into the search process and it was finally found.
Other important monuments are the Unknown Soldier and the Victory Arch with the characteristic crossed swords, a famous photo location of Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, these two monuments are located within the perimeter of the so-called “green zone”, a guarded area of no access to those without special permission, government, military, diplomats and VIPs. With a little effort one can take a photo from the street, but as I found out the soldiers react immediately if a vehicle stops there. In 2007 it was decided to demolish the Victory Arch like any other symbol of Saddam’s time, but this was stopped after reactions from citizens and the US ambassador.
On the night of Easter we discovered and visited the Greek Orthodox Church of Agios Georgios but unfortunately it was closed. The Easter session had taken place earlier, in the afternoon of the same day. So we repeat the visit on next day hoping to meet someone there. A very noble young girl guides us and a little later the priest comes carrying the Holy Light that arrived from Jerusalem via Jordan. None of them speaks Greek, the only Greek who had attended a day before what the Greek ambassador. The church belonging to the Patriarchate of Antioch (today based in Damascus), was built and decorated by frescoes by the ancestors and relatives of the young girl who brought Orthodoxy to the place. Unfortunately we do not have time to stay in the current service and read the Greek texts of the Gospel.
The bombing of Amiriyah Shelter was an airstrike that killed civilians on February 13, 1991, during the Gulf War, when an airstrike shelter in the Amiriyah neighborhood of Baghdad was bombed by the US Air Force. On the morning of February 13, stealth bombers dropped two laser-guided bombs on the shelter. Residents of the neighborhood heard screams as people tried to get out. They screamed for four minutes and after the second bomb exploded, the screams stopped … At the time of the bombing, hundreds of Iraqi civilians, mostly women and children, were in the shelter. More than 1,500 people were killed in all. References to the exact numbers vary as the record book was burned in the blast. The people living on the upper level were burned by the heat, while the boiling water from the water tank of the shelter is responsible for the other victims. Black, incinerated handprints of some victims remain fused on the concrete roof of the shelter and are still visible today.
Unfortunately in the afternoon of the visit, the place is closed. We try with the help of the neighbors to locate the entrance and to communicate with the guard. He calls a boss but with no surprise, the rules in this country cannot be bypassed. We are content to see the area from the outside, including the graves of the victims. We will not have the courage to drive here again on the next day.
The area around Palestine st and Rubaie st streets is quite upgraded, with many shops and malls, including the Zayouna Mall. Several shops are also here and with a little search we find an open pizzeria.
In the evening we meet Saif, whom I had met online on the Facebook group “Iraqi travelers’ cafe”. Meeting point is the Beban cafe located at the famous 62 street, famous for its upscale character. The cafe is of exceptional style, many cafes of northern Europe would envy it. Gradually, a lot of people gather, including impressive women with a modern look who go upstairs in mixed groups while on the ground floor there are only men. I enjoy a hookah and the conversation with Saif who offers great information, helping us to understand life in this Middle Eastern country. Saif did not accept in any way that we pay the bill, despite my best efforts.
Freedom Square (Tahrir square) is the largest and most central square in Baghdad and is located just 500 meters from the hotel.
An impressive sculpture that adorns the square is the “Monument of Freedom”. It contains 25 figures on a 10-meter-high and 50-meter-long marble slab depicting historical events in Iraq and referring to Babylonian, Assyrian and Arabic works of art. An underpass road has been converted into a graffiti art gallery. In the midst of anti-government protests that erupted in Baghdad in October, dozens of young artists got out on the streets with their own weapons: paints, sprays and brushes. Full of anger and hope, they have turned a neglected passage into a colorful revolutionary art gallery with murals and messages painted on its walls.
In the area around Mutanabbi St and Al Rasheed st, is Baghdad’s old quarter and historic center. One of the streets is full of bookstores and open-air libraries and is said to be the center of Baghdad’s intellectual community. A little further on in a carefully renovated market are the second-hand shops and in another the famous copper market. On Mutanabbi Street is also the traditional cafe Shabandar, over 100 years old. Mutanabbi Street ends on the banks of the Tigris and an adjacent park, the Qishleh where part of the Ottoman walls and the homonymous clock tower are located. We will visit the area again in the evening with even more activity. Unfortunately, a terrorist bombing in 2007 killed 26 people and destroyed many businesses in the area.
At the surrounding streets there is an incredible traffic jam. We take tuk-tuk to finally get to the car park after a long delay. It need a lot more time and effort to get out of this mess and deliver the car intact.
Στην είσοδο των οχημάτων του ξενοδοχείου Rotana μας ρωτάνε αν έχουμε όπλο και βάζω τα γέλια. Κι εδώ ένας εκπαιδευμένος σκύλος ανιχνεύει πιθανή ύπαρξη εκρηκτικών. Αυτό είναι καθημερινότητα και όχι εξαίρεση για τη σημερινή μέρα που απ’ ό,τι μάθαμε κάποιος VIP βρίσκεται στο ξενοδοχείο. Ο φρουρός στον εσωτερικό έλεγχο απαιτεί μάλιστα να αφήσω την κάμερα στην είσοδο, κάτι που με μεγάλη προσπάθεια καταφέρνω να αποτρέψω, με την υπόσχεση να μην τη βγάλω από την τσάντα. Αφού παραδίδουμε το αυτοκίνητο κατευθυνόμαστε στο πολυτελές εστιατόριο που έχει μπουφέ σε ικανοποιητικό αντίτιμο και με τεράστια πληθώρα των εδεσμάτων. Ο κορεσμός μου φτάνει σε βαθμό καρδιακού επεισοδίου.
We meet Mustafa, the kind Iraqi we met in Najaf and he offers to guide us everywhere in the city. Literally everywhere! We drove to every possible neighborhood in the city and of course it’s impossible for me to remember the toponyms he mentions to me. We visit an amusement park that is not yet well attended as iftar has not started, we pass by other upper class neighborhoods where the impressive Baghdad Mall is located, housed in a large cylindrical building which is surrounded by a gigantic LCD screen. We end up again on Mutanabbi Street which is very different at night and has even more liveliness and traffic. A Christmas tree with twinkling lanterns gives it a surreal touch along the Tigris River. Qishleh Park has celebrations, happenings and anti-government speeches. However, dissidents in this country risk their lives significantly. We visit traditional cafes like التراث الاصيل cafe, decorated with old photos. A gentleman from a group of old men playing cards addresses me a few words in Greek. He has lived in Athens for a few months. Wherever we stand, Mustafa insists on serving something. The only way to limit his insistence on paying for everything is to buy nothing. At Iftar time, of course, we have to follow him to dinner at a local restaurant in western Baghdad and then we say goodbye to him at the airport and go through some more thorough checks before the return flight.
The second visit in Iraq left strong memories to me. This long-suffering country struggling to erase the tragic memories of the war may be slow to attract visitors. Those who are less interested in landscapes and sights and more in the human element and the wealth hidden in the souls, will surely be satisfied.
Alexandros Tsoutis, 2022