Iraq, often heralded as the birthplace of civilization, has a rich history and is home to a staggering four World Heritage sites. This country has survived wars and economic struggles, and yet, it still preserves much of its culture. From religious sites to ruined fortresses, vast rivers, and stunning marshlands, Iraq keeps its history alive.
Explore Erbil Citadel, a fortified mound in Kurdistan that looks out over the sprawling citadel. The mound stands over 100 feet high and is the result of more than 7,000 years of construction on the site. Settlements were built on top of settlements, and as one disintegrated, or was razed by outsiders, the next would be built on the top. This 10-hectare fortified mound is now an area for houses and the Mulla Afandi Mosque.
The Great Mosque of Samarra was once the largest mosque in the world. It's in ruins now, but the Malwiya, or 'snail shell minaret' is an impressive sight. Standing 180 feet tall, it's the most prominent part of the once 42-acre mosque. The great work was constructed in the mid-9th century but fell out of use and began to decay in the 11th century. The Malwiya survived for 1,000 years, towering over Samarra. It was attacked in modern wars, but still stands proudly today.
Lalish Temple is the sacred shrine of the Yazidis, located in the holy village of Lalish. The village itself is thousands of years old, and the story goes that the temple was once used by the Sumerians and other early Mesopotamian civilizations. The iconic temple, with its conical-roof, is thought to hold the tomb of Sheik Adi ibn Musafir, who is the chief saint of the Yazidi. Today, the village is uninhabited, save for the Emir, the leader of the faith. The houses in the village are left unlocked, and pilgrims are welcome to stay there to rest after their quest.
Little remains of the ancient, legendary city of Babylon. Ravaged by war and looted by the colonials, the capital of the Mesopotamian dynasties is in ruins today. Sadam Hussein attempted to rebuild parts of Babylon to his own liking, constructing a palace over some original ruins. When his rule ended, so too did the modern reconstruction efforts. Archaeologists believe that there is still a lot of the original Babylonian ruins, which are more than 2,500 years old, hidden under sand dunes. The UN is working to excavate and restore huge parts of the site, and has opened up the ruins around Hussein's palace to tourists.
Iraq's culture dates back more than 5,000 years, and while the media focuses on sprawling deserts, there are entire marshland communities that are often forgotten. The Mudhif houses are inhabited by the 500,000-strong Madan culture. These long, curved, communal houses are made of reeds and adobe. They are maintained by and for the villagers, who live together in close quarters.
This Neo-Sumerian ziggurat was constructed during the early bronze age by King Ur-Nammu as a shrine to the moon god Nanna. It was restored in the 6th century BCE by King Nabonidus. The ruins were excavated in the early 20th century, and are one of only three well-preserved structures from the city. Parts of the ziggurat, including the monumental staircase and the lower facade, were reconstructed by order of Sadam Hussein. These features give a taste of what the original structure, believed to have been 98ft tall, may have looked like.
This stunning, ornate building is both a mosque and a holy shrine. The decor is grand and the building is an imposing sight, particularly at night when the arches, domes and spires are brightly illuminated. Once inside, however, serenity takes over as no mobile phones are permitted within the holy areas. After visiting the mosque take a moment to explore the markets and eateries outside.
This tranquil artificial lake is located just an hour's drive from Sulaymaniah city, and offers a welcomed break from the busy cities and expansive deserts. The lake covers an area of 100 square miles and is overlooked by some imposing mountains. Explore the parks, head out onto the lake in a rented boat, and sample the fresh grilled fish served at the nearby restaurants.
There is far more to Lalish than just the temple. It's traditional for the Yazidi to make a pilgrimage to the village at least once in their lives. The grounds of the village are sacred, and all who enter are asked to go barefoot. Explore the village and look out for carvings, sculptures and signs of important burial grounds. Followers of the Yazidi religion are few in number compared to other faiths, but the village has been a holy place for thousands of years.
This two-story building overlooks the Tigris river, and is the last remaining palace of its kind in Baghdad. The Abbasid dynasty spanned from the 8th to the 13th centuries and created a Golden Age for Islamic culture. Historians believe that the palace also served as a place of learning. The structure is remarkably well preserved, and offers stunning views of the city's Al-Maiden district, and the river.