We head to Kurdistan to find an awe-inspiring country emerging from war
If you’re heading to Iraq on holiday, a word of advice: don’t tell anyone you’re going. Your friends will think you have ditched your day job and become a mercenary. Your family will assume you have lost the plot and contact Interpol in an attempt to get your passport revoked. Absolutely no one tells you: ‘Sounds lovely, have a great trip, wish I was coming.’
Few countries incite as much fear as Iraq. Somalia, by all accounts, is more dangerous, while, in terms of casualties, Afghanistan tops the list. But it is Iraq, with its reputation for kidnappings and beheadings, its long decades of unrest and war and the enduring controversy surrounding the 2003 American-led invasion, which is still held up as the epitome of hell on earth.
Part of the problem is the only people you meet who have ever been to Iraq (with the obvious exception of Iraqis) are those in the military, who have generally spent their time in the country shooting insurgents and being shot at. Iraq hasn’t been on any kind of tourist trail for decades, not least because it hasn’t enjoyed any enduring stability for centuries. All of which makes Iraq one of the few remaining countries in the world in which you can still feel like a pioneer.
Boasting one of the world’s oldest civilisations also means Iraq is home to some of the world’s most historically important sites. But the world’s oldest civilisation is also one of the most fought over, and centuries of war have taken their toll on the country’s visible past. In the 13th century, the Mongols sacked Baghdad and destroyed the Grand Library, then one of the most important manuscript depositories in the world. After the Mongols, came the Black Death, which wiped out a third of the population. Following this, Iraqis were subject to roughly four centuries of the Ottomans, during which time Iraq was a battle zone between warring tribes and regional empires. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Iraq’s population was no greater than it had been 1,000 years earlier (by comparison, the population of the British Isles increased by 4000 per cent over the same period).
The twentieth century saw the founding of the state of Iraq, and in 1932 the British (who had created the country out of land grabbed from the Ottomans at the end of the First World War) offered it up to independence. The deal might have worked had the British attempted to instil some form of democracy then. But they didn’t. Instead, they plonked King Feisal, a Hashemite king who had been forced out of Syria, onto a makeshift throne. King Faisal died the following year, and it wasn’t long before a coup d’etat forced the short-lived monarchy out of power and established a republic which led to the power grab by Saddam Hussein in 1979.
Unlike the Congo, Somalia and East Timor, all of which had successful tourism industries prior to their recent troubles, Iraq has almost no history of tourism. There are few postcard shots of the Great Mosque of Samarra, or souvenir mugs inscribed with the Arch of Ctesiphon. Instead, the images that have come out of the country in the past three decades have generally been horrific: footage of Saddam Hussein’s army gassing Kurds, images of Coalition forces abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, mobile phone videos of Al Qaeda operatives murdering western contractors: gun shots; bomb blasts; blood baths. It is fair to say that Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism has an uphill struggle to convince anyone the country is safe.
And in many respects it is not safe. While I was in Iraq, bombs rocked Baghdad killing 127 people and injuring over 500 others. And in the city of Mosul at least seven people were murdered, including two Christian brothers executed by Islamic extremists. It remains a country that you really should know before you go. The sun was bleeding into the horizon as I flew over Iraq to the north eastern province of Kurdistan and its capital Erbil. Below us the country was lit up with flares from the fields that contain the country’s greatest economic asset and most controversial export: oil. Days after I arrived, many of the world’s biggest oil companies gathered in Baghdad to bid for contracts to drill in Iraq’s rich reserves. According to estimates by the Center for Global Energy Studies, Iraq sits on around 300 billion barrels of oil. If true, this would make Iraq the most oil rich country in the world, surpassing even Saudi Arabia. If there were any doubts that the Coalition invasion was motivated by oil, a look at the number of governments and oil companies swarming over Iraq’s cities would kill them cold.
Erbil is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, though unfortunately no one knows quite how old it is, or why anyone built anything there in the first place. Reputed to have first been settled on some 7,000 years ago, it was a notable trade centre in 2,000 BC and has played a prominent role in the region ever since. Unlike the great cities of Ur and Babylon, founded in the famed cradle of civilisation between the Tigris and the Euphrates, no river runs through Erbil, and the city’s location lends itself little to defence.
The Citadel, the oldest part of the city, is built on a raised patch of land that looks entirely artificial, though no one is quite sure who raised it or for what purpose. One theory is that successive waves of conquerors flattened the city and built a new one out of the rubble; over the millennia, the debris of civilisations past raised the land. The Kurdish regional government in association with UNESCO are currently scanning the mound to see what lies beneath it. Local lore has it that the citadel was at one time the site of an important Assyrian temple, which might go some way to explaining why a city grew up on a site that was neither defendable, nor had any form of irrigation, though locals will tell you that the outstanding beauty of the surrounding landscape is enough to cause anyone to stay.
