Baghdad Stories and Tips

The fairy-tale city of Harun al-Rashid

Iraq, like North Korea, Afghanistan, and Bhutan, is a very hard country to visit today. In Amman, Jordan, I met four individual Spanish travellers. The Iraqi embassy in Madrid imposed us the conditions to travel in a group of a minimum of five persons to this country under the supervision of an official travel agency in Baghdad. It was one of the very rare times that I was compelled to join a tourist group during my travels. In the border with Iraq we were invited to produce a test of AIDS in situ. If you did not agree with this condition you were not accepted into the country. After this prerequisite we were introduced to our tour leader, driver, and headed to Baghdad at 120km per hour through a paved road in very good conditions, stopping twice for drinking tea and eating the unavoidable shish kebabs.Baghdad appeared stunning and radiant. Its mosques, like the celebrated Kazimayn, were of highly aesthetic and exquisite forms, decorated with colourful and harmonious tiles representing geometrical shapes, reminding me those of Isfahan, Baku, Kabul, Bukhara, and Samarkand that I had visited in the past. The archaeological museum was like the Ali Baba cave, and the central market, with its covered winding lanes like a labyrinth, was almost as exotic and rich like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Finding your way around the many stalls, where the polite sellers offered you tea all the times, you would have not been surprised if somebody would have offered you the enchanted lamp of Aladdin, or a flying carpet, or meeting Mullah Nasrudin with his donkey around the corner.

Karbala, at about 100km distance south from Baghdad, is a very holy place for the Shia Muslims. During the 12th century there was martyred Hussayn, the Prophet Mohammed grandson, during a massacre of Shia faithful people. In order to enter this mosque I had to be very respectful, observing all the Muslim rules. First I took my shoes off, put them in a plastic bag and gave them to a porter to hide in an armchair in the mosque premises, as everybody does. The religious feelings inside were as powerful as the Christians in Vatican, Lourdes or Fatima, or the Jews in Jerusalem, or the Hindus during their Kumbha Mela’s, or the Buddhists in the Potala Palace. Under a startling and contagious atmosphere people cried desperately and, weeping, they caressed with tenderness the Husayn vault exteriorizing infinite pain and introducing notes through its slots.

One of the day visits that we made based in Baghdad was to Babylonia. We entered the site through the Ishtar Gate, which was part of the temple devoted to Bel, built by Nabucodonosor II. But the present gate was a reproduction. The original (restored) is to be found in the Staatliche Museum, in Berlin, Germany. The atmosphere inside Babylonia premises is breathtaking. When you walk among its ruins and walls you feel that you are in a fabulous city that in the past was the capital of the world. Babylonia is located 90km south of Baghdad.

Every day was a new discovery in Iraq. Every day was better than the previous one. Sometimes we felt that we were learning more history than a student in a university. Our programme was filled with cultural activities: one day in Nineveh, another in Najaf to see the tomb of Ali, in the next one I visited in Ur the house where lived Abraham, and still another one we went to the Temple and Palace of Hatra, which was a caravanserai stop in the Silk Road.But the best was the three day excursion that we did to the north, to Mosul, where live the Kurds. There, we entered in Nestorian Churches and also in a temple of the Yezidis, or followers of a fallen angel that they call Meleke Tawus, and believe in the reincarnation.
Everything was included in this tour, hotels, restaurants, transport, excursions, tickets to the museums, car with driver, and guide. Individual tourism is, today, not viable.Many good travellers that I have met in the past have the taboo of never travelling back to a place where they had already been. If you return, they assured me, you ruin the first feeling, and second parts are never good. I thought that this argument was nonsense. But after what has happened to Iraq in the present times, I do not think that I will ever revisit this fascinating country. It would be too sad.

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