Iraq 3 – Baking in Basra

The birthplace of writing in Uruk

En route to Nasiriyah we stopped at Uruk – the most important archaeological site in Mesopotamia, a Sumerian city state founded 7000 years ago. There is not much to see as most of the city hasn’t yet been excavated (though the nazis did come in the 30s to build a train line to move excavated earth and help with looting the artefacts they stole which now reside in the Berlin museum). We saw the ziggurat and one of the excavated temples. Some of the temple bricks still have the lapis lazuli glazing that was put in 4000 years ago. Uruk was the first place writing was invented (with cuneiform evolving from the temples recording donations). There are cones (for making walls) and pottery fragments everywhere.

Ur – birthplace of the biblical Abraham

Ur is apparently where Abraham was born, and is now quite famous as the Pope visited last year. The guard was grumpy as he had been enjoying a ramadan nap, which we disturbed. It was a lovely site, with a huge ziggurat which has been well restored.

The marshes of the Mahdan

The extensive marshlands between the Tigris and the Euphrates are peopled by the Mahdan or Marsh Arabs who are a hardy and cheerful bunch. The area has suffered greatly in the last few decades, with Saddam getting revenge on the Shia, Iranian Army and Iraqi rebels who were hiding in the marshes and the Mahdan who were sheltering them during the Iraq-Iran War. He had extensive damns built which drained the marshes and ruined their way of life. The damns were destroyed when Saddam was overthrown and the marshes are slowly coming back, but progress is slow given climate change and changes Turkey is making up river.

We met the famous Abu Haida in Chibaiyash at the community reed house and then headed out in his boat to go round the marshes. It was a stifling hot morning and it was delightful to have the breeze. We stopped at a families house for lunch. Abu Haida made us an excellent mazgouf (fish on the fire) and we ate sparingly so the kids of the family (who weren’t fasting) could have a good lunch also. They make their living off the waterbuffalo and the marshes provide most of what they need. They were a lovely family, and it was a nice way to spend a few hours, in spite of the flies.

The history of the marshes is very interesting – some background here, here and here

The garden of eden

On the way to Basra we stopped off at Al Qurna, the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates, which is apparently the legendary Garden of Eden.

Shanasheel in Basra old town

Basra, home of Sinbad the Sailor, was once the most important port in the Gulf.  The city has taken a beating in the Iran/Iraq war and the two Gulf wars and the toppling of Hussein.   Historically the port for Iraq (this has moved closer to the Gulf), the once delightful canals, which had Basra named the Venice of the east, are now filled with rubbish and sewerage.

There aren’t a huge number of tourist attractions, but we headed to the Ashar area which still has some of the old houses of Baghdad.  Unfortunately the artist centre was closed (probably Ramadan) but the guards at the antiquities museum let us in the have a look around.  The old style of windows (Shanasheel) are still in evidence, but they are increasingly rare and being destroyed.  The canals in the region where pretty sulphuric and it was good I hadn’t had a big breakfast.

Sauntering around the souk….

We then went for a wander around the souk.  My favourite thing (also the most aurally annoying) is that the vendors are too lazy to constantly tout their wares.  Instead, they record their patter on a Dictaphone and play it on repeat through a small loudspeaker….. and everyone has a loud speaker.  It sounds like a bunch of angry people shouting at each other over a tannoy……, and it did take us a few days to figure out where the noise was coming from. I also loved the fact that Chanel seems to have opened an abbaya concession in Basra – who knew?

Shatt Al arab down to Saddam’s palace

The Shatt Al Arab (the joining of the Tigris and the Euphrates) is the main thoroughfare in Basra. We took a boat ride down to see the outside of Sadam’s palace whilst being serenaded by very loud groovy arab music. The river has a graveyard of broken down old boats which have apparently been there since the war. Saddam’s palace is now used for government buildings and a museum. We did pop down to see the museum but it was closed.

