Enjoying breakfast on the first morning of 2018 before meeting up in the hotel lobby at 8am to continue our journey through the south of Iraq.
Today was quite a long travel day, first travelling east of Najaf to Afak to visit the site of the ancient Sumerian city of Nippur. We would then head southwest to the Great Ziggurat of Ur before ending the day in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
Passing by an abandoned military outpost beside the road, left over from the time of the US occupation.
Stopping at a roadside stall for fruit to snack on as we make our way to Afak.
Amad at the wheel as we drive into Afak.
Filling up the minibus with petrol for $0.38 per litre ($1.44 per US gallon).
After arriving at the caretakers residence at Nippur and were greeted by these cute Iraqi puppies.
We were then accompanied by the caretaker to the archaeological site of Nippur. Also visiting today were some locals out on a cultural excursion.
Nippur was one of the oldest of all Sumerian cities and is sometimes dated to 5262 BC.
Raad explaining how Nippur was originally a village of reed huts in the marshes and then gradually rose upwards as a result of continuous habitation and building work.
Nippur was first briefly excavated in 1851 before being more thoroughly between 1889 and 1900 by archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania.
This brick structure had been built by the American archaeologists on top of the old temple ruins around 1900.
We then went for a walk along to the old excavation sites where there were pottery fragments scattered about.
Nippur was also excavated for 19 seasons between 1948 and 1990 by a team from the University of Chicago Oriental Institute.
An estimated 40,000 Clay tablets were discovered, dating from the middle of the 3rd millennium BC onward into the Persian period.
It was quite surreal to be able to just pick up pieces of pottery that was perhaps hundreds or thousands of years old.
Stopping for a tea break on our way back through Afak.
A pool hall next door to the tea shop.
And back on the highway for the long drive to Nasiriyah.
At about 5pm we arrived at the Great Ziggurat of Ur.
On top with the curator of the site, Mr. Dief Mohssein Naiif al-Gizzy. The Ziggurat was built originally during the early Bronze Age period (21st century BC) and then restored in 6th century BC by King Nabonidus. During the reign of Saddam Hussein the façade of the lowest level and the monumental staircase were restored and rebuilt.
Looking south to the ruins of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, and to Ali Air Base in the distance.
We then drove into Nasiriyah to a local restaurant for dinner, complete with two animatronic Santa's outside playing the saxophone.
A painting of the Great Ziggurat of Ur on the wall with some Bedouin by a campfire.
Some salad and mezze to start.
Followed by fried chicken and chips with bread.
At the Al Junob Hotel with some colourful artwork on the walls.
Our slightly retro but very spacious and comfortable room for the one night in Nasiriyah.
And enjoying some sweet hot tea in the majlis after another great day in Iraq.
Bread, dill, olives and cream cheese for breakfast on day 7.
Today was our final day of travel, with the plan to head east to the Mesopotamian Marshes before continuing on to the town of Al Qurnah where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet to form the Shatt al-Arab. We would then end the day in the city of Basra.
Black Shi'ite flags along the road as we head east.
After driving across endless dusty and arid terrain we finally arrived at the lush and green Mesopotamian Marshes.
At a small roadside stall beside the marshes. The inhabitants of the Tigris-Euphrates marshlands are the Marsh Arabs.
As well as fish there were ducks for sale.
Raad inspecting the freshly hunted duck.
We then continued to a shrine for martyrs that had a large silver dome that was built on a small peninsula out in the marshes.
Inside the very grand building. The majority of Marsh Arabs are Shi'ite Muslims.
We then climbed into a mashoof, a narrow boat used to navigate the marshes.
And then headed out through the reeds and water.
Our armed police escort following just behind.
A boy in a mashoof passing us in the opposite direction.
A simple pole is the more traditional means of propelling the narrow boats through the reed and water.
We then arrived at a small island constructed from a mass of reeds and mud. The Qurna Marshes, one of three wetland areas that form the Mesopotamian Marshes, cover an area of around 3000 square kilometres.
A hut used to entertain guests.
The Marsh Arabs traditionally wear a variant of normal Arab dress. For males, a thawb (long shirt or robe) and a keffiyeh (headcloth) worn twisted around the head in a turban.
