Is it safe to travel to Iraq?

When Baghdad or Iraq are spoken of now, the immediate association is war, atrocities and horror, but take your mind back to a much much earlier time and Baghdad, Mesopotamia, Babylon, the Ottoman Empire might mean something very different. For me it conjures up the very exotic – life in five star tents, glamorous veiled dancers, Ali Baba and the 40 thieves – .things I had only ever seen in a book or on a screen.

In the early summer of 2018, my son, Johnny (, and I were in Georgia when he mentioned he was thinking of taking some people to Iraq. I begged him to please remember me if any places became available. I’m not usually very good on group things, and I don’t usually like them, but I have to say, the trips Johnny oversees have been a revelation – there’s a common goal, a common sense of camaraderie, a shared recognition of the danger and risk, albeit, calculated risk, and that commonality means we have much more in common than divides us.

And so it was in late September, sixteen assorted souls flew independently, for a four day city break, to Iraq’s infamous capital, Baghdad – a city known the world over, but for less than savoury reasons.

My journey there, as ever the least expensive possible, was not straight forward, three buses and three flights, and, with long stop overs included, took more than twenty four hours door to door!

En route to Baghdad!

I was one of the first to arrive in Baghdad (at 03.00am!),and so had the opportunity to meet most of others who arrived in dribs and drabs throughout the early morning. And then we were off to the Palestine Hotel in downtown Baghdad to check in, freshen up and get out to do some sightseeing. I should have been exhausted, but adrenaline kicked in, probably triggered by sheer excitement, and I was raring to go!

We all boarded a coach which was waiting for us at the hotel, and Johnny introduced us to our guide, Adam (Jebrin, Aiwaseilah Tours)and his brother Moussa who looked after us so well during our stay in their country.

Our guide Adam with Johnny

Adam explained that on this first day we would visit some of Baghdad’s iconic sites, starting with Tahir Square or Liberation Square, built in 1958 to celebrate Iraq’s independence.

A group of foreigners wandering around the Square soon attracted much attention, and we were swamped by police, security men, soldiers and locals. Adam had all the required paperwork, and we were given permission to continue. Locals and those in uniform vied with each other to be part of every photograph, and I would be surprised if anyone has picture of Tahir Square without a local centre stage!

Getting together with the locals in
Tahir Square

Next up was the Al Shaheed Martyrs Monument which commemorates the Iraqi soldiers who died in the Iran/Iraq war, and also those killed by ISIS more recently. Designed by two Iraqi artists, a sculptor and an architect, and opened in 1983, it is one of the most beautiful pieces of public memorial I have ever seen, and, ironically, it was commissioned by the Saddam Hussein regime.

The Eternal Flame at Al Shaheed Martyrs Monument

For me, the memorial exudes serenity and peacefulness, and it it consists of a circular platform in the middle of an artificial lake. There is a split turquoise dome on the platform with the halves offset and protecting an eternal flame. It is huge – the dome is 40 metres tall, but it succeeds because although it is in the middle of a city, it is also in the middle of a large open space.

All by ourselves at Martyrs Monument

Johnny had warned us that it was unlikely we would get near the monument because it was currently closed to the public because of security fears. And when we arrived at the entrance , sure enough, it was closed and admission refused. Adam spent some time talking to the men on the other side, and after about ten minutes, the gate was opened, and in we went, all privileged sixteen of us, and we had the place completely to ourselves. We discovered that in the basement area of the monument, the walls are covered in writing, and it seems that the the name of every single soldier who lost his or her life in the Iran Iraq war is noted here. It was a very sobering experience. Back to the monument, and the opportunity for loads of photographs before returning to the bus.

