In the few fleeting decades past, Iraq has been a stage for a symphony of chaos. Saddam Hussein’s rule, the Iranian-Iraq war instigated by him, a string of civil and military conflicts, the US-led invasion, the infamous shadow of the Islamic State – all acts in this grand theatre of human turbulence. Yet, as paradoxical as it may seem, the year 2023 finds Iraq at an oddly tranquil pause, at least by its own standards. It’s a lull of calm, the likes of which haven’t graced these lands in two decades. Let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of visa procurement, what sights to behold, and what safety measures to abide by for an untroubled journey in this compelling part of the world.
In their pursuit to welcome tourists, Iraq’s authorities have made acquiring visas a cinch; now obtainable right at the border. This wouldn’t have been a consideration without a newfound confidence in the safety of foreign visitors. Although the flood of tourists is more of a trickle right now, the potential for a deluge is immense. The land of modern Iraq – a cradle of civilization that nurtured humanity from time immemorial, a stage where the grand play of Mesopotamia was enacted, one of the greatest civilizations of the Ancient world. It has six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with another thirteen awaiting their turn to be recognized.It’s a bitter pill to swallow, the fact that many iconic landmarks have been erased over the recent decades. The ancient cities of Hatra, Nimrud, and Dur-Sharrukin lie in ruins, as does the an-Nuri mosque, the library and the artifacts of the historical museum in Mosul. But the easing of visa regulations and direct flights don’t promise a completely tourist-friendly experience. Don’t expect the luxury of comfortable transport, chic hotel rooms, English-menu restaurants, or a myriad of entertainment. What you get instead is an unadulterated immersion in the life of the locals, a chance to witness a nation in a fascinating transition phase. But such a journey isn’t for everyone. Despite the ease of buying a ticket, flying to Baghdad, and getting a visa, one must realize that this is a country fresh from the fires of war, where attacks are still a grim reality and military checkpoints are commonplace, requiring regular checks.This narrative comes from the firsthand experiences of Nikita Spekhov, who journeyed through Baghdad and its surroundings in February 2023.
Traveling in Iraq can present a cocktail of hurdles, both in daily life and in terms of getting around, interacting with the locals, and negotiating with the uniform-clad officials at checkpoints that dot the city streets and highways like an insistent tattoo.
And reasons for this are etched in the nation’s past – the Iranian-Iraq war, the civil wars, the Kuwait conflict, the US-led invasion, and the widespread proliferation of terrorist factions, primarily ISIS.
Roadblocks with military and police in Iraq are encountered constantly both in cities and on highways
Since the tail-end of 2017, when ISIS was defeated and began their retreat from Iraq’s territories, a fragile peace has slowly been stitched back into the country’s fabric. But the healing is slow, the scars deep; terrorist attacks still happen, particularly in provinces like Anbar or Salah al-Din, where the influence of the terrorists was strongly felt.
From 2018 till March 2023, Baghdad has seen just one major terrorist attack, a market bombing in 2021, that claimed 34 lives and left 110 injured. But smaller attacks continue to plague the country at large. Just in February 2023, 52 civilians were murdered, according to DW reports. However, the frequency of these terror attacks has been steadily dwindling with each passing year.
A testament to the stabilizing situation in the country is the ease of acquiring visas for travelers. Now visas can be obtained upon arrival, a stark contrast from the recent past where an invitation from a local organization or an individual was necessary. The aim was to make the process as complex as possible, thereby saving local authorities from potential headaches caused by tourist-related incidents.
The last decades in Iraq have not been peaceful – the Iran-Iraq war, civil wars and conflict with Kuwait, the US and allied invasion, and the prevalence of terrorist groups. Photo: Levi Meir Clancy / Unsplash.com
Military and police personnel tend to regard tourists with a certain sense of curiosity, rather than suspicion. Don’t hesitate to approach them if you need to ask for directions or seek permission to visit a mosque or a temple. They’re generally forthcoming with advice about the do’s and don’ts, providing guidance on navigation, hailing a taxi, or even placing a phone call. Just one word of caution – do not photograph them or military hardware without securing their permission first.During one of our security checks, we were asked for our passports, which we had unintentionally left back at the hotel. Thankfully, photographs of our passports and Iraqi visas stored on our phones sufficed for the police.
Due to the country’s unique dynamics, it’s important to remember and respect a few simple rules:
- Avoid drinking alcohol in public, despite the plethora of liquor stores in Baghdad or Erbil.
- Never venture out without your passport.