The reeds are used to weave mats and also to construct dwellings on the marshes.
Making our way back through one of the channels between the reeds.
The large silver dome coming into view again.
A passing water buffalo.
After continuing on we arrived at the town of Al Qurnah. Outside a local school.
Local folklore holds that the town is the site of the Garden of Eden, with an old tree locally celebrated as the actual Tree of Knowledge in the book of Genesis.
We then went out for a short ride where the Tigris (right) and Euphrates (left) rivers meet to form the Shatt al-Arab before continuing on to the Persian Gulf.
Arriving at our final destination of the trip, the city of Basra.
Outside the Castle Hotel.
And my room for the next two nights.
Moored on the edge of the Shatt al-Arab was the 82 metre superyacht, the Basra Breeze. Originally called the Qadissivat Saddam, it was built in 1981 by a Danish shipbuilder for President Saddam Hussein.
Saddam Hussein was never able to enjoy the yacht however because of the Iran-Iraq War and the ship she was left moored in Oman for many years before being gifted to King Fahd bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia. The yacht was then passed onto King Hussein of Jordan, whose son and successor, King Abdullah II, sent the ship to the south of France under ownership of a company based in the Cayman Islands in 1999.
The company tried to sell the yacht in 2007 but following a difficult and expensive legal battle the Iraqi government was able to eventually reclaim ownership.
Attempts to sell the ship by the government foundered, so in 2010 the ship arrived in Basra back from the Mediterranean under its current name. There were initial plans to turn the ship into a museum of Hussein’s excess, or as a hotel that made use of the large staterooms, but nothing came to fruition.
Instead professors from the University of Basra convinced the government to turn the ship into a research vessel, with the yacht being used to explore the changing ecology of the Persian Gulf.
For dinner we headed to a local restaurant and decent dinner at the end of day 7.
Cornflakes, orange juice, bread, cheese and eggs for breakfast on the morning of our last full day in Iraq.
We went out to explore some of the sighs of Basra. At our first stop, the Basra old town. With the city's location on the Shatt al-Arab and its many canals, Basra was once known as the "Venice of the East".
Outside a beautiful old Ottoman era building.
The building was built by a Jewish merchant around the start of the 20th century.
In 1911 there were an estimated 4000 Jews and perhaps 6000 Christians living in Basra.
Looking down on a neighbouring school.
A short walk away in the old town was a gallery filled with art by local artists.
As well as more classical pieces there was more contemporary art too.
A colourful piece with a woman playing a ney
An interesting piece with a woman breaking bread in the Mesopotamian Marshes.
And Charlie shaking hands with the gallery director after buying one of the paintings.
Inside the Union of Basrah Writers, where people would gather to recite and listen to poetry and other work.
Meeting with some members of the local old town preservation society. The gentlemen on the far right had spent many years living in Germany and chatted in fluent German with Andreas and Danny.
Posing for a group photo.
We then drove out to the outskirts of the city to the Old Mosque of Basra. The mosque was the first to be built in Iraq following the Arab conquest in 636 AD. Only part of the minaret remains from the original mosque however.
A more modern mosque is now situated beside the old minaret.
After removing our shoes we ventured inside. On the left was a high wooden partition to separate men and women.
Copies of the Koran sitting on the shelf.
After the visit to the mosque we headed to Basra Sports City Stadium.
Construction first started in July 2009 and it was completed four years later in October 2013.
The stadium is the home stadium of the Iraq national football team and held its first international match with a friendly against Jordan in June 2017, with Iraq winning 1 - 0.
With an official capacity of 65,227 there would definitely be a raucous atmosphere during a live football game!
Posing for a photo with the policeman escorting us for our visit. He was very friendly, played bass guitar in a local band and had a good chat with Charlie on Led Zeppelin and the Doors.
Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Syria have since played games against Iraq in the stadium and it is perhaps a tentative sign that safety security in the country is approaching a relative level of normalcy.
After driving back into the Basra we went for an afternoon walk through the city centre.
Stopping for a bite to eat at a Falafel shop.
Stuffed into a pita bread with some spicy sauce.
A great way to fill the gap until dinner.