Erbil’s new town is a good example of what happens when decades of unrest decapitate the planning department and inhibit the processes of regeneration and renewal. Dusty and dull, the city is rapidly expanding at its edges, the expectation of oil billions supporting the growth of acres of luxury villas and entire streets lined with Soviet-style apartment blocks. But the city itself lives in the shadows: cramped, unkempt and unloved. The souq, shaggy and serpentine, stocks the latest shipments from China and is where the heart of the city still beats, faintly, and to the sound of a Sino-Iraqi sales pitch.
If Iraq’s political turmoil could be made physical it would undoubtedly look like the landscape of Kurdistan: dramatic escarpments, deep ravines, endless canyons and plateaus that end in sheer cliffs. It is a landscape that has been mangled by millions of years of tectonic trauma, as dramatic as the centuries of upheaval that have rocked the lives of the Kurdish people.
Kurdistan, the Palestinians of yesteryear, have for generations lived in exile in their own country. With a diaspora spread across Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq after being denied statehood during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Iraq is the only country in the world in which the Kurdish people have been given autonomous rule, something that has only been gained recently. Under Saddam Hussein the Kurds were persecuted for separatist leanings and were accused of siding with Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam’s response peaked during the Al-Anfal Campaign in the late 1980s, during which they suffered gas attacks, concentration camps and mass executions. As many as 100,000 Kurds lost their lives, and 4,000 villages were destroyed. Which accounts for the fact that, while the Iraqi national flag is rarely sighted, the Kurdish flag is ubiquitous.
I drive through villages that seem remote from the rest of the world, surrounded by cliffs or perched on fragile plateaus. The region is rife with corruption, and not infrequently a Texan-style mansion rises above the squalor of the other settlements. Much of Kurdistan is under the control of the Barzani family, with Massoud Barzani at the helm of the Kurdish ruling political party. The family’s village, Seri Rash, is off limits to everyone, giving rise to fables of vast palaces and unheard of opulence. A recent estimate put the family’s wealth at $2 billion, but with many millions of barrels of oil under the ground on which they lay claim, the Barzanis are expected to make a killing once the drilling starts.
The roads wind alongside rivers that puddle at the bottom of some of the biggest canyons in the Middle East. The waters run glacial blue; the roads are deserted. From behind the clouds, a mountain of staggering proportions reveals itself. It was once considered one of the best places in the world to stargaze. Now the mountain and everything around it is owned by the Barzanis, and no one may climb it.
It is in this dramatic and melancholic landscape that the Yazidi religion has its stronghold. A blend of ancient pagan rituals and primitive Judeo-Christianity, the religion is allegedly one of the oldest in the world and followers of the Yazidi faith makes up a significant minority in Iraq. Little is known of the secretive faith, though three years ago the religion gained worldwide notoriety.
On the cold and damp morning of April 7, 2007, the village of Bashika, north of Erbil, hit the headlines. 200 Yazidi men dragged 17-year-old Yazidi Du’a Khalil Aswad through the streets before publicly stoning her to death for falling in love with a Muslim. Religious tensions run deep in this ancient land, and in reprisal 800 Yazidi men were slaughtered by Islamic extremists.
On the final night of my stay in Iraq, I slipped out of the hotel after dark and wondered along the streets of Erbil, looking for the life of the city that had thus far evaded me. While Erbil is safe, Westerners remain valuable in the country, be it for ideology, for ransom, or as a political pawn. Hotels in Iraq are built like fortresses, but in the crisp clear air I was free of the concrete buffers that divided me from the real Iraq. I headed towards a side street lined with tea shops, teeming with men smoking shisha and speaking Kurdish that was drowned in hush as I walked past. I found myself a seat outside a cafe and sat down in a silence that was broken by an avalanche of hysterical laughter. Rather than being angered by foreign faces, the people of Kurdistan are bewildered by the presence of foreigner travellers, the concept of tourism still being something not everyone finds easy to understand.
Today, what Kurdistan does understand is that it must look forward and not back. Behind it lies decades of chaos that unearth tension and violence. Ahead of it, who knows? Oil is a mixed blessing, and in a country considered one of the most corrupt on earth, it is unlikely that most Kurdish will legitimately see much of the wealth that sits beneath them. With half the population under the age of 18, the ability of the government to create enough jobs for the burgeoning population will largely determine the success of the country. Unemployment leads to boredom, and boredom, in Iraq, to terror. In this land of extremes, the future is bound to be dramatic.
Need to know
Get there Gulf Air flies three times a week between Bahrain and Erbil, www.gulfair.com Where to stay Erbil International Hotel is the city’s top accommodation option, and is safe, secure and comes replete with all the facilities you’d normally expect in a five star hotel, www.erbilinthotel.com
The top seven places to see in Kurdistan by Balen Zrar, guide
1 Erbil Citadel: Erbil citadel is the oldest continuously inhabited citadel in the world, founded 7,000 years ago. It is raised by about 26 metres. What you see today is only about 150 years old. But what is important is what’s buried underneath, because each civilisation that passed through it flattened the entire citadel and built upon it, which is why it is raised.
