Ancient Mystique In Modern Iraq

Upon escaping Afghanistan, where better to travel than Iraq?

Not because Iraq is the country the U.S. invaded after Afghanistan. But rather it’s a not so far-off land home to incredible ancient ruins, ranging from Persia to Babylon — which we’re about to explore, along with some modern ruins as well.

Let’s get this started.

Iraq, much like this mosque, has a lot of inner beauty.

Getting to Baghdad

After my amazing travels all around Afghanistan shortly before the Taliban takeover, I flew from Kabul, Afghanistan to Baghdad, Iraq by way of Dubai. Leaving Afghanistan was actually quite a hassle. The Kabul airport was extremely disorganized, full of stressed-out people who had probably never taken a flight before in their lives and had no idea what to do. People were pushing and pulling, making for an altogether awful airport experience. 😖

Obviously, though, it wasn’t as bad as the scene at the airport right after the fall of Kabul in August. Luckily, I didn’t have it that bad.

I did ❤️ Kabul, but not their airport.

I finally made it out of Afghanistan and arrived in Iraq. I had been to the northern part of Iraq before in the Kurdistan region, but I had not yet visited southern or central Iraq and that was a priority for me because there’s a big difference between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq proper.

Just two months before my trip, Iraq announced the availability of visas on arrival for Europeans. I picked mine up. It was pretty easy and straightforward.

My visa on arrival took less than five minutes to get.

I was a little late to meet the tour I had booked with an agency called Rocky Road Travel. They had already started the tour, and I arrived basically half a day late. Someone picked me up from the airport and took me to Baghdad Hotel. I chilled a bit there, then got to meet the tour group.

The hotel in Baghdad. Compared to the terrible beds in Afghanistan, this place was the height of luxury 😅

We walked around Baghdad in the evening and went to a restaurant together for dinner at night. Baghdad felt very secure to me, even walking around after dark.

Feeling safe on well-lit streets as we walked to dinner.

As we walked around, I was surprised to see a lot of alcohol available at streetside bars in this predominantly Muslim country, which is fairly unusual.

A bar off the street. Too bad I was doing a detox so I didn’t have a drink here.

We walked for about ten minutes to a nice restaurant that’s famous for its open hot stone grill that they use to cook fish from the Tigris River. I skipped the fish and had a lot of bread and kebab instead, which was a nice meal. I enjoyed getting to know the group over dinner. There were about ten people who were mostly Americans, plus a few travelers from other countries.

Local fish from the Tigris on a special grill

A Monumentally Hot Tour

The next day, we took a city tour of Baghdad and the surrounding areas. We visited some different monuments around the city. Practically every roundabout boasts a different statue from Arab mythology, including familiar characters such as Sinbad and Aladdin.

We drove past Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace that was destroyed by the U.S. army on their third day of raiding Baghdad. It was interesting to see the damaged palace from the outside.

The remains of Saddam’s palace

We also went to a monument that depicted a man with many hands grabbing a tower. Some local university group was there posing for pictures, and we took a couple of photos with them.

Interesting monument

From there we went to the Victory Arch, also known as the Hands of Victory, which has stood in Zawra Park since 1989. The memorial was designed based on a concept by Saddam Hussein. It was closed that day, but we could take pictures from the outside of two big swords joined together in an arch.

Sword fight?

Then we went to the Martyr’s Memorial (or the Al-Shaheed Monument, depending on who you ask). It was originally built to honor the Iraqi soldiers who died during the war with Iran in the 1980s, but is now believed to generally memorialize all of Iraq’s martyrs. The monument is a split turquoise dome that opened to the public in 1983. We were able to walk inside of the split dome and take a look at the eternal flame in the center of it.

