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The land of Iraq corresponds to ancient Mesopotamia – the cradle of civilisation. An independent nation state since just 1932, modern Iraq is a geographically complex territory bordering Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. Its interior is dominated by sandy plains, which roll into gruelling, oil-rich deserts in the west and south.
In the far north, where the Zagros range borders Iran and Turkey, it is rugged, hilly and mountainous. In the southeast, near the Persian Gulf, it is marshy and prone to floods. Over the centuries, two geographic constants have ensured the region’s pivotal role in world history: the great rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates, whose fertile plains gave rise to the world’s first civilisation. Flourishing in the 4th millennium BC, Sumerian civilisation lasted three thousand years before finally collapsing under waves of Akkadian armies.Read more
By the 21st century BC, Assyria had risen in the north and Babylonia had formed in the south. For the next 14 centuries, the two civilisations rose, shone, and fell, achieving a formidable cultural presence and making Mesopotamia – literally, ‘the land between the rivers’ and a centre of world power. Thereafter, the region transformed under a succession of other empires, including the Achaemenid, Hellenistic, Parthian, Sassanid, Roman, Rashidun, Umayyad, Mongol, Safavid, Afsharid and Ottoman Empires.
Like elsewhere in the Middle East, Islam became the region’s leading intellectual and academic institution following the Muslim conquest of Persia in the 7th century. During the Islamic golden age in the 8th century, the Abbasid Caliphate built the city of Baghdad, which became the centre of the Arab and Muslim world for the next five centuries. At its peak in the middle ages, it had a population of more than a million. Today, despite its many incidents of warfare, Baghdad retains vestiges of its glorious past. The National Museum, although subjected to needless acts of looting in 2003, is the repository of Iraq’s most precious ancient artefacts, which together expound some 10,000 years of human history.
Sadly, however, at this time, the Iraqi capital, along with all areas of the country except Iraqi Kurdistan in the north, aren’t possible to visit. The Iraq war, morally ambiguous and fraught with tragedy, has overshadowed the country since its invasion a decade ago. The effects are still transforming Iraqi society and until the nation can quell its internal divisions, these areas are unlikely to open their doors to tourism again. But when it does, it will be sensational.
On the bright side Kurdistan is a fascinating region in its own right, and is sure to captivate the visitor. The area shares none of the well-publicised troubles of the rest of the country and has an identity that is unlike anywhere else in Iraq. The Kurds are the prominent residents here and Kurdish is the main language spoken. The area although safe for tourists to visit, is still fairly new to tourism, which guarantees you an authentic taste of the regions interesting traditions, splendid culture and absorbing everyday life.