- Avoid wearing shorts, as they can prevent you from entering mosques and other places. For instance, in the holy city of Karbala, such attire on adult men will inevitably draw criticism, as it is simply not part of the local dress code.
- Expect to undergo security checks when visiting mosques. The level of scrutiny will depend on the prominence of the place. If the mosque is less frequently visited, they might just casually glance inside your backpack. But if it’s a major mosque, expect a thorough check – you might be asked to turn on your electronic devices, or they might prohibit personal belongings inside the mosque altogether.
What to see
In history classes, it’s a must to learn about the Ancient Mesopotamian civilization that thrived in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The former flows through Baghdad. Today, the Tigris River promenade is an unassuming place, but as of early 2023, it was under active development, with tiles being laid and lampposts installed.
As of early 2023, the Tigris River promenade in Baghdad was actively being developed: tiles were being laid, and lampposts installed.
Baghdad is divided into nine administrative districts. Al-Karrada is considered an upscale area. It is home to both Muslims and Christians. In the evenings, its streets buzz with people. Teahouses, street food vendors, hookah lounges are open, and trading is active. In the Al-Azamiya district, you’ll find the Abu Hanifa Mosque and the royal cemetery with the grave of the first king – Faisal I. The Kadhimiyah district is of great significance to the city: it houses the Golden Mosque, the most famous shrine in Baghdad.
In the Al-Azamiya district, you can find the Abu Hanifa Mosque and the royal cemetery with the grave of the first king – Faisal I.
The city is teeming with mosques, historic monuments, and several interesting museums. You could easily spend a week here visiting the classic attractions, observing Iraqi life, and sampling local cuisine. Now, let’s talk about all of these in detail.
The 19th-century historical buildings consist of two or three-story old buildings and homes, located on narrow streets filled with bustling life and active trading. These streets are dirty, noisy, and crowded.The 19th-century colonial architecture, built by the British, is concentrated on Al-Rasheed street. Nearby are the Baghdad grocery bazaar and the Copper Market Safafeer. In the vicinity of the bazaars, you can find houses with shanashils, which are wooden structures with lattice windows that resemble balconies or attics. In Egypt, these balconies are called “mashrabiya,” in Saudi Arabia “rawasheen,” and in Syria “shurfa”. Mutanabbi street also features beautiful architecture, making it a favorite walking spot for locals. It hosts the largest book market in Baghdad. At As-Sadriya Market, you can buy fresh vegetables and fruits, meat, and fish at reasonable prices, and of course, haggle with the sellers.
In the vicinity of the bazaars, you can find houses with shanashils. These are wooden structures with lattice windows that resemble balconies or attics. Photo: David Stanley / Flickr.com
Shabandar Cafe has been a gathering point for Baghdad’s writers, poets, and book lovers for over 100 years. Antique brass teapots, wooden furniture, vintage items, images of Ottoman rulers and Iraqi kings on the walls – all these can be viewed as if in a museum. In 2007, a large explosion occurred near the cafe, killing dozens of people. The cafe was restored and continues to operate as it did many years ago, symbolizing human resilience.
Shabandar Cafe has been a gathering point for Baghdad’s writers, poets, and book lovers for over 100 years. Antique brass teapots, wooden furniture, vintage items, images of Ottoman rulers and Iraqi kings on the walls. Photo: Arab News / Youtube.com
The Green Zone is one of the central districts of the capital. It is home to government institutions, ministries, and foreign representations, and during Saddam Hussein’s rule, his palace was located here. The area is guarded by a large number of military and police, and armored vehicles and even tanks line the main streets. A year ago, it was almost impossible to get into the Green Zone, but now cars are allowed to pass through the district without any passes. However, walking through the checkpoints on foot is not possible: the military will undoubtedly stop you at the entrance. Yet, walking around the district on foot is allowed. Such is the peculiarity: the main thing is to drive through the checkpoint by car, and then you can walk.
The Green Zone is one of the central districts of the capital. Here are located government institutions, ministries, and foreign representations, and during the rule of Saddam Hussein, his palace was located here. Photo: Brian1975 / Wikimedia.org, Ibrahim Ahmed / Unsplash.com
The main attraction of the Green Zone is the Swords of Qadisiyah – huge triumphal arches. Two pairs of crossed hands with swords were installed at the end of the 1980s to celebrate victory in the war over Iran (even though there was no actual victory). Soldiers or police will not allow you to get close to the monument, requiring a permit to visit. It is almost impossible to get it, as permits are only issued in the embassy quarter, to which you also need separate permission. The base of the arches contains over 2,000 Iranian military helmets captured during the war. The hands were molded from plaster casts of Hussein himself. Indeed, after his death, they wanted to demolish the arches, which were considered a symbol of the dictatorship, but the US ambassador to Iraq insisted on the necessity of preserving the monument. The territory of the park also includes a monument to the unknown soldier, which can only be viewed from a distance.