2 St. Mathew’s Monastery and Hormzid Monastery: These are up in the mountains and were built in 361AD. Kurdistan historically was a multi-religious land, people were very open minded in those days. St Mathew came from southern Turkey, he was fleeing persecution. He settled there and built the monastery. Rabban Hormizd came from Persia, and was also fleeing persecution. The Hormizd Monastery is both massive and impressive, and at one time there were considerably more than 600 monks living there.
3 Jerwan Aqueduct: The Romans are famous for aqueducts, but the one built at Jerwan is from 700BC, which predates the Romans. It was built by an Assyrian emperor, and is about 80km north of Erbil.
4 Halabja Memorial: alabja is a small town on the border with Iran. It was the site of a massive massacre, when Saddam Hussein and Ali Hassan al-Majid used chemical weapons to kill 5,000 people in a single day. It is a large cemetery and a memorial to those who lost their lives.
5 Rawanduz: Rawanduz is a place to chill out and see the scenery of Kurdistan. Many people think Iraq is a desert and hot, but when you go to Rawanduz you will see the Middle East’s deepest canyon, waterfalls and mountains, it’s amazing.
6 Lalish: Lalish is the pilgrimage site for the Yazidi religion, which claims to be the oldest religion in the world. People come from all over the world to see this. Lalish is a temple, which is very historic and unique. It is about 2 hours drive from Erbil.
7 Shanidar Cave: In 1957 Ralph Solecki and his team from Columbia University found the first Neanderthal skeletons in Iraq, in Shanidar Cave. He found nine skeletons dating back 80,000 years ago. The cave is a big tourist site and is just three hours from Erbil.
Tips from the locals
Zina Mirjan, architect The best place to visit in Erbil is... the citadel, which is the most important landmark in Erbil. It was the origin of the city. It is an interesting place to visit for its historic detail and its beautiful architecture.
Sabah Muhsin, fitness instructor The best place to visit in Erbil is... Sami Abdulrahman Park. It is a huge place. In fact, it is the nicest place in Iraq. You can go there with your whole family and take a picnic and it is really very nice.
Sandy Oraha, security consultant The best place to visit in Erbil is... Rhine Mall. I always go there because it is a really high-end market, and a really secure place as well. There is a new mall opening called Almajidi Mall, which is going to be great, it will be very Western in style with some great shops. Serwan Street is very local but they sell amazing clothes and shoes.
Lolan Sipan, director of the Kurdish Textile Museum, Erbil The best place to visit in Erbil is... the Kurdish Textile Museum. Even though the domestication of animals and the start of civilisation occurred in northern Mesopotamia, in Kurdistan you still had until recently nomadic tribes that were very self sufficient and produced a lot of textiles and rugs. The symbols and patterns in the textiles are really interesting, and according to Western scholars we have a lot of prehistoric symbols used in the textiles today. This is the soul of Kurdish art, culture and storytelling.
Nabaz Ghafoor, sales & marketing manager, Erbil International Hotel The best place to visit in Erbil is... the city when you are driving around it and watching the huge development projects taking place. Here you can imagine the bright future that is awaiting Erbil.
We chat with Lana Qassim, managing director of Laru Travel Why should tourists come to Iraq? Because there are so many places that are unexplored and that are different from any other location in the world. The history found in Iraq cannot be found in any of the surrounding countries, it is unique. People should not worry about coming into Kurdistan, because it is an extremely safe place to visit. A lot of foreigners live in and around Erbil.
Are there any precautions that visitors to Iraq should take? Not really, but they should hold only cash because credit cards are not widely accepted. This is a shock for a lot of foreigners. There are no other precautions, no special vaccinations, absolutely nothing.
You have been operating in Iraq since 2004. Has tourism increased in the past few years? Unfortunately not. Because it has not been given enough media coverage as a place that tourists can visit. On the contrary, in the media it is seen as a place to do business. The Iraqi government and the Kurdish government is into bringing more business into the region, as opposed to tourists. They still cannot see that tourism could be a major source of income for the country, just as important as oil, for instance.
What is Iraq’s main attraction? Religious tourism is number one. Next would be the historic sites, and the country needs to give more attention to the historic sites and needs to build the infrastructure around them. And we need to have a lot of guides to explain the history of the country.
What do you see as the future of tourism in Iraq? It should be booming. It should be one of the world’s main tourist destinations. We are receiving a lot of enquiries, but people are interested in going to places that we still consider a bit risky, such as places around Mosul and Baghdad. And it is still not very safe there, and we can’t recommend that people go right now. Once the safety levels improve, no more bombings, no more kidnappings, less bad media coverage, it will be a major tourist destination.
How long before Iraq becomes a major tourist destination? I came to Kurdistan in 2005. Between 2005 and 2009, the country developed a lot. What happened in four years in most countries you could not see in 20 years. So if things continue like this, and if the government gives attention to tourism, then in three to four years Kurdistan will be booming.