Day 1… Baghdad
Newark to Amsterdam to Istanbul to Baghdad. It was almost midnight on a Sunday in late June when we crossed a bridge over the Tigris, yet the festive crowds gathered on both sides — not a COVID-preventing mask in sight — suggested a much earlier hour of the evening. And this was almost three hours PAST the government-mandated, pandemic-era curfew. I’m not sure what I expected as we entered Baghdad, but it certainly didn’t include people out enjoying themselves late night, breaking curfew.
Jamie and I soon arrived at the Anwar Dijlah Hotel — located in the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad — where the rest of our tour group was gathered on a patio, many with a hookah in one hand and a discreetly disguised cocktail in the other. Our group is a motley crew of intrepid travelers — Jamie and I were amateurs compared to most of them. We joined the party and listened to stories of everything they saw and did before we arrived. Soon enough — it was after 1 am by this point — the hotel owner politely yet firmly suggested that we all retire to our rooms.
Our week-long tour was a collaboration between Bil Weekend — a growing tour operator initially started to provide opportunities for Iraqis to visit their heritage sites — and Bjorn Augestad, a young Norwegian who, after visiting every country on earth, published a memoir of his authentic travel experiences.
Our hotel was fine; I wasn’t expecting much for our budget-friendly tour. There are better hotels in Baghdad, though don’t expect to find one at the caliber of a St. Regis or even a Westin. There is no bar at the Anwar Dijlah. Side note: alcohol is not permitted in Iraq for residents, though foreigners are allowed to bring in 1 liter of liquor, 2 bottles of wine, or 8 liters of beer, or partake in a hotel bar when there is one. No restaurant in the hotel either, but there was a shawarma stand outside on the patio. Our room had sufficient air-conditioning, bottled water, a small shower, and a working toilet complete with a seat(!!) Others in our group were not so lucky in the toilet seat department… poor Brian. There was what resembled Mentos mints scattered around the bathroom floor… rat poison? air freshener? Something that may interest a young child delighted at the possibility of free candy found on the floor?!! I brought along my own pillow (thank you, United Polaris!!), assuming the selection at our hotels would not be great… I would be correct.
No matter, we quickly fell asleep, with an alarm set for our early departure heading into the area south of Baghdad which is rich in several cultural sites of ancient Sumer and Mesopotamia, as well as sacred Islamic shrines.
DAY 2… Babylon & Karbala
So… apparently brewed coffee is not a regular thing here. Tea drinkers rejoice! Tea — or rather, chai — here is not the chai of India… here is it strong black tea served with several spoonfuls of sugar, no milk. Breakfast buffet was comprised of flatbread, cheese, dried apricots, and hard boiled eggs. Flies were circling and landing on the cheese. I passed on most of it, but took some bread from underneath the pile and a couple of apricots.
One by one, others in our tour group made their way down to the patio. Our bus was loaded up, with most of the luggage strapped to the rooftop in the already balmy 100 degree morning temperature– the Tony Chocoloney chocolate bars purchased at Schipol airport enroute definitely won’t survive today’s journey.
First stop was a photo-op in front of a giant stone carving with a profile of Saddam Hussein which was riddled with bullet holes and other damage.
Next stop, Babylon… BABYLON!! Now I would be able to picture a place which seemed as far-away as Narnia or Oz back in my childhood Sundays spent at church school, learning about King Nebuchadnezzar. The city lies about 50 miles south of Baghdad. Back in it’s heyday, it was one of the largest early cities. Now only a few thousand reside here, though not on the archeological site. No other tourists but our group here… this was pretty much the case at all the sites we saw. If you want to visit a historical place without the Instagramming crowds, Iraq is definitely the country for you!
The big blue Ishtar Gate here is a replica as the original one was smuggled out by German archeologists piece by piece in 1910, and then reconstructed in Berlin a few years later. Still, even the replica is an impressive way to enter the ancient walled city. Once inside, our guides showed us a large map of the ancient city and we began making our way through it. Much of it was reproduced during Hussein’s command. But we were still able to view an original wall with all it’s carvings, as well as ancient graffiti on bricks.
At some point on our tour of the city, I began feeling quite ill. Between the heat and jet lag, I really felt sick, so sick in fact I thought “I’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake coming here.” But I made it back to the air-conditioned bus and drank copious amounts of water and then felt better. I was able to cope the rest of the trip by dousing my hat or head-scarf in water as needed. And hand-held fans also helped immensely. I wouldn’t mention this, but thought it may help others in their packing plans to Iraq or other Middle East locales.
