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Iraq - 9 days
In the Footsteps of Saladin
Prices from £2,949
In the Footsteps of Saladin
Prices from £2,949
The ancient land of Kurdistan in the north of Iraq occupies a special place in history, with monuments and cities that date back millennia and bear witness to the diverse civilisations that once ruled here. This short trip takes you on a journey to discover a place that for many years was simply off limits to western travellers, but rivals any of its better known Middle Eastern counterparts. We start in the ancient city of Erbil, dating back an incredible seven thousand years and with a fascinating citadel to explore that gives you a real idea of how important this region once was. From here we step into the footsteps of Alexander the Great at the ancient battle site of Gaugamela, and join Yezidi pilgrims at Lalish for an insight into one of the Middle East’s most ancient religions. At Dohuk we visit the remains of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, a troubling reminder of the problems suffered by the Kurdish people, and in Rawanduz enjoy some of the best scenery to be found in the region, with lush mountains, plunging chasms and caves that stretch far underground. Finally we head to Suleimaniyah, exploring its chaotic bazaars and splendid museum but also visiting the tragic site of Halabja for an insight into Kurdistan’s recent history. Despite the wealth of sites here your overwhelming memory is bound to be the hospitality and friendliness of the Kurdish people, keen to welcome people to their land and rejoicing in their new freedom. Kurdistan is a treasure waiting to be discovered.
Day 1 – Erbil
Arrive in Erbil and transfer to your hotel.
Day 2 – Erbil – Dwin Castle
Spend today exploring the ancient city of Erbil, including the citadel, the imposing Choli Minaret and also Dwin Castle.
Day 3 – Gaugamela – Lalish – Dohuk
Visit the ancient site of Gaugamela, the aqueduct of Jirwana, and the Yezidi pilgrimage site of Lalish where we learn about the customs and rituals of these people, descendants of the Zoroastrians.
Day 4 – Al Qush – Rabban Hormizd – Gara
Visit Al Qush to see the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Nahum, as well as the monastery of Rabban Hormizd, before exploring the ruins of one of Saddam Hussein’s many palaces.
Day 5 – Amadiya – Hamilton Road – Rawanduz
After breakfast we head to the ancient city of Amadiya where we explore its sights before travelling to Rawanduz, through breathtaking scenery.
Day 6 – Rawanduz
Spend the day exploring the region around Rawanduz, one of Kurdistan’s most beautiful areas with dramatic gorges, imposing mountains and traditional villages.
Day 7 – Lake Dokan – Suleimaniyah
Head for Suleimaniyah, passing Lake Dokan. At Suleimaniyah we visit the Red House – a former prison where Saddam Hussein imprisoned and killed thousands of Kurdish people – and are guided by a former inmate, learning about a difficult but integral part of Kurdish history.
Day 8 – Halabja
Visit the village of Halabja, internationally known as the site of a brutal chemical attack by Saddam Hussein on the Kurds. Returning to Suleimaniyah the rest of the day is free to explore the city and its bazaars.
Day 9 – Erbil
This morning we visit the Suleimaniyah Museum. On the way back to Erbil we visit the remains of the ancient Jewish city of Koisinjak and an ancient caravanserai, before transferring to the airport for your flight home.
Day 1 – Erbil
Arrive in Erbil and transfer to your hotel. The rest of the day is free to explore or relax. Overnight Darin Plaza Hotel or similar.
Day 2 – Erbil – Dwin Castle
Spend today exploring the ancient city of Erbil. We visit the citadel, a fascinating site in its own right but also housing the splendid Textile Museum with its collection of Kurdish cultural artefacts. After lunch we visit the imposing Choli Minaret and then leave the city to head to Dwin Castle and the surrounding ancient graveyard, known as the birthplace of the famous ruler Saladin. Overnight Darin Plaza Hotel or similar. (BLD)
Erbil lays claim to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth , with a citadel that has been occupied for around seven thousand years. Over the years it has seen a succession of different civilisations holding sway here, from Assyrians to Medes to Greeks, to Romans, Armenians, Ottomans and British – Erbil is a living history lesson and exemplifies the complex history of this part of the world. Also known as Hewler, Erbil is dominated by its citadel, a vast and imposing fortress that sits atop a hill above the town and is one of Kurdistan’s most recognisable monuments. Erbil Citadel was once a Sumerian city called Urbellum or Arbella and it is believed that Abraham passed through this city on one of his journeys. It once housed the Temple of the Goddess Ishtar and was the city Darius III fled to after facing defeat by Alexander the Great on the nearby plains of Gaugemela. A massive restoration project is currently being undertaken by UNESCO. The citadel is also home to the Textile Museum, housed in a 220 year old residence features ancient Kurdish fighting tools, traditional dresses, handmade rugs from different regions and eras of Kurdish history, jewellery and photos. In addition to Kurdish antiquities there are a number of pieces from Iran and Turkey.