The main attraction of the Green Zone is the Swords of Qadisiyah – huge triumphal arches. Two pairs of crossed hands with swords were installed at the end of the 1980s to celebrate victory in the war over Iran.
This monument is one of the iconic places in Baghdad, and locals always recommend it to tourists. The monument was built during the time of Saddam Hussein, in the 1980s, in memory of the Iraqi soldiers who died in the war with Iran. It consists of a turquoise 40-meter dome, divided into two halves. At the center, there is a sculpture with the Iraqi flag and an eternal flame, as well as a small fountain. Under the monument, on the underground floor, there is a museum, which as of February 2023 was closed.
The Martyrs’ Monument is one of the iconic places in Baghdad, and locals always recommend it to tourists. The monument was built during the time of Saddam Hussein, in the 1980s, in memory of the Iraqi soldiers who died in the war with Iran.
Admission to the park costs 6,000 dinars ($4.58). The park is open from 8 am to 4 pm. The entrance from Palestine street is inaccessible, and the museum’s ticket offices are located on the side of Omar Bin Al Khatab street. The territory also houses a historical museum and a children’s park with attractions and a Ferris wheel, named after Sinbad the Sailor – a hero of Arabic tales.
Abu Hanifa Mosque
The main Sunni mosque in Iraq is located in the northern district of Baghdad, Al-Azamiya. It was built in 985 in honor of one of the main Islamic scholars – the jurist and theologian Abu Hanifa. According to one version, the mosque was built around the tomb of the imam, but there is no substantial evidence for this theory. In 2003, during the battle between American and Iraqi forces, minarets, some halls of the mosque, and the dome were damaged. At present, the building is fully restored. The mosque can accommodate over five thousand worshippers. The keeper of the shrine can give a tour of the mosque and even show the closed hall where the tomb of Abu Hanifa is located. Here, unlike many other mosques, cameras are allowed.
The keeper of the main Sunni mosque in Iraq can give a tour and even show the closed hall where the tomb of Abu Hanifa is located.
Shia and Sunni are the two main branches of Islam. In Iraq, according to some data, 65% are Shiites and 35% are Sunnis, according to others – vice versa. All the differences between Sunnis and Shiites are not fundamental – these are legal disagreements, differences in the nature of holidays, attitudes towards non-believers, imams, and the appearance of mosques and ceremonies. Golden Mosque
Near the Abu Hanifa Mosque is the al-Kadhimiya Mosque, or Golden Mosque. This is the most famous Islamic shrine in Baghdad. It is located in the Shiite district of Kadhimiya. The mosque was built around 762, and it gained its current appearance in the early 16th century after reconstruction. Inside are the tombs of two revered imams: al-Kadhim and al-Jawad. They are considered religious successors of the Prophet Muhammad, and they are on the list of the twelve most revered imams by Shiites.
Earlier, tourists were not allowed into the Golden Mosque, but now they have even made a separate entrance for foreigners. All personal items will have to be left in a locker, even phones are not allowed. The mosque consists of four halls, each of which has golden doors. The walls and floor of the mosque are made of marble, the walls and dome from the inside are decorated with quotes from the Quran, and large precious chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Since this mosque is Shiite, women will need not just a scarf (like in Sunni mosques) but a black chador (a light garment that hides the female figure from head to toe) to enter. It can be purchased near the mosque for 5,000-7,000 dinars ($3.82–5.34).
Near the Abu Hanifa Mosque is the al-Kadhimiya Mosque, or Golden Mosque. This is the most famous Islamic shrine in Baghdad. The mosque was built around 762, and it gained its current appearance in the early 16th century after reconstruction
Before Uncle Sam paid his visit, Iraq had a Christian population of about a million souls – roughly 5% of the country’s heartbeat. However, the aftermath of war and the rise of ISIS saw many Christians pack their bags and abandon their homes. Today, when you step foot in these temples of tranquillity, there’s a freedom to explore, a welcome invitation to soak in their interior beauty, capture their silent majesty in photographs. Yet, you’re struck by the palpable absence – the pews are either barren or barely filled.A visit to the Virgin Mary’s Chaldean Catholic Church, nestled within the Chaldean fold, might find you crossing paths with a keeper of the faith, offering you a makeshift tour in broken English. It’s an experience as authentic as it gets. Venture into the Karrada neighborhood, and you’re met with the sight of the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary, a spiritual haven under the Syrian Catholic Church’s wing. It’s a place that’s been dealt a tragic hand – in 2010, its sacred spaces were violated by hostage-takers who claimed the lives of helpless parishioners. A solemn remembrance of a brutal past. But, it’s also a place graced by Pope Francis, a beacon of hope in the face of adversity.
