The way Barack Obama talks of Iraq, you'd think the whole county is
a sea of fire and blood, created by the United States. So he might be
surprised to learn that tour operators in Europe and the Middle East
are touting this "sea of fire and blood" as a new holiday destination.
One program just put on the market by Terre Entiere, a leading
French tour operator, offers a "Christmas Pilgrimage" in December to
Iraq's biblical sites, some of which date back more than 2,000 years.
Another program starts in January. Called "Forgotten History," it
includes visits to some of the most ancient sites of human civilization
in Iraq, the ancient Mesopotamia.
"Frankly, we were surprised by the positive echoes we had as soon
as we launched our program," says Pierre Simon, a spokesman for the
French company marketing the Iraqi holidays. "People from many European
countries, not just France, are showing interest. They want to go and
see for themselves."
That Iraq should be a tourist destination is no surprise.
Mesopotamia, or the Land of the Two Rivers, is universally recognized
as the birthplace of civilization.
It was there that the first cities appeared and the first
governments took shape. Sumer and Akkad invented the first forms of
writing, the first bureaucracies and the first organized religious
doctrines. In its heyday, Babylon, with its "hanging gardens," was the
world's largest metropolis.
The first ever book, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was written in Mesopotamia some 3,000 years ago.
The area also holds the location of many biblical stories. Abraham
- the common father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam - is said to
have been born in Ur, near the present-day city of Nasseriah. It was
also there that Jacob first saw Rachel at the well and fell for her.
Iraq has an even greater wealth of relicts from Persian, Macedonian
and Islamic empires. Ctesiphon, near present-day Baghdad, was capital
of the Seleucid and Sassanid empires for almost 400 years. Baghdad, of
course, was the capital of the Abbasid caliphs and, for two centuries,
the world's largest city.
And, for those who look for rare natural sites, Iraq offers a unique ecological treasure in the marshlands of its southeast.
Saddam Hussein, the bloodthirsty despot overthrown by the US
intervention in 2003, tried to drain the wetlands so that he could send
his tanks against dissidents unhindered. In the past seven years,
however, the marshes have been partly revived. (Two years ago, the
United Nations announced that 60 percent of the work needed to restore
the marshes to their former glory has been completed, and gave Iraq its
With air and land links restored between Iraq and Middle Eastern
countries, a growing numbers of Arabs, Turks and Iranians have been
traveling to the newly liberated country for business or leisure.
While Westerners are just beginning to look to Iraq as a tourist
destination, Shiite Muslims the world over have flocked there since
2003. The government estimates that some 12 million people visited the
"holy shrines" of Najaf and Karbala in south central Iraq from 2003 and
2006. Most of these pilgrims came from neighboring Iran, at a rate of
3,000 a day. Other visitors have come from 40 different countries, from
India to Brazil to Europe and Africa.
"The problem is that Iraq has become an issue of domestic politics
in the US and other Western countries," says Fadel Sultani, a leading
modernist Arab poet. "Those who opposed the toppling of Saddam Hussein
are determined to prove that they were right. Thus, they insist on
showing Iraq as a failure, a land unfit for democracy and human
Sultani, who recently attended an arts and culture festival in
Baghdad, where he read his latest poems to "packed halls," says he was
surprised by the "contrast between the reality in Iraq and images"
broadcast in the West.
The festival included the staging of three new Iraqi plays, the
screening of the first Iraqi feature-length film, a series of musical
concerts, exhibitions of paintings, several lectures and stand-up
comedy evenings. It attracted hundreds of writers and artists from
across the Arab world.
This was the first festival of art and culture organized in an Arab
country free of government censorship or intervention by the security
services. Some of the participants later traveled through what was once
known as "The Triangle of Death" to visit ancient sites south of
"We all agreed that the place should be renamed The Triangle of Life," Sultani says.