Iraq’s tourism sector has suffered as a result of the country’s terrible governance and destructive conflicts over the last 40 years. Religious pilgrims, mainly from the Middle East, Iran, and Central Asia, have returned in huge numbers to the holy sites of southern Iraq after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which was virulently opposed to Shia Islam. Religious pilgrimage is still very dangerous, although there is more safety in numbers and familiarity with the Arab area. Pilgrimage, of course, is a more pressing cause for travel than tourism!
One can only hope that security and stability are restored to this vast and ancient region soon, because it is a fascinating travel destination for anyone interested in history, whether it is ancient history dating back 4,000 years, medieval Islamic and later Ottoman history, or modern history from the early twenty-first century. The aforementioned wars and misgovernment have not been kind to Iraq’s ruins, particularly in terms of the Hussein government’s extensive reconstruction of ancient Babylon and subsequent neglect by foreign military forces. However, the allure of ancient cities like as Babylon, the Babylonian capital; Ur, the ancient metropolis of mankind’s first big civilizations, Sumeria; important Parthian towns including beautiful Hatra and the capital Ctesiphon; and Ashur, the Assyrian capital, outweighs the harm done.
Outside of Saudi Arabia, the holiest places of Shia Islam are in Iraq’s lush heartland of Lower Mesopotamia. The Shia-Sunni divide in Islam arose from a disagreement about the Prophet Muhammad’s rightful successor in the mid-seventh century C.E., with the Shiites backing Ali ibn Abi Talib, who would become the first Imam and whose Caliphate capital was in the ancient city of Kufa. The Imam Ali Mosque, one of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines, houses Ali’s grave in modern-day Najaf. Husayn ibn Ali, the third Imam and Prophet’s grandson, is widely regarded as one of Shia Islam’s greatest martyrs, and the two grand mosques of Karbala, Al Abbas Mosque and Imam Husayn Shrine (which stands on his grave), are the most important pilgrimage sites for Shiites, who come to observe the Ashura, the day of mourning for Imam Husayn. The Al-Askari Mosque, which serves as the mausoleum of Imams ‘Ali al-Hadi and Hassan al-‘Askari, is another significant Shia mosque in Samarra. Sadly, this mosque has been severely damaged by sectarian violence in 2006, with the dome, minarets, and clock tower being destroyed. Finally, the seventh and ninth Imams, Musa al-Kadhim and Muhammad at-Taqi, are buried in the Al-Kadhimiya Mosque at Kadhimiya. The renowned historical scholars Shaykh Mufid and Shaykh Nasir ad-Din Tusi are both buried inside this mosque. Baghdad’s Abu Hanifa Mosque, constructed around the grave of Abu Hanifah an-Nu’man, the founder of the anaf school of Islamic religious law, is one of the most important Sunni Islamic holy places.
The majority of contemporary attractions are the Saddam Hussein government’s large modernist sculptures and palaces, which are mainly situated downtown Baghdad (or on top of some of the world’s most significant historical sites…). Given the foreign and internal conflict, as well as government crimes against its own people during the last 40 years, monuments to those who have suffered can only be expected to become more prevalent in the future. However, such improvements may have to wait until the country’s tumultuous present is resolved. Meanwhile, it is feasible (though sometimes hazardous) to go to places and battlegrounds that have become household names across the globe as a result of the most recent war.