Iraq is without question, one of the most fascinating lands in our crazy world – home to the mythical Tower of Babel, the Garden of Eden and the hanging gardens of Babylon. Also the birthplace of Arab nationalism, millions of Kurds, and Saddam Hussein. The recent war against Isis has largely been won, and after an election in October 2021, while a coalition hasn’t yet been formed in government, things appear to be stable – so it was a great time to visit.
After a heaving flight to Doha, we boarded an empty flight to Baghdad. Visas are now available on arrival, so after providing $75 cash each and a hotel reservation, and waiting 30 minutes for the officials to have a cup of tea, we were furnished with visas and out into the night. Baghdad airport has more security than any other airport I have been to, so only vetted taxi drivers are allowed in. Our allotted one delivered us to the shabby (and probably never chic) Shanasheel Palace Hotel (not at all palatial). Our room had a funky smelling bathroom and sheets than weren’t very clean (we were pretty sure the bed hadn’t been changed) but it wasn’t the worst hotel room I had ever seen, so we made hot chocolate and went to bed.
Shopping and strolling
We met our energetic guide Hussain (22) after an excellent breakfast, he had just arrived back from a week in Turkey seeing his girlfriend. We headed out past Tahrir Square and then we wandered around the copper bazaar, the textile alleys, and some amazing displays of bric a brac (including Queen Elizabeth cups from the 50s). We wandered past the Abbasid Palace and had a quick peek inside. We tried to get a coffee on Mutanabi Street but the excellent Shahbandar coffee house was closed for Ramadan. We wandered further and found a cafe serving the non fasting Muslims and watched our neighbours engage in intense domino competition. The street vibe was very relaxed and most everyone we met was very friendly and happy to chat (with Hussein translating).
3G and Saddam’s enormous mosque
We cabbed over to the posh district of Mansour which serves the wealthy residents of the green zone (no entry for the plebs like us), to search for a 3g provider. As non resident foreigners we had to provide passports and have our photos taken to buy a card for a month. It wasn’t easy to find someone to sell us one, and we had to wait for 2pm for the mall to open. After lunch at one of the few open places and while waiting for the Mansour mall to open – we wandered around the corner to the Al-Rahman Mosque. Started by Saddam in 1998, if completed it would have been the third largest mosque in the world after Mecca and Medina. It is eerily empty, half finished, surrounded by barbed wire and with the cranes still on site. It can’t be destroyed as it is a mosque – but it is hard for Iraq to get support to finish it given the association with Saddam. The mall (which was just like being in the UAE) finally opened at 2pm, and after a few back and forths we finally found a telco kiosk who had 3g cards to sell us. Data sorted for the week (the wifi depends on highly volatile grid power), we wisely decided to take a siesta and get out of the heat for a couple of hours
Iftar at Al Kadhimiya
Reenergised we headed to the Kadhimiya Mosque in Northern Baghdad around 5pm as it started to cool down. It is a very famous shrine with two of the Prophets descendants buried there. Getting in required passing three successively groping checkpoints. I got the ladies treatment, and did have to give them my battery, AirPods and phone for safekeeping before I was allowed past the last security. I was given a bit of a telling off by one of the more militant attendants for not having my scarf right, but my complete lack of arabic and smiling repetitions of ‘tourist’ and ‘ new Zealand’ secured me the support of the ladies in the queue behind me and secured my entry. The mosque and shrine were breathtaking. Two gold domes and four incredible gold minarets. Far more decorated and elaborate than anything I had seen in Iran, Afghanistan or Uzbekistan. I couldn’t take any photos (as the phone wasn’t allowed in) but the images on google give an idea. We broke our fast at 6.40pm (probably slightly earlier) at an excellent and very busy lamb kebab place. The lamb, chickpea salad, pomegranates and bread were amazing. We then strolled around enjoying the cool and watched lots of people partaking in the free Iftar closer to the shrine – excellent chicken and rice cooked in massive vats on the side of the street, served on rolled out plastic on the ground en masse. We stopped to talk to three French journalists and compared notes on Baghdad and then headed back to the hotel.