One of the basement walls with the names of Iraqi soldiers who died

We had a brief stop at the Gates of Baghdad on our way back to the Palestine hotel. Baghdad was originally built in the round – it was a circular city. These particular gates resemble a small castle, and I imagine there were often decisions to be made about immigration which were not popular and needed military ‘persuaders’. I have to say though, it is still pretty impressive

Shiia Al Kadhimiya Mosque

We had one more visit on that first, very full, day in Baghdad – we were off to Shiia Al-Kadhimiya Mosque, said to be one of the most important mosques in the Arab world. It is certainly imposing, with its golden domes and minarets, and on the evening we went, the surrounding streets were all traffic free. As is normal when visiting a mosque, we had to be appropriately attired. The men were acceptable as they were, but we women had to fight our way to a stall where cover-all clothing was being handed out. I have to say that this all female are of the mosque was not the most pleasant experience I have ever had, and very different from any other in the Islamic world. The local women were all dressed in black and many also had their faces covered, whereas we, as visitors, were in similar garments, but without the veil, and in a flowery pattern with a white background! To add insult to injury, when handing over her belongings for safe keeping, one of our number discovered a small purse containing $200 had gone. Pickpocketed – in a mosque!!

Dressed for the occasion!

It appeared it was ladies night in the mosque, and it was packed with hundreds of women of all ages with, and without, children, and all head to toe in black. This particular mosque is huge, with many different rooms and halls, and we agreed to stick together to avoid getting lost, and in our flowery outfits we were all very easy to spot. There were so many people that it was impossible to stop to look at anything, the only option was to get pushed and jostled along with the crowds. By concensus, all of us opted to go outside as soon as we arrived at an exit. We met up with the others in our party and headed back to the hotel – and bed.

Could Day 2 of this trip live up to the success of the first day? The answer was a resounding YES! Our first destination was Babylon. Babylon… for me, the very word conjures up wondrous images, so to actually visit the place was mind blowing!

We had an early start (well, earlyish!) because Babylon is more than 100km (around 70 miles) from our base at The Palestine Hotel, and the roads aren’t great. When we got there, I found myself torn between berating the Iraqi Government (in my head, even I am not so daft as to take that any further) and admiring them for being quite blasé about what is arguably one of the most important archeology around. The entrance to the site is through a gate in a fort like building painted that particular royal blue common to Arabic/ Islamic countries.

The entrance to Babylon

Babylon was built originally in what was then Mesopotamia in approximately 2300BC, but later was razed to the ground and rebuilt more than once. And vaguely familiar names, such as Nebuchadnezzar, rang bells in the dark recesses of my mind.

A work in progress in Babylon
Overlooking the maze at Babylon

Imagination is an asset here, because, frankly, there’s not an awful lot left, but the fact that some of it has been around the best part of 5,000 years and I could actually touch it, blows my mind! Saddam also contributed to the restoration, and hundreds of the new bricks used have his named etched on them!

Our next stop, overlooking the city of Babylon, and less than a mile from it, was huge damaged, deserted, derelict building, an erstwhile summer palace of Saddam Hussein! Yes, we actually visited one of his country palaces – it was incredible and again we had the whole place to ourselves. The top floors have been blocked to prevent access, but that did not matter because the ground floor seemed to contain all Saddam’s quarters. Immediately on arrival, the man’s meglomania is obvious – his profile is etched in cement above the entrance doors!

Saddam Hussein’s profile over the door

Adam was available to explain what was what, and he showed us the throne room, and it was exactly that! There was a dais at one end where Saddam Hussein sat to speak to his minions! The decorative plaster work on the ceilings was exceptional in each of the grand rooms; and the bedroom had a huge hot tub with a view, as well as French doors which opened out to the swimming pool – unbelievable and quite phenomenal!

Throne Room
One of the Palace Ceilings
Hot tub with a view!

Nothing could really compare to what we had seen that day, so the stop at Borsippa, Babylon’s sister city, where intermittent, ongoing archeological digs have discovered a number of important tablets and a temple, seemed almost underwhelming!
A return to the hotel for a wash and brush up and dinner at a local restaurant and we were a bunch of very happy campers.
Another incredible day where I actually wondered if I was dreaming – was I really in the ancient city of Babylon, did I really wander round Saddam Hussein’s house?