Nestled in the Karrada district is the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary, under the stewardship of the Syrian Catholic Church. Open doors welcome tourists, offering a glimpse of its interior majesty and a chance to freeze a moment of its serene beauty in photographs.
Baghdad’s Sights in a Nutshell
The National Museum of Iraq harbors treasures of time. But its hallowed halls, some of which are off-limits, bear the scars of being plundered in 2003 by American forces and local marauders. Lost or destroyed are ancient gems like the Warka Vase, the Golden Lyre of Ur, and the Copper Statue of Bassetki. It’s a historical voyage that’ll set you back 25,000 dinars ($19.08). The museum swings its doors open from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm.The 12th-13th century Abbasid Palace with its muqarnas – vaults emblematic of Arab and Persian architecture (think St. Petersburg’s cathedral mosque), originally discovered right in Iraq, stands proud on the banks of the Tigris. Admission mirrors the museum – another 25,000 dinars ($19.08). Once inside, a grand courtyard invites for leisurely walks.The sanctuary and mosque of Sheikh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani beckon – they form the spiritual heartbeat of Sufism in Baghdad and Iraq.The Al Sayed Eddress Shrine, a sacred space built in the early 20th century and recently restored, often escapes the tourist map. Yet, it is highly revered among Shiites and boasts a quaint garden for reflective strolls.
The Al Sayed Eddress Shrine may not be popular among tourists, but it is deeply respected by Shiites. Constructed in the early 20th century, the building has recently been restored.
The Al-Khilani Mosque, with a construction timeline shrouded in mystery but first mentioned in 18th-century diaries, holds a special place in Shiite Muslim hearts. In 2007, the mosque was the site of a devastating explosion, claiming 78 lives. It was restored following the May 2007 blast.The Freedom Monument stands tall on Tahrir Square – ground zero for the 2019-2021 protests.
The Freedom Monument on Tahrir Square
For an in-depth look at the Arab Spring protests, check out the New York Times article “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart“.The Baghdad railway station, an impressive edifice midwifed by the English in the mid-20th century, still stands.The Al-Rahman Mosque, a project launched under Saddam Hussein in 1998, was put on ice in 2003 due to the US invasion. To this day, its construction remains incomplete.
The Al-Rahman Mosque, initiated by Saddam Hussein in 1998, had its construction frozen in 2003 due to the US invasion. Photo: Omar Chatriwala / Flickr.com
Firdos Square. In 2003, the world watched as the 12-meter statue of Saddam Hussein fell here. Adjacent to the square is the Palestine Hotel, a favorite amongst foreigners.
Firdos Square saw the infamous fall of the 12-meter statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, a moment broadcasted worldwide.
The Palestine Hotel, located near Firdos Square, is a popular choice amongst foreigners.
Food in Baghdad
The city has a vast number of eateries offering diverse food. Right on the street, kebabs are prepared on a grill, grilled chicken rotates on a spit, some are baking fish or frying falafel. Portions are large, including various salads, dressings, and sauces, bread wraps. The standard price for a kebab is 7000 dinars ($5.34), falafel will cost 1000 ($0.76), tea, coffee, lemonade, or a bottle of water – 250-500 ($0.19-$0.38).
Kebabs are prepared right on the streets of Baghdad on a grill, grilled chicken is spinning on a spit, some are baking fish or frying falafel.
Be sure to try Mesopotamian fish Baghdad-style – masgouf. This is freshly caught river fish, which is cut along the back, gutted, spices are added, and then grilled. In cafes, they usually take a live fish that swims in special boxes. In front of you, it is gutted, fried and served with vegetables, salads, and various marinades. A serving usually costs about 10,000 dinars ($7.63).
