After a final breakfast at the Baghdad Hotel I packed my bags and met up with everyone in the lobby, ready to leave Baghdad.
Todays plan was to make our way south to the ruins of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon. We would then head west to Al-Ukhaidir Fortress before returning east to the city of Karbala.
Heading out of Baghdad.
After an uneventiful drive south, we arrived outside the entrance to Babylon with a replica of the Ishtar Gate. The original gate was excavated in the early 20th century and was removed and reconstructed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin and where it now still resides.
The Ishtar Gate (both the replica and the real one in Berlin) were constructed from glazed blue bricks, meant to represent lapis lazuli, a deep-blue semi-precious stone that was revered in antiquity, and alternating rows of bas-relief mušḫuššu (dragons), aurochs (a now extinct wild bull), and lions, symbolizing the gods Marduk, Adad, and Ishtar.
And inside where we met up with our local guide, Mohammed. He had studied archaeology both at the local University of Babylon and in the USA.
Mohammed then gave an overview of the Babylon archaeological area. Babylon was a key kingdom in ancient Mesopotamia from the 18th to 6th centuries BC. Unfortunately what remains of the original Babylon is little more than rubble, with the prize pieces long since been carted off to European museums.
In 1983 Saddam Hussein ordered the rebuilding of Babylon. As most Iraqi men were fighting in the bloody Iran-Iraq war, Saddam brought in thousands of Sudanese workers to lay brand new yellow bricks over where the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II (king of Babylon from 605 BC to 562 BC) had stood.
Luckily some of the original brickwork remains, and which was under restoration and maintenance when we visited.
Looking up at an original bas-relief of a mušḫuššu. The fierce looking and mythological hybrid consisted of a scaly dragon with hind legs resembling the talons of an eagle, feline forelegs, a long neck and tail, a horned head and a snake-like tongue.
Looking through a reconstructed archway with Saddam's Summer Palace in the distance. Little was known of the plans of the original Nebuchadnezzar palace so for the reconstruction considerable liberty was taken. The arches in earlier royal palaces in the region were roughly a boxy rectangle, with the height of the arch around twice the width of the entryway. It was decided that the Nebuchadnezzar palace would have been built on an even grander scale, so they simply tripled the height of the archways.
When Saddam toured the reconstruction and when he asked the curators how they knew when the original palace was built, they showed him one of the original bricks stamped with the name of King Nebuchadnezzar II and the construction date, 605 BC.
The Iraqi leader then immediately suggested that the bricks used in the recreation bear a similar inscription. Hence they are inscribed with the text:
"In the reign of the victorious Saddam Hussein, the president of the Republic, may God keep him, the guardian of the great Iraq and the renovator of its renaissance and the builder of its great civilization, the rebuilding of the great city of Babylon was done in 1987".
It then mentions the name and the date of the earlier despot, inexorably linking the two.
The Lion of Babylon. Made out of black basalt stone, it depicts a Mesopotamian lion standing above a laying human and is considered a national symbol of Iraq.
A group of visiting Iraqi's visiting the reconstructed Palace. Saddam's perhaps misguided attempt to reconstruct the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II has been derided as 'Disney for a Despot' as it was violating the archaeological principle of preserving rather than recreating.
We then made a visit to the onsite museum. An overview of the Babylon site along the Euphrates with pictures in the background of Biblical Tower of Babel.
And a model of Etemenanki, a ziggurat dedicated to Marduk in the city of Babylon and thought to be a likely influence for the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.
One of the few original bas-reliefs from the processional of the Ishtar Gate still in Iraq. The others are scattered throughout the museums all over the world.
Looking over to the former Summer Palace of Saddam Husseim with the original ruins of Babylon in the foreground. Following the 2003 American invasion, US camp Alpha was set up partially on the ruins. Significant damage occurred with areas leveled to create landing pads for helicopters and parking lots for vehicles, tanks rumbled over ancient bricks, Polish troops dug trenches through a ancient temple and soil holding artifacts and bones was scooped into sandbags.
After the very interesting visit to Babylon we then proceeded up the hill to visit the former Summer Palace of Saddam.
Built after the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1992 in the same pyramid style as a Sumerian ziggurat on top of the man-made Saddam Hill.
Venturing inside the large and extravagant lobby.
Wooden date palms adorning the wall.
The palace was occupied by U.S. forces when they arrived in 2003.
Walking up to the second floor.
It was fascinating to imagine it in more glorius times.
Intricate wood and plaster ceiling with the remnants of a chandelier.
A bedroom ensuite with copious amounts of marble. Supposedly the toilets and taps, now long gone, were also gold plated.
Continuing down a hallway.
The numerous bedrooms were quite large and palatial.
Another bedroom ensuite with liberal amounts of marble..
It was quite eerie and surreal to freely roam about what was once a place where no mere 'mortal' would be allowed to be.
Walking down some curved marbled steps.
Looking out from an upper floor window and to the Euphrates.
A couple of teenagers posing beside the flag of Iraq.
A man taking a photo of his daughter in what appeared to be a larger living room.
A very colourful mural on the ceiling showing various monuments of Iraq.
