Tourism to Iraq is still a very special case. The potential, however, is enormous. Iraq, with Mesopotamia and the legendary Baghdad, is one of the most historically rich places on earth. But since the U.S. invasion of 2003 and seven years of war and occupation, insurgency and terrorist attacks, the safety of American tourists in Iraq cannot be assured. The U.S. State Department issued a warning in February 2010 about the continued “risks inherent in travel to Iraq, and recommends against all but essential travel within the country given the fluid security situation.” Iraq, says the State Department, “remains dangerous and unpredictable.”
The State Department warning says that “Numerous insurgent groups remain active throughout Iraq. Although Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)-led operations against these groups continue, attacks against the ISF and U.S. forces persist in many areas of the country. Civilian air and road travel within Iraq remains dangerous.”
Potentially, however, Iraq is an amazing tourist destination. The area of Iraq is roughly equivalent to ancient Mesopotamia, containing the triangle of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers known as the Fertile Crescent, considered by many to be the cradle of civilization. Dating back 9,000 years, Mesopotamia is one of the oldest civilizations known. It has been suggested that the land between the rivers that flow out of the mountains of Turkey was the site of the Biblical Garden of Eden.
Central to any tour of Iraq would be the city of Baghdad, the City of the Caliphs, the setting of the tales from “One Thousand and One Nights” and the seven voyages of Sinbad. The Tigris River divides the city into two parts, Rusafa and Karkh, with many bridges connecting them. On the Rusafa side is Al-Rashid Street, the commercial center. Caliph Street is lined with ancient mosques and churches of many denominations. Sadoun Street is the center of movie theaters, travel agencies, airline offices and hotels. One of the oldest churches in Baghdad, the Church of Meskenta or the Church of the Virgin Mary, is in Midan Square near Al-Rashid Street. It was built in 1640 by Armenians on a piece of land granted to them by the Ottoman Sultan Murad IV. There are many other ancient, historic churches and monasteries in Baghdad. Also worth seeing in Baghdad is the Abbasid Palace. The ornate, opulent structure is believed to have been built by Caliph Al-Naser Ledinillah in the 13thcentury.
Mosul is the second-largest city in Iraq. It has many tourist sites, including the Umayyad Mosque, the Mujahidi Mosque, the Great Nuriddin Mosque and Qara Serai ( Black Palace). Iraq’s third city, Basra, is known as the Venice of the East, due to its many canals.
In spite of travel warnings, Iraq still receives thousands of religious travelers, who come to visit holy sites of Islam. Gradually tourism is beginning to come back. But it should not be attempted by Americans without professional guidance. At present, few tour operators offer guided programs to Iraq. One that does is UK-based Hinterland Travel (www.hinterlandtravel.com), which offers several itineraries that include historic Mesopotamia and/or Kurdistan.