The beautiful Martyr’s Memorial

I should mention that it was extremely hot at the time of my trip in late May. It was over forty degrees out there, so it was probably the hottest place I have visited this year. Luckily it was a dry heat. There was not a drop of moisture in the air, which is preferable to humidity. Nevertheless, it was incredibly hot outside to do any type of physical activity, even just walking around on a city tour. 🥵

After visiting the Martyr’s Monument we walked around a bit and saw an amusement park with a Ferris wheel, which is apparently the second largest in the Middle East.

The Baghdad Eye

Wandering Ancient Ruins

We continued about thirty-five kilometers southeast to Ctesiphon, an ancient city built around 120 BC at the banks of the Tigris River.

Views along the Tigris

Ctesiphon used to be the capital of Persia (which is now Iran) until the seventh century, and it was at one point the largest city in the world. It was also the site of a famous battle in World War 1. Ctesiphon has a famous arch, which is the largest single-span vaulted arch in the world.

The amazing arch of ancient Ctesiphon

There are some ancient buildings that we got to climb and take in the views from the top. We walked about a kilometer through the unbearable heat through the Ctesiphon ruins, which were quite impressive, especially given that they were built so long ago.

Back in Baghdad

For lunch, we went to a famous chicken restaurant in downtown Baghdad. The food was good, and I enjoyed the air conditioning immensely.

Delicious Iraqi chicken for lunch 😋

From there we continued to Dur-Kurigalzu, an old Sumerian temple built around the fourteenth century BC near the Tigris and Diyala rivers. It was damaged when the U.S. invaded Iraq, but there was still a lot to see. It was nice to wander around and enjoy the views there.

The ancient Sumerian temple

At sunset, we went to see the Mosque of Baghdad, where we spent almost an hour. It was nice to see families with children playing outside of the mosque and to talk to some of the local people. Altogether it was an interesting cultural experience.

Families enjoying an afternoon at the mosque

In the evening, we took it easy in Baghdad. I took some consulting calls, which I did the next couple of evenings as well. I even missed visiting the Karbala mosque because of my work, but sometimes we have to make compromises to travel. 😏

The Great Mosque of Samarra

The next day we headed north to one of the highlights of the trip, the Great Mosque of Samarra, built in the ninth century, which was once the largest mosque in the world. The mosque was destroyed in the thirteen century, leaving behind only the outer wall and its famous 52-meter-high minaret.

Just a few years ago, the U.S. used this minaret as a sniper tower.

It was quite a lengthy process to get there. Although it was not far out of the way, there were many checkpoints armed by militias, so it wasn’t that easy to access Samarra as a foreigner. In the end, thanks to our tour guides having the right contacts, we finally made it in with a police escort.

When we finally got into the Great Mosque of Samarra, I was amazed by the minaret, which is one of the oldest and largest in the world of its kind. It’s encircled by a huge spiral ramp, which we climbed to the top without any security following us. It would have been easy to fall down the ramp, so we had to walk up carefully in the blazing heat.

A very tiring climb at 45°C

This UNESCO World Heritage site was spectacular to see, and I would dare say it’s of the nicest man-made monuments in the world. The old mosque no longer had a roof, and it was fun to walk around and explore the ancient ruins.

Climbing this tall tower with no barriers is not for the faint of heart

We also visited the modern city of Samarra on the east bank of the Tigris, which has a nice golden dome. During the Iraq civil war, Samarra was part of the “Sunni Triangle of Violence,” but when I visited, it was calm and peaceful.

The golden dome of Samarra

Then we drove all the way to Karbala. We drove a lot every day, but this day we drove even more than the others, spending most of the day on the bus. We went from Baghdad to Samarra, then back to Baghdad, and on to Karbala.

Welcome to the holy city of Karbala

As I alluded to, I skipped properly exploring Karbala, which is a holy city for Shia Muslims. Though I had to work to do, I did manage to make it to the holy city and snag a few photos though. After Karbala, we went back to a hotel to sleep. 😴

There were many pilgrims in Karbala

There’s still plenty more to see in this core region of Iraq. Check in next time to explore both Babylon and Saddam’s palace…