Crossing a pedestrian bridge lined with stalls over the canal.
Fresh fruit juice at Al-Maghaiz Market.
Colourful and rhinestone covered dresses for sale.
Some sweet Basbousa for a sugar fix.
The late afternoon sun as we head towards the Shatt al-Arab.
We then boarded a small motorboat for a cruise along the river.
Passing by the Basra fairground as we head upstream.
Shortly after setting off we came across the wreck of the Al Mansur ('The Victor').
The Al Mansur in better days. The 120-metre / 7,539 tonne superyacht was designed by Knud E Hansen in Denmark, built by the Wärtsila Shipyard in Finland and was delivered in 1983 for Saddam Hussein. The yacht had many features including a James-Bond-esque secret escape route descending down from the Presidential room into a submarine launch pod (Photo source: KnudEHansen.com).
The eight-deck-tall yacht was for a long time the largest vessel in the Iraqi Navy, despite having no military use.
The boat was permanently staffed by 120 military crew pulled from the ranks of Saddam's personal bodyguard force, the Special Republican Guard, who worked 24-hour standby shifts in case the leader himself decided to pay a visit.
On March 27, 2003 during the US-led invasion two Grumman F-14 Tomcats from the USS Constellation attacked the ship.
The yacht had already been hit by a Maverick missle shot by a S-3B Viking but was missed by two laser guided bombs released by a pair of F/A-18 Hornets.
The two F-14's successfully hit the ship multiple times, but as the bombs were designed with fuses intended for ground support, they exploded before hitting, resulting in severe damage but not being able to sink the ship.
The hull of the ship now lies on its side in the Shatt al-Arab.
We then headed ~8 kilometres upstream before turning around and heading back downstream. Passing by the abandoned Ibn Khaldoon, that was once stormed by U.S. sailors in 1990 near Oman after it was chartered by women from several Arab countries, Italy, China, the United States and Japan to deliver aid to Iraq during the U.N. embargo before the first Gulf war.
Approaching the Basra Breeze, sister ship of the Al Mansur.
About to pass under a new Italian designed suspension bridge that opened recently in August 2017.
Looking over the Presidential Palaces Compound, where Raad jokingly said that Saddam could sometimes be seen fishing from.
Two British Army Lynx helicopters flying over the compound. The compound was the main base for the British during the Iraq war from 2003 until September 3rd, 2007 when they retreated under the cover of darkness to their airport base and abandoned Basra city to the Shi'ite militias. (Photo by Ian Jones, Daily Telegraph).
We were eyed suspiciously by some militiamen as we cruised past snapping photo's. One of the palaces in the compound has recently been refurbished and is now home to the Basra Museum and is being used to showcase the region's historical treasures.
Back onshore we headed to the same restaurant for dinner as the night before. More tasty mezze to start.
Half-chicken and chips for the main.
And walking past the brightly coloured ferris wheel at Basra fairground and back to our hotel at the end of day 8.
With the trip coming to a close, it was good to reflect on the memorable and fascinating sights and experiences we had enjoyed throughout, and to travel with a great and interesting group of people.
Our last day in Iraq, with Charlie flying to Beirut, Andreas flying to Istanbul, and Julian, Harry, Alastair and Danny flying back to Baghdad to catch a connecting flight back home.
My flight wasn't until the afternoon, but as everyone elses flights were in the morning and as well as Raad and Amad having to start the long drive back to Baghdad, I opted to just head to the airport early with everyone else.
As with Baghdad Airport, we had to disembark at a carpark far away from the airport, get our bags scanned, pass through security and then catch an approved (and expensive $30) taxi for the short, 5 kilometre drive to the terminal.
Outside departures at Basra International Airport. I then said farewell to everyone as they went through to security to check-in for their early morning flights.
The first time I have seen an air raid shelter at an airport before!
After bingeing on some Netflix on my iPad for a few hours, I headed through to check-in for my flight to Amman and onto Dubai.
Boarding the Royal Jordanian Embraer.
Looking out to the former Royal Air Force base used during the British occupation of Basra from 2003 to 2009.
And the end of an amazing trip through Iraq from Baghdad to Basra!