For anyone who has paid attention to the news over the last decade, Iraq is a country that needs no introduction. Situated in a particularly unstable corner of the Middle East, the land that once boasted The Cradle of Civilization lost its cultural edge a long time ago. Relaxing city breaks to the capital Baghdad are strongly discouraged, and despite some misplaced optimism, Iraq’s tourist economy is going nowhere fast.
(Image source here)
Last November on a fact-finding mission at the World Travel Market in London, Hammoud al-Yaqoubi, chairman of Iraq’s tourist board, said 2010 would herald a holiday revival in the wartorn land. Mr al-Yaqoubi, who arguably has the toughest job in hospitality, insisted Iraq had “the infrastructure for tourism” and was “optimistic about turning the tourism industry into a success.” He even confidently asserted that: “Next year, we will have a distinguished stand here for Iraq. Iraqi Airways will be here, Iraqi hotels will be here, Iraqi restaurants will be here.”
Almost a year later, and despite reassurances that security in the country was only a “minor problem”, foreign visitors remain barred. And for good reason, as Iraq remains one of the most dangerous countries on the planet. But should the situation change within the next few generations, there’s a handful of sites from the dawn of civilization that scholars, archeologists and historians have been clamouring about for decades.
Lower Mesopotamia, The Cradle of Civilization itself, is home to the major Shia cities and holy sites of Basra, Karbala and Nasiriya. It is also the location of the ruined Sumerian city of Ur and the legendary ancient civilization Babylon, although many Babylonian ruins have been blighted by tacky reconstruction, looting and battle damage.
But despite the country’s propensity for violence and the 2003 invasion that added more bomb craters than it filled, Iraq has several UNESCO World Heritage sites that have somehow survived decades of conflict. The only problem is they’re off-limits to those that want to explore them. But on a positive note, Ashur, the former capital of the Assyrian Empire, benefitted from the allied invasion, since the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein planned to flood the entire area to create a reservoir.
Other notable historical spots include the 3,000-year-old city of Nineveh (above top), also a former capital of Assyria, the well preserved Partian city of Hatra (above middle), arguably Iraq’s most impressive ruins, and Ctesiphon, the ancient capital of the Parthian and Sassanid Empires (bottom). These towering remains, especially the Arch of Ctesiphon, occupy a commanding position on the opposite bank of the River Tigris to another archeological gem: the ancient Hellenistic city of Seleucia.
Despite these bastions of ancient culture, Mr al-Yaqoubi’s optimism at having a “distinguished stand” at the World Travel Market may prove rather hopeful. Furthermore, the first Iraqi Airways flight to London’s Gatwick airport in two decades ended in farce when the plane was impounded on landing and its captain’s passport seized. Iraq clearly has the destinations, but it’s going to be some time before mainstream tourism resumes.