Babel Tours, IRAQ tours : Iraq and Kurdistan


The aim of this page is not to discuss the political situation in Iraq, and more particularly Iraqi Kurdistan. We simply wish to use this page, to which new content will gradually be added, to show what can be gained from a journey to Iraq. But before setting out, a number of preconceived notions must be dispelled.


Iraq and Kurdistan: a burden of prejudice

For most people, the first images that spring to mind are of conflict and war. The Gulf War and the American Invasion of Iraq in 2003 have understandably remained etched in everyone's memory. Iraqi Kurdistan, which was to a large extent spared by the latest conflict, nonetheless went through particularly difficult times itself, during the course of which its populations were crushed by the totalitarian forces of the former dictator of Iraq. For a while, the Kurds were riven by internal conflict which led to a form of civil war. But the situation has considerably improved since then: in claiming to be a "Switzerland of the Middle East", Iraqi Kurdistan proves that it has been able to overcome these contradictions and take full advantage of a particularly strong cultural identity. The diversity of its landscapes, from vast deserts to magnificent mountain ranges, make it a hikers' paradise. Covering a surface area of about 20% of the whole of Iraq, Kurdistan will constantly offer the traveller new horizons, vast plains and high mountains, as well as towns with the authentic charm that can only be found in oriental cities.


Guided by its sense of responsibility and its desire to help you gain a deeper knowledge of the treasures and diversity of Iraq, Babel Tours will never aim to propose tours that are driven by an unwholesome thirst for danger or adventure. Around the world, large numbers of tourists visit many nations, even though their political situation cannot be said to be completely stable throughout the country. In proposing to take you to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, Babel Tours offers both cultural discovery and support for the Iraqi people themselves:

1° Cultural discovery

As heir to the emblematic civilisations of Mesopotamia and Assyria, Iraq can rightly be considered one of the cradles of humanity and culture, through the long succession of Sumerians, Akkadians, Elamites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Sassanids and Abbassids. Even today, the patchwork of populations shows that the land you will be visiting, in spite of everything, remains faithful to the longstanding tradition of the cultural melting pot. Well-planned visits to the country will enable you to visit some of the world's most important prehistoric sites and archaeological remains.


2° Religious diversity

These lands have a history of particular significance for Muslims:

In about 762 A.D., the Abbasid dynasty became the rulers of the vast Muslim world and moved the capital to the newly-founded city of Baghdad. Over the next five centuries, the city would become the world's centre of education and culture. This period of glory has become known as the "Golden Age" of Islamic civilization, when scholars of the Muslim world made important contributions to both the sciences and humanities: medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, literature, and more. Under Abbasid rule, Baghdad became a city of museums, hospitals, libraries, and mosques. (see the links to the right for the Baghdad Photo Gallery, which has pictures of some of these great monuments.)

Most of the famous Muslim scholars from the 9th to 13th centuries had their educational roots in Baghdad. One of the most famous centres of learning was Bayt al-Hikmah (the House of Wisdom), which attracted scholars from all over the world, from many cultures and religions. Here, teachers and students worked together to translate Greek manuscripts, preserving them for all time. They studied the works of Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Euclid, and Pythagoras. The House of Wisdom was home to, among others, the most famous mathematician of the time: Al-Khawarizmi, the "father" of algebra (which is named after his book "Kitab al-Jabr").

Islam is the main religion of Iraq, although comprising both Sunni and Shia groups, and the major pilgrimage destinations with their holy sanctuaries attract vast numbers of pilgrims every year.

Najaf

Najaf An Islamic holy city, Najaf is home to the shrine of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Mohammad's cousin and son-in-law and fourth caliph (656-661). Najaf also contains one of the largest cemeteries in the world. According to Imam Ali, any Muslim buried here will enter paradise; as a result, the tombs of several prophets are found in Najaf. Shia Muslims especially consider it a privilege to be buried here. Like Karbala, Najaf became an important center of Islamic scholarship and theology.
In the nineteenth century, the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala in Ottoman Iraq emerged as the most important Shi'i centers of learning. Najaf is known for being an Islamic center for scientific, literary and theological studies for the whole Islamic world and mainly for the Shiites, therefore Najaf is attractive for a large number of people, poets, authors and other visitors from China/India, Lebanon, Pakistan and Iran which is estimated annually over half a million.