The city occupied a strategic location on regional trading routes, connecting Baghdad and Mosul, and is today home to the Kurdish Parliament, which since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has far more power than in previous days. Erbil is today a fast growing city with multinational organisations taking an interest in its development, but it still very much retains its traditions – the bazaars are still far more important than any shopping centre could be and it is here that one can really feel the spirit of the country, as traders compete for customers on the look out for goods of all manner, their wares stacked high and with small boys delivering tea between the stalls. Also worth seeing is the 36 metre high Choli Minaret, dating back to the 12th century and towering above the surrounding buildings. Erbil is a fascinating place, very much at a crossroads between ancient tradition and modern consumerism, and well worth thorough exploration.
Saladin was a Kurdish Muslim, who became the first sultan of Egypt & Syria, & founded the Ayoubi Dynasty. He led Muslim & Arab opposition to the Franks & other European Crusaders in the Levant. At the height of his power, his sultanate included Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Hijaz & Yemen. Under his leadership, his forces defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin, leading the way to the capture of Palestine & Jerusalem. Many have seen famous and better preserved examples of Salahadin fortresses – few have visited the place that gave birth to this incredible historic figure.
Day 3 – St Matthew’s Monastery – Gaugamela – Lalish – Dohuk
Visit the ancient site of Gaugamela, the site of the famous battle between Darius and Alexander the Great. After lunch head to the ancient aqueduct of Jirwana, and the Yezidi pilgrimage site of Lalish where we learn about the customs and rituals of these people, descendants of the Zoroastrians. End the day in Dohuk, where we visit the Chwar Stoon Cave, an ancient site associated with the Zoroastrians. Overnight Hakar Hotel or similar. (BLD)
Not far from the Turkish border, the town of Dohuk lies in a wide valley surrounded by mountains. Traditionally the region has been associated with agriculture and is locally famous for its grapes – other crops grown here include rice, tobacco, wheat and all manner of fruit and vegetables. Once known for its colourful houses, Dohuk grew in importance during the period of sanctions imposed on Iraq – its proximity to the border meant that it was a hub for smuggling goods.
Jirwana is reputedly the oldest aqueduct and bridge ruin in the world built in the time of Sennacharib (690 BC). The site was once part of a vast complex that was built to water the gardens of Nineveh. Huge stones transported by hand from quarries hundreds of miles away are in scripted with the story of this amazing feat. Here you will find the secret of the ‘hidden message of Sennacharib’ known by only a few living scholars in the world – join them in this amazing revelation.
Day 4 – Al Qush – Rabban Hormizd – Gara
Visit Al Qush to see the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Nahum, next to the 3rd century monastery of Mar Gorgis and church of Mar Mekha. We then head to the important monastery of Rabban Hormizd, before moving on to Gara. Here we explore the ruins of one of Saddam Hussein’s many palaces – a fascinating insight into the regime which so brutally ruled these lands. Overnight Hakar Hotel or similar. (BLD)
Rabban Hormizd Monastery is an important site of the Chaldean Church. It is carved out of the mountains about 2 miles from Alqosh, Iraq, 28 miles north of Mosul. Founded around 640 AD, the monastery has been the official residence of the patriarchs of the Eliya line of the Church of the East from 1551 to the 18th century, and after the union with Rome in the early 19th century, it became a prominent monastery of the Chaldean Church. It is named after Rabban Hormizd (rabban is the Syriac for monk) who founded it in the seventh century and is buried within the sanctuary.
There were 10 palaces built in the same region ñ all of which were opulent complexes where meals were prepared in each three times a day in anticipation that Saddam ‘might’ visit at any moment. One of the palaces was venue to extravagant parties hosting the world’s glitterati and a nearby stadium and pool was under construction where Saddam hoped to one day host the Olympics. Almost nothing remains of the palaces as the people of Kurdistan tore them all down when liberated from Saddam in 1991 to express their anger at the genocide he perpetrated against them.