Be sure to try Mesopotamian fish Baghdad-style – masgouf. This is a freshly caught river fish, which is cut along the back, gutted, spices are added, and then grilled. Photo: Al Jazeera English / Wikimedia.org
Maklube is another traditional Iraqi dish – rice with fried vegetables and meat. Usually served with fresh vegetables as well. A plate of maklube in a cheap cafe will cost 6000 dinars ($4.58).In the old city, you can try kub-bu (kubba) – rice balls with lamb or beef, mixed with greens. They are usually served with pickles and a small bowl of soup. The average cost of such a dish is about 1500 dinars ($1.15). For dessert, you can take knafe – a sweet dish that is popular in many Arab countries. It is made from kadaif vermicelli, white cheese, and sugar syrup.Despite various stereotypes, it’s easy to buy alcohol in Baghdad – the city has quite a few alcohol markets. This is because the capital is more open and secular than other cities. In the province, according to locals, such stores simply do not exist. Alcohol markets can be recognized by characteristic signs of famous brands, for example, “Efes”. You can buy both low-alcohol drinks and any other strong alcohol from global manufacturers. Local beer will cost 500-1500 dinars ($0.38–1.15). A large number of alcohol stores are located in the Karrada area on Saadoun Street.
Despite various stereotypes, it’s easy to buy alcohol in Baghdad – the city has quite a few alcohol markets. This is because the capital is more open and secular than other cities.
Due to the heat in the warm period, Baghdad goes dormant during the day and comes alive around nine o’clock in the evening. And even in winter, this rule applies – there are significantly more people on the streets in the evening than during the day, although there isn’t intense heat. Iraqis go for walks, go to cafes, watch football on TV, smoke hookahs.There are many hookah places in the city, and despite this, it’s not easy to find a spot in them in the evening. In large hookah places, several masters work, huge plasma TVs hang, and there is Wi-Fi for visitors. One of the good hookah places is Gilgamesh. Hookah in such places will cost 7000-8000 dinars ($5.34–6.11). In lower-level establishments, a hookah will cost 3000-5000 dinars ($2.29-$3.82).
There are many hookah places in the city, and despite this, it’s not easy to find a spot in them in the evening. In large hookah places, several masters work, huge plasma TVs hang, and there is Wi-Fi for visitors.
It’s worth noting that Iraqis smoke in public places, and they do it a lot. Locals will always try to offer you a cigarette, but if you do this ahead of them, you can earn deep respect or, for example, expect a discount in a taxi if you treat the driver. Therefore, it’s a good idea to bring a few packs as a souvenir for the local residents.
Iraq is not yet very rich in souvenirs and things that can be brought back from a trip. Mainly, these will be Eastern sweets, for example, baklava, which is sold at markets and in grocery stores. A good option for a souvenir would be local spices (nutmeg, turmeric, cinnamon) and nuts (pistachios, cashews). At the as-Safafeer market, various copper products are sold: Arabic teapots, coffee pots, trays, and dishes with images of Iraqi attractions. You can find several souvenir shops on the streets of Inner Karada and Omar Bin Yasir. There, you can buy souvenir sets with sweets, including in beautiful solid packages, magnets, copper and ceramic plates, and loose tea. It’s a convenient place to get everything at once.
Iraq is not yet very rich in souvenirs and things that can be brought back from a trip. Mainly, these will be Eastern sweets, for example, baklava, which is sold at markets and in grocery stores.
As for shopping, Baghdad has several large shopping malls with stores of international brands (Mango, Zara, and others). Baghdad Mall is the most famous and largest shopping center in the capital. There are also Mansour Mall and Dream City Mall. The territories of the malls and shopping centers are thoroughly guarded, so before entering, security guards search visitors and don’t even allow cameras to be brought in.
Where to Stay
There are many hotels in Baghdad, but Booking.com only shows about 20 options. Most of them are expensive five-star hotels, with prices starting from $100 per night and upwards. Though there are a few hotels for $60-70. Of course, there are also affordable hotels in Baghdad, just enter “Hotels in Baghdad” into a search engine – some even have their own websites, but more often they have Facebook pages or are listed on other aggregators. You can reserve them by writing to their email or on WhatsApp. The price per night in such hotels ranges from $20 to $40.We stayed at the Hali hotel. There was a 24-hour front desk with English-speaking staff, a laundry service (for an additional fee), and a decent breakfast included in the price. Among the advantages were a good location and constant hot water. The hotel only accepts payment in dollars.
Baghdad is the capital and largest city of Iraq with a population of about nine million people. The capital is quite large in size, and the main attractions are sometimes dozens of kilometers away from each other. Baghdad appears as a stereotypical eastern city of the 21st century: noisy, dusty, with constant movement, traffic jams, and car horns. Walking around it is not very comfortable.Taxis. There are two types of taxis in Baghdad – cars and tuk-tuks (motor rickshaws). The price does not differ depending on the type of transport – from 4000-5000 dinars ($3.05-$3.82) for a few kilometers across the city to 8000-12,000 for a trip from one part of the city to another. It’s necessary to determine the cost before the trip and haggle – sometimes you can reduce the price by a third.