Another mural inside the Palace which I managed to illuminate with the light from my iPhone.
Despite being almost 15 years since the fall of Saddam, it was quite interesting to see Iraqi's touring his former palace with the same fascination and inquisitiveness as us tourists.
Looking up at the once grand palace with an empty rubbish filled swimming pool below.
A relief featuring a bust of Saddam below a window.
And an almost mythical representation of Saddam above the outstretched wings of an eagle.
I had seen and heard about the palatial residences that Saddam had built across Iraq and it was very interesting to finally wander about and explore one of them. A great and memorable experience!
After spending a little too long exploring the Saddam's former palace we grabbed a few snacks for lunch before continuing on in the minibus.
Refuelling in the nearby city of Hillah.
And stopping for an afternoon tea fix.
We then continued on towards the city of Karbala.
After passing through Karbala we then headed down Al Hajj Road for ~50 kilometres to Al-Ukhaidir Fortress. The area just to the west of here was previously ISIS territory and there was numerous Iraqi military outposts about.
Al-Ukhaidir Fortress was constructed during the 8th century and was an important stop on regional trade routes.
The fortress was in remarkably good condition and well restored.
The high perimeter walls of the fort built for defense were also a very interesting and elegant example of early Islamic architecture.
Inside one of the many courtyards. Since 2000 the fortress has been on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage list.
After our visit to the fortress we headed back to Karbala. On the outskirts of the city we were held up at a checkpoint for almost an hour. Our visit to the fortress on our official itinerary approved by the Ministry of Tourism wasn't until tomorrow so the Police decided to make a big fuss about it. Luckily after some reasoning by Raad they eventually let us proceed into the city.
We rolled into Karbala at dusk. Karbala is home to the two Mosques of Imam Husayn (foreground) and Abbas (background) and attracts millions of Shi'ite pilgrims every year (Photo by Karbobala Photos, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0).
Outside the Najmat Jarash Hotel for our one night stay in Karbala.
And welcomed with a glass of hot tea each.
And the slightly retro room for the night.
Complete with two types of toilets in the bathroom.
The view from the top floor where we headed to the hotel restaurant for dinner.
Soup, meatballs, salad and some Crystal Cola, which was confusingly made by Coca Cola.
And some tasty comfort food after the busy travel day.
Meeting an Iraqi cat just outside the hotel before we headed out for a walk after dinner.
We then headed into the centre of the city towards the two Mosques of Imam Husayn and Abbas.
There were several security checkpoints on the way where we had to get a pat down and have our bags X-rayed. In the instability and sectarian violence following the 2003 US invasion and the subsequent rise of ISIS there have been many bombings in the city against Shi'ite pilgrims.
Fresh popcorn for sale.
Sweets for sale with a poster of the very handsome Imam Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
And outside the Shrine of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, the mosque and burial site of the third Imam of Islam and is located near where he was martyred during the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.
After storing our shoes, phones and cameras we joined the throngs of pilgrims and filed into the shrine after a security pat down.
The shrine was full of worshippers, both men, women and children. We then joined the crowd and visited the zarih, the very an ornate, gilded, lattice structure, that enclosed the grave of Imam Husayn ibn Ali.
It was quite a special experience, being amongst the pilgrims that were praying at this very holy and spiritual place.
We then retreated to the mosque and sat down on the carpet to relax and take in the atmosphere. I thought some pilgrims would be hesitant with Westerners inside the mosque, but we had no issues and we even approached by some curious ladies who wanted to chat as they had friends and relatives living overseas in various Western countries.
A photo of the interior of the Shrine of Imam Husayn ibn Ali (by Karbobala Photos, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0).
We then went outside into the courtyard between the two mosques.
Families enjoying the cool evening temperature with the Shrine of Imam Husayn ibn Ali in the distance.
Outside the Al Abbas Mosque, which is the home of the tomb of Abbas ibn Ali, the son of Imam Ali (cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad), the first Imam of Shia Muslims and the fourth Caliph of Sunni Muslims.
As with the Shrine of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, we were able to joining the Shi'ite pilgrims and enter the mosque and visit the zarih and again experience the serene and peaceful atmosphere whilst amongst the scores of worshippers.
After the memorable and moving visit to the two mosques we started to make our way back towards the hotel.
Silhouette. Unlike Baghdad where ladies in western style dress seemed to be the norm, all the ladies we saw in Karbala were dressed in the long flowing black dress that covered them head to toe.
Catching a ride in a local 'taxi'. We then retired to the hotel to get some rest after a great day and an amazing evening in Iraq.
Eggs, bread and cheese for breakfast on the morning of day 5.
The local morning newspaper with the headline "Abadi: We are committed to constitutional entitlements and holding elections on time".
Today's plan was to drive south from Karbala to Al Kifl to visit the tomb of the biblical prophet Ezekiel. We would then drive further south to the Great Mosque of Kufa in the city of Kufa before ending the day in Najaf.
Looking down on a checkpoint to the two holy mosques as we leave Karbala.
A seemingly endless row of faces of soldiers killed in the fight against ISIS on the side of the road as we head south.
Looking up at the leaning 14th-century brick minaret (right) after we arrived at Al-Nukhailah Mosque in Al Kifl.
