It’s not the best time to visit Iraq, but I would be remiss to avoid posting on one of the most dynamic, diverse, and fascinating countries I’ve ever lived in. Iraq is a remarkable destination — and I very much hope it will be accessible to visitors in the future. As I was here in 2005 – 2006, things have changed quite a bit, but the flavor will be the same!
Caution: For anyone considering a visit to Iraq– carefully consult your government’s travel advice beforehand, as the security situation is dynamic and can change quickly.
Iraqi food is delicious and hearty! Some of my favorite memories of Iraq involve massive quantities of rich, flavorful homecooked meals. Top dishes include: Masghouf Fish — the huge river fish (carp), which is seasoned and cooked skewered around an open fire — it is a real delight!
Another classic dish is Pacha –a sheep’s head, legs, and stomach slow-boiled and served with bread, rice and broth — (the cheek meat is the best : ) This goes well with Bamieh — a rich lamb, okra, and tomato soup.
One of my favorite dishes is dolma (stuffed tomatoes, grape leaves, and other vegetables), as well as the plentiful, delicious kebabs — with sour sumac seasoning, wrapped in hot flat bread.
Sweets such as baklava and syrupy zalabia are all over, but my favorite dessert is Kanafeh — a syrup-covered sweet cheese with baked shredded wheat on top. Yum! Finally, it’s worth noting that Iraq has the best dates I’ve ever eaten. They’re completely different than those hard things you buy pressed together in the grocery store!
Next to the Al-Zawraa Park in the center of Baghdad are the Parade Grounds, with the famous Crossed Swords monument commemorating the Iran-Iraq War. A bit further up is the Unknown Soldier Monument, which has a clam-shell shape and a metallic square in the middle.
On the banks of the Tigris river is the Republican Palace, the famous main palace of Saddam Hussein that has since become an Iraqi Government office / ceremonial building. It is an elaborate, ornate structure replete with falcon images and elaborate statues.
Nearby is the July 14 Monument, commemorating the 1958 revolution in Iraq.
Towards the center of town is the Iraqi Museum, which features artifacts from across Iraq’s rich and varied history. As the cradle of civilization, it offers historical items from numerous eras going all the way back to Mesopotamia.
On the eastern side of Baghdad is the Martyr Monument, a huge turquoise, split dome commemorating soldiers’ lives lost in battle. The University of Baghdad is a massive, sprawling campus in a nook of the Tigris river, that includes parks, restaurants, and multiple faculty buildings. According to the sign (below) it was established in 1957.
The Umm al Qura Mosque (Mother of all Battles) would have been the largest mosque in the world, but it hasn’t been completed. The blue-domed Mosque of 17 Ramadan, off Firdos square east of the Tigris, is a smaller but ornately-decorated mosque.
One of the most famous hotels in town — Al Rasheed — is a huge, marble relic of a bygone era, with plenty of history and character. The main restaurant serves good food, but is a bit pricey. There are several souvenir shops and cafes to visit even if you don’t stay here.
In my opinion, the best sweet shop in Iraq is Abu Afif Sweets – located in the Karada district. The Blue Star Restaurant — has great, reasonably-priced food, and the best hummus I’ve ever had in my life. I’m not sure how they make it, but it’s quite literally addicting. I still get hungry just thinking about it!
Hillah / Babylon
While in Hillah, the main attraction of interest was Babylon — one of the most famous cities of antiquity.
Upon arrival, you’ll pass under a large, blue, modern reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate – marking the entrance to the ancient city.
Inside, you’ll find a statue of the Lion of Babel (poised on top of a victim), as well as a city of ancient ruins, with spots marking the site believed to be the Tower of Babel, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), and the Old City Walls.
Inside the old city are mounds of walls, buildings, and rubble — it’s frankly amazing that so much of this city has been preserved. While walking around the ruins, shards of pottery were visible in various areas where the ground had shifted away– and well-preserved cuneiform tablets (with some of the earliest forms of writing) were lying on the ground.
Nearby is the Palace of Babylon – a new, Saddam-era construction perched atop a large man-made hill from the surrounding land.
In the very south of Iraq is Basrah — a large city situated along the Shatt al Arab waterway on the border with Iran. It has a distinctive feeling quite different from the cities in central Iraq. It also grows my favorite type of date — Barhi — which are large, dense, dark dates that that almost have a chocolate-butterscotch flavor. They go great with a cup of coffee!
Kurdish Region – Sulaymaniyah (& environs)
Iraq’s autonomous northern Kurdish region has a unique and distinctive feeling — it is quite green, mountainous, and relaxing.
The city of Sulaymaniyah is large, with plenty of parks and shopping centers. I stayed at the Sulaymaniyah Palace Hotel, which was centrally-located, with clean rooms and offering a great view over the city. (The city now also has a Grand Millennium Hotel, which looks fantastic!)
While in Sulaymaniyah, I managed to visit two villages in the mountainous border region bordering Iran — Sargalau and Sekanyan — both were consisted of very rural dwellings (but many people still had satellite dishes!)
Along the way, we passed a sobering cemetery for the local victims of a Saddam-era chemical attack.
Erbil (or “Hawler”) is the capital of the Kurdish region, built in concentric rings around a large Citadel on a hill in the center of town, which is believed to date back to the 5th Century BC. To the west of the city is the Mudhafaria Minaret dating back to appx 1200, as well as a large public park. To the north of the city is the massive, ornate Jalil Khiat Mosque, which was completed in 2007.
I should also note that Erbil is famous for its Kebab — a well deserved honor, as it has some fabulous grilled meats, with equally delicious flat bread!
Something For Next Time: Several sights throughout Iraq are high on the list for a future visit… I’ll list my top five: 1) Just south of Baghdad is the Taq Kasra – Ctesiphon – a large, well-preserved stone archway dating back to the 3rd-6th Century, surrounded by ruins of dwellings from that period. 2) Najaf– which draws numerous visitors to visit the Tomb of Ali, Prophet Muhammed’s cousin. 3) Karbala – the site of the famed Battle of Karbala in 680 AD, as well as the Shrines of Imam Hussain and Abbas. 4) The Ziggurat of Ur — an ancient temple for the Sumarian king. 5) Dohuk, in the Kurdish region — I’ve heard it’s a gem of the north!