3 days in Iraq: Baghdad

I’m a strong proponent of proper sleep. It tops the list of important things we can do for our health and longevity. But sometimes, just sometimes, sleep must take a back seat to an EXCITING experience! And travelling to Baghdad is most definitely in the EXCITING experience category.

Forever students

With only 3 days in Iraq, every moment has to count. So 3 packed days it is. And night-time is for flying.

Why Iraq?

I meet Melissa and Ellen at a travel meet-up in August. They seem nice. ‘We’re off to Iraq on 13 September,’ they say. ‘Would you like to come along?’

Wow! We are all about the world’s curious corners here on Sophie’s World. And Iraq fits that description to a tee, doesn’t it? For now, at least. To experience this almost mythical country before it hits mainstream, well, that’s all kinds of thrilling.

But Iraq is not merely curious. Historically, it is perhaps the most important country in the world. Mesopotamia, the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, Ancient Babylon! All those names I remember from primary school, from the pull-down map I would stare at endlessly, dreaming of time travel. This is where civilisation began! Mathematics, science, writing – it all started here. Writing!!

 EXCITING is probably not a strong enough word. Not even in all caps.

Why yes! Yes, I would like!

A river runs through Baghdad, and not just any river, but the fabled Tigris and those fertile plains. The first place on Earth where livestock was domesticated and crops planted. The first place where people settled.

Visa conundrum

Turns out, an Iraqi visa is not the easiest thing to come by. If you are Norwegian, that is. If you are from an EU country, or the UK, Australia, Switzerland, any number of countries really, you can get a visa on arrival (VOA) at Baghdad airport. Easy as.

But like Senegal, Iraq seems to think we pose some kind of threat – or perhaps it’s a reciprocal thing (some might consider my country a bit stingy with issuing visas). Or maybe we have simply fallen off the radar.

Whatever the reason, Norway is not included in the VOA scheme, so we have to jump through hoops, beginning with applying for approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Mofa) in Baghdad. Apply for an approval to apply for a visa. The problem is, you may or may not receive a reply to your application for approval. And ‘may not’ seems to be the norm.

Enter the fixer

Melissa set all the diplomatic and organisational wheels in motion six months ago! 6 months!

She had found a fixer (a go-between) with contacts at Mofa, and was now waiting for the coveted approval for Ellen, herself, her colleague and his teenage daughter. Waiting time was estimated to minimum 25 days.

Now, travelling alone has never been a problem for me. I have hopped about the planet on my own since I was a teenager, and I quite enjoy it. But as a first-timer in Iraq, well… company would be nice. 13 September was less than 25 days away, though. Quite a bit less. So if I wanted to join the others, what hope did I have?

Still… worth a try? Absolutely! What was the worst that could happen?

I got the fixer’s WhatsApp and paid his fee: 1,250 kroner – ca. 108 EUR/114 USD – for the expedited service. (The others paid about half that for the non-expedited version.) Reasonable enough, and just a fraction of what the Baghdad lawyers who offer the same service charge. The fixer sent off my application, and said he would do his best, but no guarantees. Worst case, 1,250 kroner lost. I could live with that.

A few tense days and weeks ensued.

The visa, at last

One day, Melissa, excited as a lottery winner, announced that their approval had come through. And what do you know: less than a week later, my approval arrived, too! The fixer was as good as his word.

I collected all the necessary documents, and ran to the embassy. (Well, interval ran). Once inside the door, I handed over the docs… and noticed I had forgotten the most important one of all: my passport!

Oh no! I would have to come back the next day. That would slow things down, booking flights and the like. But the embassy staff was friendly. ‘We’re open until 13.00,’ they said, smiling. ‘If you hurry, you can still make it today.’

Boy, did I hurry! Didn’t even wait for the tram. Fastest 15,000 steps I have ever undertaken.

And it paid off. By 13.00, I had the passport in my hand, duly stamped with a visa welcoming me to Mesopotamia!