Day 5 – Amadiya – Hamilton Road – Rawanduz
After breakfast we head to the ancient city of Amadiya where we explore its sights before travelling to Rawanduz. We travel through breathtaking scenery in the region of Barzan and continue through Soran passing by Shanidar Cave where some of the world’s first pre-historic remains were discovered. Travel on the renowned Hamilton Road – one of the greatest engineering feats of the last century – before reaching Rawanduz and our hotel for the night. Overnight Pank Resort or similar. (BLD)
The town of Amadiya (dating from the Assyrian era) is located on a high promontory above a breathtaking landscape and fed by a geothermal spring originating far below the mountain. Situated around 1400 m above sea level and surrounded by heights it was once an almost impenetrable fortress. The city Gate (Bab Zebar) is located in the eastern side of the City of Amadiya. Its width was 4 metres, built by Imaduddin Al- Zanki in 5-600 AD. One of Amadiya’s most impressive sites is the 30 metre high minaret in the centre of the town, with intricate patterns as decoration; it was built in the time of Sultan Hussein Wali and was part of an already existing ancient city.
Day 6 – Rawanduz
Spend the day exploring the region around Rawanduz, one of Kurdistanís most beautiful areas with dramatic gorges, imposing mountains and traditional villlages. We visit the impressive Bekhal Waterfalls and then head to Bestoon Cave, a fascinating cavern that stretches 500 metres underground and is adorned with numerous stalactites and stalagmites – Neanderthal remains were also found here. Along the way we take the opportunity to meet with local villagers where possible for an insight into the traditional ways of life that are still prevalent here. Overnight Pank Resort or similar. (BLD)
Day 7 – Lake Dokan – Suleimaniyah
Reluctantly we leave the splendid scenery of Rawanduz behind and head for Suleimaniyah, passing Lake Dokan and stopping nearby for lunch. At Suleimaniyah we visit the Red House – a former prison where Saddam Hussein imprisoned and killed thousands of Kurdish people – and are guided by a former inmate, learning about a difficult but integral part of Kurdish history. Overnight Dawa Hotel or similar. (BLD)
Suleimaniyah, or Suly as it is affectionately known to residents, was founded in the late 18th century and so compared to Erbil is a real youngster – it was founded by Ibrahim Pasha Baban and named after his father Suleiman Pasha. An important city and taking a pivotal role in the promotion of Kurdish culture now that the old Ba’athist regime has fallen, it is considered the cultural capital of northern Iraq . It was from here that Mahmud Barzanji sparked the first rebellion against the British occupation on May 22, 1919 with the arrest of British officials in Sulaymaniyah and declared an independent Kurdistan that same year. The British occupation declared Sheikh Hama Tahmas as king in order to silence the residents of Suleimaniyah and stop their rebellion, but Sheikh Mahmud acted and ruled independently from the British, and wanted them out of the kingdom. As a result, in the same year, he was exiled for several years to the Andaman islands in India by the British occupation, only to return and raise another unsuccessful rebellion in 1923. Today the city is home to a couple of fascinating museums – the Amna Suraka which provides an important insight into the horrific treatment of the Kurds under Saddam Hussein, and the Slemani Musuem which houses Kurdish and Persian artefacts.
Day 8 – Halabja
Visit the village of Halabja, internationally known as the site of a brutal chemical attack by Saddam Hussein on the Kurds. Today a memorial pays tribute to the thousands that died here – a moving but very interesting excursion. Returning to Suleimaniyah the rest of the day is free to explore the city and its bazaars or simply relax. Overnight Dawa Hotel or similar. (BLD)
On March 16, 1988, Saddam Hussein ordered the use of chemical weapons in attacking 24 villages in the Kurdish region beginning with Halabja. At least 5,000 people died as an immediate result of the chemical attack and it is estimated that a further 7,000 people were injured or suffered long term illness. Before the war ended the Iraqis moved in on the ground and completely destroyed the town. In March 2010, the Iraqi High Criminal Court recognized the Halabja massacre as genocide. Saddam was executed for other crimes just before he was to be tried in Kurdistan for his acts of atrocity. Today the city lives again – testimony to the Kurds’ amazing resilience and ability to survive the most brutal assault on their people and culture. The Halabja Museum and Memorial Cemetery is both fascinating and moving.
