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Iraq, souk. Vendors sell everything from golden jewellery and pots of curd to crisply tailored suits and freshly squeezed fruit shakes.
Iraq, souk. Vendors sell everything from golden jewellery and pots of curd to crisply tailored suits and freshly squeezed fruit shakes.

Iraq travel guide

With Iraqi Kurdistan safe to visit, interest is growing in this beautiful and culturally-rich country

Iraq should be one of the planet's most alluring travel destinations. It boasts fascinating ancient sites of Mesopotamia, Sumer and Assyria, including Babylon and the great Ziggurat of Ur; the 'Venice of the East', Basra; diverse ethnic groups including Kurds and Marsh Arabs; and of course the city that forms the focus of tales from the 1,001 Nights: Baghdad.

Tragically, the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's long reign and the subsequent war means that most of Iraq is not a safe destination. Fortunately, the region of Kurdistan is considered safe, even by the British Foreign Office, and so travellers are beginning to visit.

At some point, it may be safe for travellers to visit the rest of Iraq, to admire its ancient ruins, join Shia pilgrims on their spiritual journey to Kerbala, or wander through the bazaars of Baghdad and Basra. For now, Iraq remains largely off the travel map.

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Iraqi Kurdistan is safe, friendly and open for business.

1. Erbil, known locally as Hewler, is believed to be one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities. Not that you'd know that from its new shopping malls, skyscrapers and luxury car dealerships. For an insight into its past, browse the alleyways of the old bazaar, snacking on tasty street food such as bakla (stewed broad beans), and stroll up Erbil's citadel at dusk for people watching and to hear the call to prayer.

2. The small town of Halabja achieved wordwide notoriety in 1988 when Saddam Hussein's cousin, 'Chemical Ali', ordered a horrific poison gas attack on its inhabitants, killing over 5,000 people. Visit the memorial for a sobering record of the atrocity.

3. On a Friday do as the Kurds do, and celebrate the start of the weekend with a picnic in the countryside. You may even get invited to join a family in some traditional dancing.

4. While the majority of the region's Kurds are Muslim, other religious groups are present too. Visit the abandoned mountain monastery at Alquosh and learn about the mysterious Yezedi sect at their temple in Lalish.

5. Meet the locals over a cup of tea in a traditional chaikhana (tea-house). Kurds typically welcome an opportunity to talk to visitors and answer any questions about the country's recent history.  

When the rest of Iraq becomes safe....

Sadly, museums and archives were ransacked during the 2003 invasion, and many historic monuments have been severely damaged. The extent of the destruction is yet to be determined, so these recommendations can only be broad suggestions.

1. Visit the Great Ziggurat of Ur, first built more than 4,000 years ago.

2. Discover the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hatra, the best-preserved example of a Parthian city and one of the few stone monuments in Iraq.

3. Gape at the incredible Arch of Ctesiphon on the east bank of the Tigris south of Baghdad. This enormous monument is the largest single-span brick arch in the world, built in the 3rd century AD.

4. Watch locals haggle over brightly coloured birds at the Souk al-Ghazal before relaxing at one of the roadside cafés.

5. Explore the Shatt El-Arab marshes, marvelling at the locals’ man-made islands and woven reed huts.

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