Welcome to Mesopotamia

Melissa has organised a guide who has booked lodgings, and set up an itinerary according to what we want to see and do. All that remains is booking flights.

13 September arrives, and off we go. Flying through the night (including a longish stop at the wifi-nightmare that is IST.)

Practical flight time fun! Also, it says Baghdad on that screen there. Butterflies!!

Gooood morning, Baghdad!

Baghdad just before sunrise

It’s 5am in the Iraqi capital. Driving out of the airport with Ibrahim, our guide for the next three days, we pass this wreckage at the airport entrance:

In the early hours of 3 January 2020, on his way to meet with the Iraqi PM, Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani was killed by an American drone, along with 9 others in his entourage. Then president Trump claimed self-defence, and that Soleimani was killed to ‘stop a war between Iran and the USA’. The UN concluded the murder was a violation of international law.

We are reminded Iraq is a country with scars. I’m sure we all remember the US-led invasion in 2003, based on false reports of weapons of mass destruction. Things have been chaotic in Iraq ever since – and there is a strong US presence in the country still. Not that you see them around; they mostly keep to themselves, we hear. Inside the Green Zone.

In Baghdad, we are looking forward to seeing the National Museum of Iraq, one of the world’s oldest universities, a quaint century-old cafe, and not least, the vibrant souks.

But first: Al-Tahrir Square – Liberation Square, site of revolutions past, and where the Republic of Iraq was established in 1958. Nasb al-Hurriyah, the Monument of Freedom (behind and above me), is Baghdad’s most famous sculpture.

6am, straight off the plane. 

Saddam Hussein in Baghdad

Continuing with the contemporary history, we head for Al-Firdos Square, once home to a 12-metre high statue of one Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti. Remember this from the news 20 years ago?

The statue of Saddam was knocked down by Iraqis and US soldiers, surrounded by Iraqi spectators. The English journalist Robert Fisk described the event as ‘the most staged photo op since Iwo Jima.’

National Museum of Iraq

Going back in time, we head to the National Museum of Iraq. It’s a good museum. Really good.

From those early settlements along the banks of the two rivers, through various empires rising and collapsing: Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Accadian, Chaldean (all names from those maps in primary school), to the country’s Islamic heritage.

We see the fabled Ishtar Gate: the 8th gate of the inner city of Ancient Babylon. The 15-metre high gate was built 2,600 years ago, with striking blue, glazed bricks, decorated with 575 animals: bulls, lions and mušḫuššu, a creature from Mesopotamian mythology (it looks a bit like the equally mythological dragon).

That is, we see a poster photo of the Ishtar Gate. The actual gate was taken down just after World War I, and brought to Germany where it was reassembled, brick by brick. Starting this Monday (23 October 2023) and for the next 10 – 15 years, it will be hidden in the Pergamon museum in Berlin. Yes, you read that right. The Pergamon Museum is due for renovation, and the Vorderasiatisches Museum – the section housing the Ishtar Gate – will be closed until mid- to late 30s.

Bull and mušḫuššu are from the original Ishtar Gate.

We see 10,000-year-old artefacts, weapons for hunting, and, much more interestingly, tools for writing. We see Babylonian cuneiform writing on clay tablets. The first known writing came from just here in Mesopotamia, 5,400 years ago. Same with mathematics, also on clay tablets, from 3,000 BCE.

When you think about it, this is not merely a museum of Iraq, but the museum of us. All of us. The beginning of us.

Writing, science, mathematics… the next logical step is school. And not just any school, but one of the world’s oldest.

Al-Mustansiriya Madrasa

On the left bank of the River Tigris, Al-Mustansiriya Madrasa is from 1227, making it one of the world’s oldest universities.

It’s a gorgeous building, a stunning example of Islamic architecture. Intricate tiles, beautiful, flowing calligraphy, calm courtyards; all a delight for the eyes. Never mind the 45°C.

Al-Mustansiriya Madrasa is depicted on the 1-dinar bank note

Nevertheless, it’s a relief to step inside, where the stone walls are pleasantly cool to the touch.