Taxis in Baghdad come in two types – cars and tuk-tuks (motor rickshaws). The price does not vary depending on the type of transport
Taxi drivers usually have a very poor knowledge of the city. So, you will have to become their navigator, using the map for guidance. Alternatively, you can take a business card with the hotel’s address and phone number beforehand so that the driver can call the hotel and, after a ten-minute conversation, finally find out where it is and how to get there. However, taxi drivers usually know how to get to popular attractions. You can also call a taxi through applications – Baly or Careem. To use them, you might need a local SIM card, as the SMS code necessary for authorization.
Taxi drivers usually have a very poor knowledge of the city. So, you will have to become their navigator, using the map for guidance
Public transport consists of Toyota Coaster minibuses. But since drivers usually don’t speak English, it’s hard to understand how and where the bus is going. As an option, you can get on any bus and track movement on the map, getting off at the necessary stop. A bus ride costs 500-1000 dinars ($0.38–0.76).
Just a stone’s throw from Baghdad, numerous intriguing sites lie in wait, eager to be discovered in a day’s journey. We’re talking the ruins of Babylon, the former palace of Saddam Hussein, and the cities of Karbala and Samarra.
Samarra: an ancient minaret and Iraq’s primary Shiite mosque
130 kilometers from BaghdadSamarra, as depicted in many a historical narrative, is a linchpin in the Muslim world. Here, you’ll find the Al-Askari mosque, serving as the final resting place of two imams. Also, this was once a capital of the Abbasid Caliphate.
Getting There. Buses to Samarra are as rare as hen’s teeth, so your chariot will most likely be a taxi. A one-way ride comes to around 30,000 dinars ($22.90) per vehicle. Bargaining is a cherished pastime here, and you’ll most likely shave off a couple of dollars. There’s no need to hire an entire cab – pay for a single spot and wait for the taxi to fill up with fellow explorers. You’ll find a nest of taxi drivers at the northern Al-Alawi bus station.
According to locals, buses to Samarra are few and far between, so the best bet is a taxi. A one-way ride will cost about 30,000 dinars ($22.90) per vehicle.
Safety. The journey to Samarra is punctuated by a sprinkling of military and police checkpoints. Here, the local law enforcement occasionally halt vehicles for routine checks – passports, visas, entry stamps, the usual. Despite these stops, the trip doesn’t usually exceed an hour and a half. Generally, taxi drivers don’t venture into the city itself, dropping passengers off near the entry checkpoint.The Samarra checkpoint stands guard before the Samarra Dam Bridge, part of the city’s dam system constructed by the Germans and English in the mid-20th century. The military mans this point, peppering you with questions before granting access: What’s your purpose? Where did you come from? What are your sightseeing plans? How long will you stay?At the checkpoint, your passport will be swapped for a special pass card bearing a number. Exiting Samarra involves passing through the same checkpoint to exchange your pass back to your documents.The stringent rules governing Samarra’s visitation are a legacy of 2014 when the city fell into the hands of ISIS terrorists. Intriguingly, one of the group’s leaders, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, hails from Samarra.
At the Samarra checkpoint, your passport will be swapped for a special pass card bearing a number. To exit Samarra, you must go through the same checkpoint to exchange your pass back for your documents.
What to see. The spellbinding allure of the Malwiya Minaret and the Grand Mosque often draws a crowd. Constructed from sandstone in the 9th century, the Malwiya Tower is usually the prime motivator for most tourists venturing into Samarra. More often than not, you’ll find soldiers accompanying visitors to this iconic structure and back, even going to the extent of helping hail a cab back to Baghdad. And if lady luck smiles upon you, you might just be granted the liberty to explore unescorted, giving you the freedom to indulge in the city’s myriad other attractions.At the time of its completion, the tower was revered as one of the largest structures in the Islamic world. Its influence reached far and wide, prompting similar spiral minaret creations in other Islamic nations such as the Al-Fanar Islamic Centre in Qatar and the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo, Egypt. In 2005, the tower had a close shave with destruction when Iraqi insurgents, disgruntled by the presence of an international coalition, attacked Al-Malwiya, which was being used as a lookout point by U.S. troops. The assault resulted in the upper part of the minaret being demolished.For foreign tourists, an entry ticket to this testament of history will set you back by 25,000 dinars ($19.08). Across the entrance, you’ll find stalls peddling various souvenirs, including miniature replicas of the minaret. The minaret also finds pride of place on the 250-dinar note.