The next day was our last full day in Iraq, and culture was on the agenda. We were off to the Iraqi National Museum, and en route, Adam indicated buildings riddled with bullets, and whole blocks decimated by the ravages of war, while all around life appeared to go on as normal.

After about half an hour in typical city traffic, we arrived at the museum. This particular part of the world, once known as Mesopotamia, was regarded as ‘the cradle of civilisation’, and many of the museum’s artefacts indicate why this was the case. This part of the world was enjoying a cultured lifestyle when we were still wearing goatskins and living in caves.
I do have to confess though, museums bore me rigid, and with a couple of minor exceptions, this one was no different.
One of those exceptions was the Assyrian Hall, a very imposing exhibition, which immediately reminded me of a poem I learned aeons ago – “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;”. That’s as much as I remember, but proves not all education is useless!!

The Assyrian Hall in Iraqi National Museum

A second museum visit was proposed by Adam, but this was shot down and lunch, a tea or coffee stop and shopping proved much more acceptable.

After lunch we had a walking tour with Adam through the old city. We wandered at will, looking in shops, and responding to the smiles of welcome. There was more evidence of the ravages of war when we came across the old British Embassy and opposite it, the burnt out ruins of the British Gentleman’s Club.

Ruins of British Gentleman’s Club

Nearby was the Shahbender Coffee Shop where we drank local tea and coffee, and shisha was available for anyone who wanted it. We were made so welcome with locals asking to have photos taken with us, and those who had any English happy to show off their prowess. What was intended as a brief coffee break stretched into more than an hour of intercultural bonding – and great fun.

Getting together with the locals in a coffee shop
More getting together with the locals

No visit to a Middle Eastern city should miss the souq, and Baghdad was no exception. In the part we saw was a copper market, and many of our party put smiles on the shopkeepers faces with their buys. You can see from the photographs just how enticing these places are.

A veritable treasure house in the souq
Looking down an alley in the souq

There were five Irish people in the party, and when we spotted the T-shirt worn by this unfortunate local, we confused him even more by insisting he join us for a photograph!

“Irish Today, Hungover Tomorrow”

Eventually it was back to the hotel, a quick shower, and we were off out to a local diner for dinner. It was less than a mile from the hotel, so we walked there, marvelling at the new Baghdad, illuminated by much neon. Towards the end of our meal, Johnny and Adam got up and told us our transport back to the hotel was waiting and we needed to hurry. We did as they asked, and hopped onto what appeared to be a local bus, complete with some local passengers . Straight back to the hotel where most of us opted for the attached club to finish off the night, but while our group was still intact, Johnny explained the reason for the hasty exit from the diner. Adam had received a message informing him we should return to the hotel immediately because there had been a double explosion on the outskirts of the city, and an estimated 117 people dead. It was a real reality check, and brought home to us the way the local people live their lives.

Returning to Palestine Hotel on a local bus

After people made the necessary calls home, we hit the hotel club, and I certainly had a culture shock The customers appeared to be men only, and there were some girls, apparently Iraqi gypsies, shaking their booty on the central dance floor, until one the men in some way indicated to a particular girl to sit with him.

We were leaving Iraq the following day, and some of our party had very early flights, so most of us stayed with them until their taxi left for the airport. The exodus began around 04.00, and continued through out the day until 20.00. For those remaining, Adam and Johnny had out together a programme starting after breakfast. Some people made breakfast, some were a little late, some were very late, and one or two didn’t make it until lunch time!

The collective mood seemed quite sombre, and so a visit to a small Catholic Armenian church which somehow had survived in the middle of a bombed area seemed fitting.

From there we went to see the new Baghdad, and a brand new shopping mall, complete with coffee stands and high end luxury goods. We split up to go for coffee, but all ended up in the same place chatting. Lunch was just beside the Mall, and by that time people were heading to the airport more frequently, and soon there were only four of us left. Goodbyes were said, and this adventure was over.

Thanks to Lois Wagner for sharing her photographs

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