Iraq: the cultural resilience of a war-ravaged country

It is 20 years since the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the Foreign Office still advises against travel there, owing to risks including kidnapping. But although the country is “by no means stable”, it is “just about functioning as a rare Arab democracy”, says Sophy Roberts in the FT – and these “green shoots” are now attracting a few pioneering tour operators, such as the US-based Geographic Expeditions. 

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On one of its trips from Basra to Baghdad, you will visit “thriving” modern neighbourhoods, and some of the world’s greatest archaeological sites. This is not a journey “for everyone” – the horrors of the recent past cannot be ignored; but you do get an impressive sense of cultural “resilience”, and a welcome wherever you go. 

Basra is no longer the idyllic city of canals and rambling gardens it once was, but there’s still life and beauty here, from the grand Ottoman mansions of the historic quarter to the main corniche, where fashionable young men pose for photographs among hawkers selling candyfloss. To the north lies Nassiriya, which has an “atmospheric” bazaar selling Iranian saffron, jewellery and scents. And then come the great sites of ancient Mesopotamia, including the 4,000-year-old Ziggurat of Ur, “its central steps etched sharp against the sky”, and Uruk, the Sumerian city that features in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Equally impressive are the “sun-baked” ruins of Ctesiphon, and the 8th century fort of Ukhaidir, an “Escher-esque labyrinth” of vaulted halls and stairs. 

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At the Shia pilgrimage site of Najaf, the crowd flows between marble pillars, over crimson carpets and under arches covered in tiny mirrored tiles towards Imam Ali’s shrine in the splendid domed mosque. Baghdad has a lively secular life, from buzzing coffee houses and streets full of bookshops to the Iraq Museum, a “world-class” repository of ancient treasures. 

An 11-night small-group trip with Geographic Expeditions costs from £8,650pp;

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