The majority of tourists are drawn to Samarra by the sandstone-built Malwiya Minaret and the Grand Mosque, both dating back to the 9th century. At the time of its construction, the structure was considered one of the largest in the Islamic world. Photo: David Stanley / Wikimedia.org
The Golden Mosque of Samarra is home to the al-Askari Shrine, the principal Shiite mosque in Iraq. This, despite Samarra predominantly being home to Sunnis and located in the so-called “Sunni Triangle”. The mosque has borne the brunt of multiple terrorist attacks and undergone several renovations during the civil wars. Two blasts in 2006 and 2007 led to the collapse of the minarets and the golden dome. To gain entry into the mosque, you’ll need to navigate through several checkpoints – the first one at the entrance to the neighborhood, then another one at the mosque premises, and the final one right before you step into the mosque. All they let you carry inside is your mobile phone. The complex houses the tombs of two imams, Ali al-Hadi and Askari, making it a pilgrimage site for a considerable number of visitors, including those from Shiite-majority Iran. The interior of the mosque is adorned in the Persian ayna kari style. This specialized technique involves covering the surface, typically mosques, with intricately cut mirrors. Those who’ve been to Iran might recall the Shah Cheragh mausoleum in Shiraz.
The interior of the Golden Mosque is adorned in the Persian ayna kari style. This specialized technique involves the use of intricately cut mirrors to cover the surface, typically of mosques.
The architectural vestiges of the Abbasid era in Samarra, including the ruins of 42 palaces, four cathedral mosques, and the mausoleums of three caliphs, are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Karbala (100 kilometers from Baghdad) holds a special place in the hearts of Shiite Muslims worldwide. It is the place where the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein, his brother Abbas, and 70 warrior martyrs met their end. During the Ashura celebration, Shiites perform the mourning ceremony of Taziya, which draws millions of pilgrims to the city.Babylon (110 kilometers from Baghdad), one of the most significant cities of the ancient world, now lies in ruins. However, what you can still see is Saddam Hussein’s palace – an abandoned residence that provides a glimpse into the former dictator’s lavish lifestyle.
Saddam Hussein’s palace is located in Babylon. Photo: Safa.daneshvar / Wikimedia.org
An-Najaf (180 kilometers from Baghdad) serves as another essential center for Shiites. It houses the tomb of the first Imam Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad. In terms of pilgrim visits, it ranks third, after Mecca and Medina. Shiites believe that the Imam Ali Mosque also serves as the final resting place for Adam and Noah.The Ziggurat in Ur (350 kilometers from Baghdad) is an impressive relic from the ancient world, erected some 4000 years ago.
The Ziggurat in Ur was built about 4000 years ago.
The ruins of the ancient city of Hatra (400 kilometers from Baghdad) may have been destroyed in the 3rd century AD, but they still retain elements of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. This historic site is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The ruins of the ancient city of Hatra are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Photo: Spc. Gregory Gieske / Wikimedia.org
Currency: The local currency is the Iraqi Dinar. It’s better to bring dollars for your trip, as euros are sometimes not accepted for exchange. There are numerous exchange offices in downtown Baghdad, but hardly any street changers. The best rates are usually found around the Old Town. Language: Typically, English is not spoken, and locals will communicate in Arabic, regardless of whether you understand or not. Therefore, it’s necessary to learn some words and phrases in Arabic, as well as memorize Arabic numerals as they are used everywhere: in cafes, shops, and hotels.When visiting the Green Zone, it’s a good idea to take screenshots of the Arabic names of attractions (for instance, from Wikipedia) – this can greatly simplify communication with military personnel and police.
Usually, nobody speaks English in Iraq, and locals will communicate in Arabic, regardless of whether you understand or not.
Women and Islam: Modern Iraq has a relatively lenient dress code for women, compared to Iran (where the law requires hair covering) and many countries of the Arabian Peninsula where it is assumed. At least in Baghdad, a headscarf is not necessary, and no one will remark on its absence.Connectivity: Baghdad and its surroundings have good mobile connectivity and internet access. Hotels and other establishments usually offer internet with decent speed. So, it’s entirely possible to work from Iraq. A SIM card from the local operator, Zain, costs 1400 dinars ($1.07), and you can separately get a package for 25,000 ($19.08) or 35,000 dinars ($26.72) for ten or 20 gigabytes.When to go: The best time to visit is from October to March. There’s no scorching heat of 40-50 degrees Celcium as in the summer. In the north of the country, winters can be quite cold, with temperatures dropping below zero. As for autonomous Kurdistan, it is a mountainous region with hot summers and cold winters. In December and January, most of the region is covered with snow.