We then visited one of Hussein’s palaces which he had built on a hill overlooking the ancient city. The mansion is now just a shell as the entire place was looted years ago, except for a giant chandelier where about 200 swallows perch or flitter and fly in and around. There are no guards here, one can wander freely to see it all though barbed wire blocks all the staircases to get upstairs. That didn’t stop several in our group, though… some enjoyed the views and more from the roof. I will not elaborate further on the more… what happens in Babylon stays in Babylon.
Lunch was at Restaurant Dar Alsham in the city of Hillah near ancient Babylon. Our table wanted to try several things so we ordered several things to share: pita, hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, and two rice dishes with meat — one a biryani with lamb and vegetables, the other a roasted chicken in sauce and basmati rice with turmeric and nuts. Everything soooooo good. A large family celebrated a birthday, so we were treated to the Iraqi version of the Happy Birthday song.
This ancient ziggurat includes two towers and is considered by some to be the original Tower of Babel — remember the story explaining why different languages exist? There is barbed wire at the base between the two towers to discourage climbing, but that didn’t stop one local teen from scrambling up barefoot. There were stones with ancient carved script lying beside the ziggurat.
We left Borsippa and headed towards the city of Karbala but were detained at one police checkpoint for almost three hours. I started to worry but looked to our guide Osama to gage his frame of mind… he looked calm and was joking with those around him, so I read that as the delay was merely an inconvenience but nothing of more concern. Local kids gathered around the bus — we all got a chuckle from one boy’s tee, “Bacon is Meat Candy.”
Karbala is considered a holy city for Shia Muslims and millions make the pilgrimage here yearly to visit the Imam Husayn shrine, especially during the religious holiday of Arbaeen which is one of the largest gatherings in the world. This NY Times article is a great resource on the pilgrimage.
One member of our tour, Victoria Horsley — an adorable young lady from the UK — actually ended up returning to Iraq in September to take part in the 2021 Arbaeen pilgrimage. This is what she wrote on FaceBook: “Millions of Shia Muslims walking in peace to mourn the death of Imam Hussain and yet it’s ignored and unknown by the rest of the world. The kindness and friendliness and hospitality I experienced at Arbaeen is like nothing I’ve witnessed before in my life. Everything on the pilgrimage is provided for free: accommodation, food, ice cream, lolly’s, candy floss, juice, tea, coffee, medications, healthcare, even massages. The children I met along the way really made the journey, cute and smiling children full of life wanting to take selfies. A journey I will never forget and one that more people should learn about and experience.” Victoria traveled with vlogger Jay Palfrey — his video of their pilgrimage is fabulous visually and content-wise.
We did not arrive to Karbala until after 9 pm — due to our lengthy police checkpoint earlier — but the place was still VERY lively. Our guides provided each of the women in our group an almost comically unfashionable Laura Ashley-inspired floral hijab and black knee-high stockings. It brought memories to mind of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood wearing Red’s granny’s nightgown and cap… and I’m sure we stood out similarly, actually.
The exterior is beautiful, especially magical lit up against the night sky. The atmosphere surrounding the shrine feels festive, with food vendors lining the promenade leading to the shrine, and families and friends gathered in groups, sitting within the center. We entered after checking our shoes with an attendant, the interior like a blue and gold tiled jewelry box, illuminated by crystal chandeliers and mirrored tiles everywhere.
Hussein, one of our young guides, had enlisted his lovely mother to chaperone the women in the group as there are walled off male and female private areas to visit the tomb of Imam Husayn in the center of the shrine. Our chaperone spoke very little English, but her warm hospitality did not need translation. We entered, watching her and the other pilgrims close their eyes, say a prayer, then kiss the doorway… a bit difficult to watch after more than a year of social distancing. We later learned, with a wink, that Covid-19 does not exist within the holy places… hmm…
Our lovely host invited us back to her home in Babylon — a 45-minute drive away — for a home-cooked dinner, but as it was already late, with another early morning start ahead of us, we sadly declined the very generous offer. The bus dropped us all at the Damas Hotel nearby. Dinner consisted of take-out from Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken next door to our hotel, eaten on our balcony while swigging cups of vodka and soda sans ice, no… make that sprite… we couldn’t find the soda.
This concludes our first full day in Iraq… feels like a full week!