Hanging with the US ambassador and the Iraq museum
It wasn’t a restful night. There was enthusiastic drumming around 4 am – no doubt to wake up the fasters to eat. After another substantial breakfast, we battled the morning traffic to go to the Iraqi museum. We were on time, the ticket vendor was not, so we had to hang out and wait for a while. Eventually we were sold tickets (10 times the price for foreigners) and allowed in. The cleaners start when the museum opens, and it was quite a spectacle watching them move the dirt around. They sprayed the floor with water from a bottle (and one enthusiastic man got my feet too) and then assiduously moved the dirt around. I guess wetting it means it is less dusty, but there was no dirt removal or mop rinsing. I generally hate museums, and I expected this to be no exception. The Babylonian and Sumerian sections were closed. And our early journey was repetitive glass boxes filled with pottery. However, there was a stunning Abyssinian gallery and some excellent marble works recovered from Mosul and Hatra. We were clearly in good company as the US ambassador breezed past as we were there.
Saddam’s monument to the martyrs (which he created)
Next stop, the stunning Al shaheed monument. This was the monument to the martyrs created in the Iran/Iraq war (the war Saddam started). The apparently gruesome museum downstairs was closed, so we wandered around the monument enjoying the angles and the breeze from river.
We then headed to an exceptional Iraqi restaurant for perfect hummus, bread, fattoush, baba ghanoush, dolmas and slow cooked lamb followed by tea so strong it put hairs on my chest. Lunch necessitated a small siesta for two hours so we could be rested for the evening
Al-imam Al Adham shrine and iftar at Kadhimiya
After a wee siesta we headed to the Al-imam Al Adham mosque and mausoleum – the Sunni shrine on the other side of the river from the Shia shrine we visited the night before. There are many fewer Sunni in Iraq then Shia, and things were quite tense in 2003, but things have apparently calmed down. The Al-imam mosque is rated in the guidebook as having stunning architecture, which wasn’t entirely obvious when we arrived. In contrast to the night before there were about 100 people there versus the many hundreds the night before…. , and I only had one (versus three) security checks and a whole lot less boob groping. The ladies area was deserted – with five old ladies sleeping on the floor. Hussain got permission to take me into see the shrine and also the men’s area which was absolutely stunning.
We finished earlier than expected, and decided to head back to Kadhimiya for iftar with the pilgrims at the shrine from the night before. It was a lovely stroll over the Tigris with some excellent views. We found one of the last spots and shared a lovely dinner of soup, rice, vegetables, and bread with some Iranian Kurdish Shia women. They were lovely, their kids were delightful and we bought them a round of tea afterwards and they asked for a selfie (see below). We stopped for a booster of pistachio icecream on the way home and then headed back to the hotel
Sandstorm in Samarra
We woke up to one of Iraq’s legendary sandstorms – apparently they used to come every 2-3 months, now it is twice a month. It was no longer windy when we headed out but it was incredibly hazy with limited visibility. We passed through the green zone to see the saddam sword statue (apparently made with a model of Saddams actually hand). We then headed off to drive the 130km ro Samarra in the haze, passing increasingly nosy checkpoint guards and having to hang around waiting for them to all have a nosy look.
Samarra was settled 7000 years ago and was a great state for 56 years. the Shia mosque – Al Aksari – is the resting place to Al Mahdi. The site is a contested with one of the more powerful and independent Iraqi militia in control (who are more sympathetic to the Iranians). Armed groups bombed the shrine in 2006. Further bombings in 2007 destroyed the shrine’s minarets. They are relatively benign right now as they won multiple seats in the election in 2021 and they are hoping to be in the formed government.
Given security we only got to see the mosque and minaret of Malwiya – the mosque was once the largest in the world. Restoration work so far has extended to the walls. Lots more to do. The minaret was lovely and we had it to ourselves. The views were not amazing though due to the sandstorm
Then we headed off to Samarras swimming pool where the caliph used to bath with his harem. The acoustics were incredible.
Just before reaching Baghdad we visited the Ziggurat of Aqar Quf which was a pyramid from c.1200.
We have enjoyed Baghdad more than we expected. The people are lovely, the food is good and there is a lot to see. Downsides are the heat, the security presence (lots of checkpoints) and the truly awful gridlocked traffic. But it definitely merits a few days visit. We are heading south tomorrow, to be continued…..
Baghdad, Iraq, 12 April 2022
Note this blog is tapped out using thumbs on an iPhone as I travel so there are always typos