From an early age, I’ve been fascinated by the natural beauty, ancient history, and archaeological wonders of Iraq. In my two Army tours of Iraq, I was fortunate enough to see some of the iconic sites, such as the Euphrates River, the Shatt Al-Arab River and Sindbad Island, Abraham’s Well, and the Marshlands in southern Iraq. However my curiosity and desire to see the great sites of Iraq was hardly quenched by my time there. Luckily for me, there is a strong tourism industry in Iraq … that’s right, a strong tourism industry.
Tourism in Iraq is something which, despite the violence, is flourishing. Last year, Iraq saw 2 million tourists. Most tourists are Shia pilgrims coming to see the holy sites in Najaf, Karbala, and Samarra, with peaks happening during Shabaniyah and Ashura. Other tourists come from across globe to see the natural and historic wonders of Iraq.
Iraq abounds with natural marvels, such as the marshlands in southern Iraq, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the Shat-al Arab river, the waterfalls, scenic mountains, and Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq, and Abraham’s Well in western Iraq. I was told by many of my Iraqi friends that they prefer to go to the north during the summer both as a vacation and to escape the summer heat. Additionally, I have been told that the waterfalls are a famous honeymoon location by one of my Basrawi friends who took his wife to Sulaimaniya for their honeymoon. Being a native Californian, I immediately equated Sulaimaniya to Lake Tahoe, a common Northern California destination for newlyweds.
Foreign tourists commonly visit the mountains in northern Iraq and the marshes in southern Iraq. The beautiful mountains in northern Iraq became well known to the international community, and especially to the United States, when Iranian troops captured 3 Americans who were hiking in the region. Recently, a part of the southern Marshes were announced as Iraq’s first national park. This park is to be called “The Garden of Eden,” a name which hints at the fabled location of the Garden of Eden, believed to be in modern day southern Iraq. There are currently tours which visit the marshes run by the company, Hinterlands.
Iraq was home to some of the oldest cultures in the world, including the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Chaldeans. These great empires, (two of which, the Assyrians and Chaldeans, have populations alive to this day) built large cities throughout Iraq. Some cities built by these ancient civilizations have ruins which are still found in modern day Iraq. The Sumerian Ziggurat of Ur is located near modern day Nasiriya, parts of Babylon are still standing in modern day Hila, and the Assyrian Hawler Castle is found in Erbil.
More recently, Iraq has been a home to Persians and Arabs, who have left behind their cultural influence in the form of ancient and modern spectacles. The Persians left behind the Arch of Ctesiphon located in modern day Salman Pak. The Arabs have left many medieval and modern day masterpieces, to include the Spiral Minaret of Samarra, the Palace of Ukhaidar nearby Karbala, the Imam Hussein Shrine in Karbala, the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, and the Golden (Al-Askari) Mosque in Samarra, and the Shanasheel in Basra.
I am very excited to see that tourism is thriving in Iraq. I promised one of my dear Iraqi friends that I would return to Iraq, and I look forward to the day when I can return for my third tour, not as a soldier, but as a tourist.