Ancient Civilization, Modern Marsh Life And Shia Islam – Iraq Part 2

You should already know that after wrapping up my travels around Afghanistan, I headed to Iraq. In the first half of my trip, we checked out Baghdad and Central Iraq and got to climb the Great Mosque of Samarra.

Now in the second half of this Iraq adventure, we’re heading south from Baghdad to trace ancient civilization and Shia holy sites. Plus we’ll tour Saddam Hussein’s abandoned palace and get a taste of marsh life in a desert oasis. And don’t miss out on getting a look at Babylon, which is up first as we hit the road in central and southern Iraq.

Welcome to ancient Babylon

Exploring Babylon

The ruins of the ancient city of Babylon, also known as Babel, are about a hundred kilometers south of Baghdad. Babylon was the center of Mesopotamian civilization for nearly two thousand years.

Some of the ruins of Babylon

It is culturally significant for a plethora of reasons. Babylon is Alexander the Great’s final resting place. The world’s first-known civil code was written here. It is the setting of many biblical stories. It is also a place where an extraordinary number of accomplishments were made in the fields of math and astronomy, and where the arts flourished as well.

Although Babylon was once the largest city in the world, it does not have very many inhabitants today. However, it is a popular site for Iraqi tourists to visit, and for a few lucky foreigners like myself.

The Babylonian King of Gods, Marduk, on the city walls

When we arrived in Babylon, we visited the museum first. There we saw an interesting exhibit of old tools used in ancient Mesopotamia.

A map of the ancient city

From there, we walked through the remains of the ancient city. We saw the Ishtar Gate, or rather, Saddam’s replica of the Ishtar Gate. The original was stolen by Germany, where it remains in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin today. 😳

The replicated Ishtar Gate

There are still some nice things to see around Babylon, such as statues of lions and very old inscriptions that survived the passage of time.

The lion guarding Babylon

Saddam’s Palace

We also explored the large, abandoned palace of Saddam Hussein located on a hilltop near Babylon overlooking the Euphrates River. The palace was originally built for Saddam in his nationalistic fervor.

Saddam’s abandoned palace from the outside

In 2003 during the invasion of Iraq, the palace became a command center for the U.S. armed forces. It was interesting to walk around and see the damaged palace.

Exploring inside of Saddam’s palace

The scenery reminded me a bit of the Nile River in Egypt, with desert all around us yet greenery surrounding the river. There were great views looking down over the river valley, where we could see the local people and their livestock from a bird’s eye view.

Saddam had some beautiful river views

It was also nice to explore different levels of the palace to see some of the monuments and paintings, although many of them are now gone.

Some artwork still remains in Saddam’s old palace

There was some nice stuff to see, but these days, it seems that Saddam’s palace is mostly occupied by the birds.

Saddam’s old bathroom inside of the palace

Getting Close to Imam Ali

After leaving the abandoned palace, we continued on to Kufa where we visited Imam Ali’s house. This is where Imam Ali, the first Shia Imam who was directly related to the prophet Muhammad, was assassinated in the seventh century. We could not take any photos there because it is considered a holy site. The house of Imam Ali is one of the main tourist sites in Kufa.

We left and passed through a very busy bazaar where no one wore masks and no covid measures appeared to be in place. Then we went to a busy mosque where religious followers kiss the grave of Imam Ali. It was quite an experience. 😅

No social distancing and not a mask in sight

Then we went to Wadi-Us-Salaam, the cemetery of the Shia holy city of Najaf, which was another highlight of the trip. It is the largest cemetery in the world and located near the shrine of Imam Ali. It is the final resting place of over five million people who wished to be buried near Imam Ali. It is also the site of an annual pilgrimage by Shia Muslims.

Welcome to the world’s biggest cemetery

We walked around the graves a bit, which were quite colorful and stood out in the desert. It was an amazing cemetery where so many people were buried who just wanted to be connected to their prophet.

We continued on and spent some time at the Great Mosque of Kufa, one of the oldest and holiest surviving mosques in the world, built in the seventh century. It was very big and absolutely beautiful.

Wandering around the Great Mosque of Kufa

It was one of the nicest mosques that I’ve ever seen, decorated with beautiful artwork inside and out. We walked around, exploring all the facets of the mosque, taking plenty of photos, and enjoying the general atmosphere.

A truly spectacular mosque

In the evening we went to Najaf, founded in the eighth century, which is ten kilometers away from Kufa. There, we visited the Imam Ali Holy Shrine.

Inside of the beautiful Imam Ali Holy Shrine

Najaf is arguably one of the holiest cities in the world for Shia Muslims, next to Mashad or Qom in Iran, which I have also visited. In addition to being a holy city, Najaf is still a center of strong Shia political power in the country.

The city of Najaf

After a very eventful day, we enjoyed watching the sunset over the Sea of Najaf.

I always enjoy a good sunset over the sea.

An Evening in the Life of the Marsh Arabs

The next day, we drove and drove and drove. Finally, we made it to the wetlands of the Mesopotamian Marshes just before sunset. This marshland was once drained by Saddam Hussein, but it has since flooded again.

Arriving in the marshland

The Muslim minority ethnic group known as Marsh Arabs, or Ma`dan, live in this region. They live along the water in the marshlands in houses made primarily of reeds.

A local home

We took a boat trip around the marshes, where we saw some beautiful birds and had the opportunity to experience a bit of the local culture. The Marsh Arabs are quite prominent in Iraqi Arab history for their outsider status and their history of waging war against the authorities.

A Marsh Arab looking out over the water

It was nice to visit and see some of their unique culture firsthand. As it got later, we went to a teahouse and enjoyed drinking tea with the local people. The scenery was nice, and I enjoyed feeling a bit cooler there, close to the water in the desert heat.

Enjoying a boat trip in the intense heat 🥵

A Palatial Evening and an Ancient City

We stayed overnight in Nasiriyah, which is 360 kilometers south of Baghdad, along the banks of the Euphrates River. It is the fourth largest city in Iraq and, while in the past it was religiously diverse, the majority of the population these days is Shia. The place we stayed was a nice big hotel that felt similar to a palace with a lot of gold. I took some consulting calls in the evening and had a pretty low-key night.

Our amazing hotel that night

The next day, we went quite early to the ruins of Ur, one of the oldest cities in Mesopotamia that dates all the way back to 3800 BC. It was cool to see all those old ruins.

Ruins of one of the oldest towns on the planet, believed to be the site where Abraham once lived.

In Ur, they had the first arched door in the world, which we got to walk through. The Sumerians, who constructed the city of Ur in the fourth century BC, already knew how to construct arches long before the Romans ever figured it out.

The world’s first arched door

Back to Baghdad

We started our day very early in the morning because after leaving Ur we had to drive all the way back to Baghdad. I would catch a flight that same evening through Dubai to Seychelles. I was leaving one day earlier than the rest of the group, but I wasn’t disappointed because I had seen most of what there was to see in Baghdad anyway. 😌

Welcome to Baghdad… again 😂

After an incredibly long drive, we made it to the airport, where I bid adieu to the group. On the way to the airport, we stopped at one last mosque where we took a few more photos for good measure. I was put in a taxi and went through a lot of security to get to Baghdad Airport. There’s a ton of security there with at least four or five checkpoints to go to by car and then by foot, similar to the airport in Kabul. 🙄

I finally made it to the airport where I got my ticket. Then I flew economy class to Dubai and business class the rest of the way to Seychelles.

Onward to Seychelles!

As you can imagine, a week-long beach holiday in Seychelles was incredibly refreshing and rewarding after three adventurous weeks in Afghanistan and Iraq.