Souks of Baghdad

Near the university is Al-Mutanabbi Street with a bustling market, famous for books, books, books.

Back to school Baghdad style – and everything from Adolf H. to El Che at opposite ends of the political spectrum – all mixed in with the Bard.

On the other side of the Tigris River, Al-Zawraa Park Market has a wide range of clothing, accessories, and local crafts. And if you’re looking for spices, textiles and traditional wares, Sharjah Market is the souk you want.

Shabandar Café

At the end of Al-Mutanabbi Street is Shabandar Café (Maqha al-Shabander), Baghdad’s intellectual watering hole since 1917, in what was once a printing house. The cafe even had a library. Many a discussion has taken place here over the last 100 years – of politics, culture, philosophy, trade, literature, poetry, art… oh, to be a fly on the wall through the ages!

But Shabandar is also a place with scars. In 2007, during the US war, a car bomb on Al-Mutanabbi Street destroyed the cafe and library, killing more than 100 people, including four of the owner’s sons and one grandson. Their mother died months later, as a result of the shock.

The owner, Muhammad al-Khashali, vowed to keep going, to preserve the cafe’s old identity, and he has succeeded. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric place to sit with a glass of tea, people watching.

After the horrific bombing, the cafe is also known as Martyr’s Coffeehouse.

Returning to modern times, Baghdad is also home to several very 21st century shopping malls:

Baghdad Mall

Baghdad sleeps and eats

It’s still Day 1, and time to check-in to our lodgings for the night (Shanashel Palace, not exactly a palace, but a perfectly adequate hotel very centrally located, near Al-Tahrir Square), then fooood!

May I recommend Saysaban Restaurant? With the excellent food, and cosy atmosphere in the garden, under the palm trees, we enjoyed it so much, we went back our last night in Baghdad.

Iraqi Meze

My fave is chicken tikka, skewered pieces of chicken fillet.

Afterwards, it is time for tea, on the pavement outside Haaraier, one of Baghdad’s trendy new tea houses.

An easy, comfortable night on the town

Arab hospitality

I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: Arab hospitality is in a class all of its own. Iraq is no exception.

After returning from Najaf, whilst waiting for our flight, our guide Ibrahim invites us to his home, which he shares with his mother, 2 brothers and 2 sisters. We meet his friendly Siberian husky, Hilla – and his lovely mum serves us tea and delicious cakes in abundance.

(Also, a creative yet simple way of protecting plants from heat. Why have I never thought of that??)

Baghdad Safety

On to what many of you are wondering about: safety.

Do not travel to Iraq due to terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict, civil unrest… Draft a will and designate appropriate insurance beneficiaries and/or power of attorney.

US Department of State – Iraq travel advisory

Here’s my take on that. Actually, here is NewsNation’s take on that: Parts of Chicago is more dangerous than wartime Iraq. Wartime Iraq even!! Bearing in mind, the war ended 12 years ago. Want stats? Amongst world cities with the highest crime rate, Detroit comes in at #18, Baltimore at #20, and a further eight US cities (including Chicago) are included in the top 50. Baghdad is at #72. I don’t see any travel warnings urging us to make a will when visiting Chicago!

I had no reason to feel unsafe when entering or leaving Iraq, or at any time whilst there. It is an amazing country with incredibly friendly people.

Final words on Baghdad

Baghdad is the starting and ending point of our journey.

If I were to describe the city with just one word, it would be historic, in every sense. Ancient, as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth. And contemporary, with all the turbulence and challenges during the last decades. In fact, if I were to use one more word, it would be resilient.

As for this journey, I’m left with SO many impressions. Still, I want more. I will be back!

Next episode: Babylon

where we will be chilling in Saddam Hussein’s bathtub and go boating on the River Euphrates, to the sound of Boney M!

Watch this space!

All photos by Melissa G. Mitruen, Ellen Sjølie, David Røgler, Lina Røgler, and myself.

3 days in Iraq: Baghdad is a post from Sophie’s World