Tea and politics at the writers cafe

Basra is quite famous in Iraq for being the home of political discourse….., we stopped for chai at a writers cafe which was well hidden from the street (no sign above the door). Within minutes of sitting down our neighbour had asked Stephane (not me, women don’t get to do political chat) his view on the Ukraine/Russian war. We were then welcomed by another one of the locals. The tea was delightful (not too sweet and with a good kick of cardamom), and it was nice to soak up the atmosphere of zen old dudes drinking tea and solving the worlds problems. We then went to a hectic local restaurant for lunch – run with military precision – they had at least 20 staff and they were turning the tables in about 20 minutes. Excellent kebabs.

Last supper at the Grapevines

We had one last supper – the best dinner we had (apart from Husseins’ mums iftar) – but far too much food. And that was it, our tour of Iraq. Both hubby and I ended the week with pretty bad bouts of food poisoning, so it was a bit of a less than enthuisastic end of the holiday. But overall an excellent holiday.

Additional info

So Iraq is not flash. The hotels aren’t well ventilated or soundproofed. Nothing is particularly clean. All the bathrooms smell funky (but the hotels do have western toilets and hot water). The WiFi doesn’t work well. So if you want luxury then Iraq is not for you. (Note there are some very posh hotels, we did not stay in these, as have learnt from history that posh hotels full of expats are excellent targets for terrorists – so I prefer to go with a bit of dirt).

It also gets draining as a woman to have to cover up all day (men are fine in t-shirts and pants), especially when it is hot, and my patience tends to wear thin for the dress code after about a week. Being a woman tourist here was actually worse than Afghanistan (where foreign women get treated like men) but better than Saudi. It was frustrating to be invisible and not be able to do stuff. But also kind of useful to be invisible at least in the full Iraqi abbaya where I could blend in and just be an ‘Iranian pilgrim’ taking photos. (Husseins sisters told me as long as I kept my mouth shut and didn’t walk too aggressively then I looked 100% Iranian)

Security is annoying – there are constant checkpoints and there is no rhyme or reason to how long they will take. Most of them take your passports and disappear for a while. You can’t get impatient, it serves no purpose.

We also struggled to comprehend the huge amount of rubbish that is everywhere (except the shrines). Iraqis just don’t seem to see it. They also have a profound affection for single use plastic – restaurants, cafes, iftar family dinners, everything is given in plastic displosable cups and cutlery.

It was quite hot when we were there (April), so we preferred to go out during the morning, have lunch and then have a siesta from about 3-6. Then head out again in the evening.

However, the tourist sites in Iraq are pretty hard to rival for their history, and Iraq is definitely worth visiting. And it isn’t all hard yards – the food is good, the 3G cards are cheap and data mostly works (c10 usd for 10 gig). The roads are good and getting around was quite easy (apart from checkpoints). The people (apart from officials) were lovely and friendly and welcoming. Ramadan meant we had almost all the sites to ourselves. If you have any interest in history then would highly recommend a visit. We booked through James at Untamed Borders, and they run a couple of group tours a year if you don’t want to pay for a solo trip.

Things I packed

  • Herbal tea bags, coffee and hot choc (all the rooms had a kettle but only black tea on offer).
  • Head cap/hijab (tight fitting bonnet to go under the big abbaya – i bought mine from M&S ) as you cannot have hair showing in Kerbala or Najaf. (note I bought the big chador/iraqi abbaya for £10 near the shrine – you can always borrow one from the shrines but they smell quite funky as are rarely washed)
  • Blow up down thermarest pillow (hotels only give one pillow each and they are hard)
  • Thermal bottle to keep water cold during day
  • Long shirts to cover the bum to mid thigh – worn with leggings or trousers
  • Loose head scarfs for Baghdad and other non shrine cities
  • Rehydration salts/powder and immodium – i had two days of very very bad food poisoning, and I was very grateful for the drugs
  • Earplugs for the prayer calls at night
  • Both uk and french adaptors – most hotels had uk but one had only European
  • A sun umbrella/parasol – works better than a hat in the hot sun. I bought my hiking umbrella
  • Downloaded movies (not much to watch beyond BBC world news), and the wifi was only good in a couple of the hotels
  • Bradt guide (a bit anglo centric but a useful back up on history)

Happy travels, and we are off to Socotra next….

Basra, April 18, 2022

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