Karbala

Karbala is a holy city for Iraqi Shia because it holds the shrine of the martyred Imam Husayn ibn Ali, whose death here in 680 and the subsequent conflict over succession of the caliphate distinguished the Shia from the Sunni sects of Islam. Karbala is also the site of the holy shrine to Husayn's brother, Abbas, who was martyred in the same battle. Shia make pilgrimages called Ashura to Karbala twice a year to commemorate Husayn's death-on the 10th day of the Muslim month of Muharram and 40 days later in the month of Safar. In recent years, however, the government has attempted to prevent Shia pilgrims from entering the city, causing tension. Because of its shrines, Karbala became an important center of Islamic learning and theology. Karbala [Kerbala, Karbalaa] is situated about 100 Km. away from Baghdad, 78 km. away from Najaf and 45 km. away from Hilla. At the edge of the desert, surrounded by beautiful greenery of fruit orchards and palm groves lies the holy city of Kerbela. The city is built around the twin Shrines of al-Hussien and that of al-Abass. Kerbela includes: the sacred city with its twin shrines to al-Hussein and al-Abbas, the core of the old city, including the souq between the mosques. Karbala has more than 100 mosques and 23 religious schools, with Imam Hussein's shrine as the city's centerpiece.

Iraq is also one of the cradles of Christianity and many dynamic communities of Christians of various confessions live their faith in complete freedom and in accordance with the ancient traditions. The team at Babel Tours makes a clear distinction between the Christian communities belonging to the traditional Churches and certain sects which, in Iraq as elsewhere, are springing up and growing through the use of questionable processes. With regard to the authentic Christian communities, most of them still speak a language very close to that of Christ, or use Aramaic in their liturgy. The Christians form what is often referred to in Iraq as the religious minorities (with other religions such as the Sabeans, Yezidi, etc.). Babel Tours will strive to support these minorities so that they can continue to be recognised for what they are and so that each and every one can continue to live his or her faith and traditions in a climate of tranquillity and respect. Babel Tours' simple desire is to humbly express its affection for the Christians of Iraq, as the company was itself created by Christians, who have found friends and brothers in Iraq. However, Babel Tours rejects any sectarian exclusiveness based on membership of a particular confession and it is firmly committed to the idea of making its activities a place where religions and cultures can come together, in absolute respect for each tradition. Babel Tours also undertakes to oppose all forms of violence, whether driven by religious, political or any other motives. Babel Tours stands firmly alongside all those who wish to make Iraq and its neighbouring countries an area of peace and prosperity.

Iraq and Jewish people

It was in Mesopotamia that the Jewish people suffered the painful experience of Exile:

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

Psalm 136, 1

Exiled in Babylon, the Israelites – with prophets such as Ezekiel – gradually realised that the presence of God had accompanied them to this land. At the time of the return from Exile (for example see the Books of Esdras and Nehemiah), many Jews preferred to remain in Mesopotamia rather than go back to the land of their fathers. They were to constitute the first diaspora. The book of the Acts of the Apostles shows that at the time of Christ, during the major feasts such as Easter and Pentecost, many Jews came to Jerusalem from Mesopotamia, where they lived. Thus, at the feast of Pentecost which followed the Passion of Jesus:

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Par'thians and Medes and E'lamites and residents of Mesopota'mia, Judea and Cappado'cia, Pontus and Asia, Phryg'ia and Pamphyl'ia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyre'ne, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"

Act 2, 5-12

As a result of numerous persecutions down the ages and particularly during the course of the 20th century, the Jews were sadly to gradually disappear from Iraq. If the conditions for a lasting peace and absolute respect for the identity of each and every one can be found and maintained, then Iraq could once again become home to Jewish communities within its borders, in accordance with the principles of the law of the autonomous province of Kurdistan.


3° Natural wonders: deserts, lakes and mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan

Apart from the narrow waterway leading to the Persian Gulf, called the Shatt Al Arab, Iraq is situated in the heart of the lands to the north of the Arab peninsula. The country is bordered by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to the South, Jordan and Syria to the West and North, Turkey to the North and Iran to the east.

The country's two great legendary rivers, the Tigris (1850 km) and Euphrates (2350 km), constitute the boundaries of the great region of Mesopotamia of antiquity. Vast deserts cover the country, but magnificent oases and the banks of the great rivers offer ideal conditions for agriculture. It is no accident that the country is the site of what was considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Garden of Eden

These gardens were to be found on the banks of the Euphrates, in the town of Babel which gave its name to our agency. They were allegedly built in 600 BC and according to the tradition, King Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC) had them built for his wife Semiramis, to recall the vegetation of the mountains in his homeland: Medea (modern day Iran).

The Bible itself locates the earthly paradise in modern Iraq, between the Tigris and the Euphrates:

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one which flows around the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

Genesis 2, 8-15

Iraq is a treasure-trove of rare splendours. From the deserts in the South, to the superb mountainous landscapes in the East, with the foothills of the Taurus mountains on the Turkish border and the Zagros mountains towards Iran. Water is abundant in the north of the country and you will be surprised to find lakes, waterfalls and immense panoramas of luxuriant vegetation.