When choosing the destination for your next holiday, you may well be dreaming of somewhere exotic and undiscovered, ripe for exploration and discovery. The Galapagos Islands maybe? Namibia? Even Burma is finding its place on the tourist map.
But one destination that has probably never even crossed your mind, let alone your travel agent’s desk, is Iraq, or Iraqi Kurdistan to be more precise.
However, if you are looking for somewhere truly undiscovered, you couldn’t pick a better place. With friendly people, a vibrant culture and over 10,000 years of history, Iraqi Kurdistan is a delight just waiting to be tasted.
Your knowledge of Iraqi Kurdistan is probably a bit on the thin side, and with its headline grabbing neighbours receiving most of the press over the last few years, we can’t really blame you. So let’s start with the basic facts about this beautiful and exciting region.
Iraqi Kurdistan covers almost sixteen thousand square miles of northern Iraq. Sandwiched between Turkey, Syria and Iran, it has been at the centre of empires and civilisations for thousands of years.
The capital of Iraqi Kurdistan is Erbil. First settled in 9,000 BC, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The city is dominated by the ancient Citadel of Arbil, a Tell, or occupied mound, in the centre of Erbil. The mound measures approximately 430 by 340 metres, and is currently in the middle of being substantially renovated.
With so many years of history under its belt, Erbil has enough places of interest to keep even Tony Robinson happy for a few weeks. But it is just one of the places that make this region so fascinating.
A few hours drive from the capital is Lalish, home to the followers of the Yazidi faith and a proposed resting place for Noah’s Arc. Situated in a mountain valley, about 60km north west of Mosul. Lalish is the location of the tomb of Sex Adi, a key figure in the faith, who died in 1162.
Iraqi Kurdistan was also an important centre for early Christianity. In the northern city of Dohuk the Church of Saint Ith Llaha is one of the oldest churches in the region.
Dohuk is also famous for its art. As home of the Kurdish College of Art as well as the Dohuk Art Gallery, this is a great place to soak up both some ancient and modern Kurdish culture.
Another important part of Kurdish culture, and an essential experience on any trip to Kurdistan, is the Kurdish picnic. Now, when you think of a picnic you might imagine cucumber sandwiches, cupcakes, maybe even a scotch egg or two, and a few hours spent in a field or country layby. Lovely though that may be, a Kurdish picnic is a whole different ball game. Forget rounders, the Kurds are playing major league baseball.
Typically, a Kurdish picnic will take place on a Friday, the beginning of the weekend and a day when no one works. They also last all day.
In a country with few entertainment venues, picnics are a chance to see and be seen. Families will flock to popular venues to sing, dance and eat traditional foods. If you can get an invite to one of these, it will be an event that you definitely will not forget.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s second city is Sulaymaniya, founded in 1784, it is not quite as ancient as Erbil, but there is still a lot of Kurdish culture to discover here. It was from here that Mahmud Barzanji, twice king of Kurdistan, lead a series of rebellions against the British Mandate of Iraq, eventually leading to the declaration of an independent Kurdistan in 1921.
Although the newly formed country soon lost its independence, becoming part of Iraq in 1932, Sulaymaniya remained a centre for Kurdish nationalism. A painful reminder of the price that the Kurds have paid for their culture can be found in the Amna Suraka Museum. Housed in the former Ba’ath intelligence headquarters, here visitors can see the interrogation rooms and cells where thousands of Kurds suffered under Saddam Hussein.
How to do it: Our eight-day Tour of Iraqi Kurdistan begins in Erbil, and takes in Lalish, Dohuk, a traditional Kurdish picnic before ending in Sulaymaniya. It includes accommodation, internal travel, Tour Leader and most meals.