Iraq proper. Until March 2021, getting into Iraq was almost impossible. Visas were only issued when purchasing a tour, which cost from $1500 and above. But now, anyone can come to Baghdad, Basra, or any checkpoint and get a visa upon arrival.The visa costs ~$77, of which $75 is taken in dollars and an additional 3000 in Iraqi dinars ($2.29). The only requirement is a valid passport (valid for at least six months from the date of visa application). No one asks for the purpose of the visit, hotel reservations, return tickets, insurance, PCR tests, or COVID-19 vaccination certificates. At least that was the case at the Iran-Iraq border checkpoint “Mehran”. However, we spent over three hours at the border. The visas were in the safe of the border post commander, but the keys were in the neighboring town of Badra, ten kilometers from the border. So we had to wait until he went to get them.The visa looks like a regular sticker that is pasted into the passport. It indicates the name, date, duration of stay, and the number of possible entries into Iraq (single-entry or multi-entry visa). The decision is made by the border officer. We were issued a single-entry visa for one month. From a special logbook, which records the arrival of foreigners, we learned that from January 1 to February 15, 2023, only ten foreigners crossed this border.Iraqi Kurdistan: Currently, the country is divided into two major parts: Iraq with its capital in Baghdad, and the autonomous region – Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own constitution, government, flag, anthem, and armed forces – the Peshmerga. Kurdistan even issues its own visas, but they do not permit visits to the main territory of Iraq. However, Kurdistan is a relatively peaceful region. Before the relaxation of visa policy in main Iraq, most travelers visited the autonomous region. Although Kurdistan is formally a single region, de facto it is divided into two parts with capitals in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.To visit the autonomous region of Kurdistan, a separate visa is required. You can also get it at the border, upon arrival. It is also possible to apply online. All information is available on the official tourism portal of Kurdistan. The visa costs ~$72. Only a passport is required, which must be valid for at least six months from the moment of obtaining the visa. It is also necessary to have at least one clean page for stamps and visa.At the border of Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq, you cannot get an Iraqi visa. But with an Iraqi visa, you can enter Kurdistan.
There is an autonomous region in Iraq – Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own constitution, government, flag, anthem, and armed forces. Photo: Levi Meir Clancy / Unsplash.com
How to get to Iraq
The easiest way to get to Iraq is to fly to the capital Baghdad or Basra with a stopover in Turkey or the UAE.
From Iraq, it is relatively easy to get to neighboring countries and regions of the Middle East.
Jordan: The most in-demand direction. Shared taxis run from Baghdad to Amman, usually these are comfortable American GMC cars. A place in the car will cost $75 per person. Several companies go to Jordan, one of them is Sanaya (Al-Sanaya). The system is simple: you book places via WhatsApp (0771 770 00 44), send photos of your passports and Iraqi visas. The taxi picks up directly from the hotel in Baghdad and takes you to the hotel in Amman. Payment is strictly after the trip, in dollars. When crossing the border, an additional $15 is taken, something like a tax on international travel.The journey with border crossing takes 12-13 hours, so taxis leave Baghdad early in the morning. The distance is about 870 kilometers.
Iran: From Baghdad to the Mehran checkpoint (230 kilometers) you can get there for 25,000 dinars ($19.08) per person on a shared taxi. Iraq and Iran have several border points, to the Almunthrya checkpoint it’s 180 kilometers from Baghdad. And from Basra to the border is only 35 kilometers.
Kurdistan: You can get to Kurdistan from Baghdad by minibus. The cost of a trip to Erbil is 80,000 dinars ($61.07). It is not necessary to apply for a separate visa.
Turkey: The state border between Iraq and Turkey is in autonomous Kurdistan. It is impossible to get directly from Baghdad to Turkey. It is necessary to get to the city of Erbil, and then use a taxi to the border. The car to the “Ibrahim Khalil” checkpoint will cost 40,000 dinars ($30.53). From Baghdad and Erbil, planes also fly to Turkey.
Syria: You can also get to Damascus from Baghdad on a shared taxi, which run almost every day. A place in the car costs $80.
Author: Nikita Spekhov. Photo: Nikita Spekhov