The mosque is also the site of tomb of the Islamic Prophet Dhul-Kifl, mentioned twice in the Koran and who is often identified as Ezekiel, a Hebrew prophet who preached to the Jews in captivity under Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BC.
And inside Ezekiel's Tomb, which was originally built back in the 7th century as a synagogue.
It was quite fascinating seeing the Hebrew writing in what is now an Islamic religious site.
Up until 1947 there was an Iraqi Jewish population of ~156,000 and was one of the largest and most prominent Jewish communities in the Middle East. Until the mid-20th century, over 5,000 Jewish pilgrims used to come to the tomb all over Iraq during Passover.
After subsequent persecution by the Iraqi authorities, the current Jewish population in Iraq is estimated to be now less than 10.
On the left inside the mosque are the burial places of other religious figures.
And Julian marvelling at the book some of the locals were using to learn English, poetry by Shakespeare!
And a group photo in the mosque courtyard with the Shi'ite caretaker of the tomb after the fascinating visit. Up until recently Westerners were not allowed here so it was quite a privilege to be able to visit.
Nearby we ventured into the Ottoman-era souk.
Enjoying a second round of sugary tea.
It was also a good opportunity to meet some of the locals.
Charlie discussing with some local gentlemen the wonderful hospitality and friendliness we have encountered on our trip.
And enjoying a tasty Iraqi meat dumpling.
At the entrance to our next stop, the Great Mosque of Kufa, where I noticed an Iraqi policeman 'scanning' our minibus with a fake bomb detector!
Sold by British fraudster James McCormick for $40,000 each to the Iraqi government many years ago, the ADE 651 has been described as a "glorified dowsing rod". In 2016, Cormick was jailed for 10 years and ordered to forfeit cash and assets worth £8m for his role in the sale of the devices.
It was quite amusing as well as disconcerting to see these fake devices still being used to screen for explosives.
Walking towards the Great Mosque of Kufa after passing the fake bomb detector test. Built in the 7th century, the mosque contains the remains of Muslim ibn ‘Aqīl (first cousin of Imam Husayn ibn Ali), his companion Hani ibn Urwa and the revolutionary Mukhtar al-Thaqafi.
Previous Western visitors have been denied entry to the mosque, but Raad approached the security personnel and with his usual politeness, friendliness and charm and managed to convince them to allow us entry.
After storing our shoes, cameras and phone, we entered into the mosque and visited the holy shrines.
The Mosque is revered for many reasons, including being the location where Ali, the cousin and the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed with a poison-coated sword while prostrating in prayer.
We then retreated to the shaded edge of the main courtyard and sat down on the carpet and enjoyed the solemn and peacful ambience (Photo by David Stanley, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0).
After our visit to the Great Mosque we drove into the city of Najaf and checked into the Golden Star Hotel just after 2pm.
And my room for our one night in Najaf.
At about 4pm we met up in the lobby and headed out for a walk to Imam Ali Mosque.
Khubz Shakar Al Ghadir (bread of thanksgiving).
A poster with religious figures along with soldiers killed in the battle against ISIS.
A policeman's guard post on a street corner.
As we ventured closer to Imam Ali Mosque there was an open street market.
Stopping for an afternoon sugar fix.
With some tasty Lokma soaked in syrup.
As in Karbala, the ladies were dressed in head-to-toe black.
Long shadows from the late afternoon sun.
As we got closer to the Imam Ali Mosque we entered into the long indoor souk. We needed to get to the mosque before Maghrib (after sunset) prayer so hurried through the busy crowds.
And outside the main entrance to Imam Ali Mosque. The mosque is home to the tomb of Imam Ali, the cousin of Muhammad, the first Imam (according to Shia belief) and fourth caliph (according to Sunni belief).
After taking off our shoes and leaving our phones and camera's with Amad, we then entered the mosque after a thorough security pat down (Photo sourced from Wikipedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0).
Raad again lead us with the throngs of pilgrims to the tomb of the Imam Ali. According to Shi'a belief, buried next to Ali are also the remains of Adam and Noah.
As with our visit to the two holy Mosques in Karbala, being amongst the pilgrims at such a revered and holy place was a great privilege and was quite a moving and memorable experience.
With the approaching Maghrib prayer time (and influx of pilgrims into the mosque) we made our way back to the indoor souk.
Watches, prayer beads and jewellery for sale.
Keffiyeh, Agal and Dishdaashah.
And Andreas, Danny and Charlie after being asked to pose for a photo with some of the locals.
Stopping to buy some water and soft drinks at a local shop on the way back to the hotel. It was now prayer time and we could see worshippers on the TV in the Imam Ali Mosque we had just visited.
For our last dinner of 2017 we headed to Restaurant Al Manara.
Soup and tasty mezze to start.
For dinner I opted for a burger, which was pretty sizable and wasn't too bad.
And some sweet baklava and sugary tea to finish.
Back at the hotel Julian brought out the Iraqi made 'Janoff' brand vodka he had purchased in Baghdad to mix with the Coke we had bought earlier.
And then enjoyed a memorable and slightly unconventional end to 2017 in Iraq!