Day 9 – Erbil
This morning we visit the Suleimaniyah Museum, Kurdistan’s largest (and Iraq’s second largest) collection of antiquities – we hope to be able to meet the director of the museum who can explain its treasures in depth. On the way back to Erbil we visit the remains of the ancient Jewish city of Koisinjak and an ancient caravanserai, before transferring to the airport for your flight home. (BL)
Airport transfers – We include arrival and departure transfers regardless of whether you book flights yourself, or we book them for you. If you’re booking them yourself, then please let us know the details so that we can arrange the transfers.
Please note though that if you arrive earlier than Day 1 of the tour, and leave after the final day, we may need to make an additional charge for an airport transfer.
Accommodation – Accommodation as listed in the dossier. The nature of the destinations that we operate may sometimes mean that we need to change hotels, but we’ll always endeavour to keep the same standards. Please be aware that as we operate in many countries where tourism is in its infancy, hotel standards may not be the same as you’re used to elsewhere.
Guides – In most cases you will be accompanied by one guide from start to finish. However there may be occasions when this is not practical, for example if your trip covers a number of different countries. In these cases it often makes more sense to include different guides for each place, to take advantage of their specific knowledge of the destination.
Meals – As listed within the itinerary / dossier (B-Breakfast, L-Lunch, D-Dinner). These will vary from trip to trip – in some areas it makes sense to include all meals while in others there is a good choice of restaurants and we feel people might like to ‘do their own thing’ now and again.
Entrance fees – Entrance fees are listed for those sites that we mention within the itinerary. If there are any other sites that you’d like to see, these would be at your own expense.
What’s not included:
Visas – We don’t arrange visas for our travellers, but if an invitation letter is necessary then we will arrange this for you. If you need any advice with visas then just give us a call, or alternatively a visa agency such as Travcour (www.travcour.com) can assist.
Airport taxes – If there are any departure taxes to pay that are not included within the cost of your ticket, you’ll need to pay these yourself.
International flights – Many of our travellers arrive from different destinations and so we don’t include international flights in the cost of our tours. If however you would like us to book flights for you, then just give us a call and we’ll be happy to discuss your options.
Travel Insurance – If you need any assistance with this, then let us know – although we can’t arrange it ourselves we can point you in the direction of a reputable provider that can assist.
UK, US and EU travellers are granted a 10 day visa upon arrival when entering at Erbil airport, for which there is no charge. Visa regulations can change however and so we recommend that you contact your nearest embassy for the most up to date information.
Health and vaccinations
We are not medically qualified and so we recommend that you speak to your doctor or nearest health professional for advice concerning recommended vaccinations. For more advice on vaccinations you can also visit www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk.
It is a condition of joining our tours that you have suitable travel insurance in place, and we cannot accept travellers without insurance. All policies differ in terms of what they will cover, but as a minimum you need medical and health cover which will cover you for the whole time that you are away. Most policies will also include cancellation cover, which will cover you if an unforeseen circumstance obliges you to cancel your trip. We recommend that you obtain your insurance as soon as you book your trip.
Please note that government travel warnings often affect the validity of your travel insurance, and you should check this with your insurance company.
Arrival and departure taxes
There are no arrival or departure taxes applicable for Iraqi Kurdistan, unless you are staying for more than 10 days, in which case immigration officials sometimes – but not always – enforce a departure tax of $40-45.
The local currency in Iraq is the Iraqi dinar. It is best to bring US dollars for exchange purposes and these should have an issue date of 2006 or later, otherwise you may find it difficult to exchange them. Many places will also accept US dollars.
It’s not difficult to change money in Iraq, either at banks or the hotels and your guide can assist with this. Iraq is very much a cash society – credit cards are not widely accepted. There are a few ATMs in larger towns – these may or may not work though so it’s best not to rely on these as a source of funds.
When to go
The best time to visit Iraq is either in autumn or spring – temperatures can be extreme in both the winter and summer months.
Culture – language and religion
The main language of Kurdistan is Kurdish, split into two different dialects. English is fairly widely spoken, although not quite so much in the more rural areas.
Most people here are Sunni Muslim, but there are also significant minorities of other groups, most noticeably Christian and Yezidi, as well as Shia Muslims living near the Iranian border.
Eating and drinking
Kurdish cuisine relies heavily on lamb and chicken with the addition of vegetables and bread – a typical lunch might be a lamb stew with rice, delicately spiced. Fruits abound here and often make up part of the meals. Typical vegetables used are aubergines, courgettes and peppers, often cooked with potatoes in a spicy sauce to make a dish called tapsi. Stuffed vine leaves are also popular, and kebabs and kofta (spiced meatballs) are fairly ubiquitous.
You should advise us when you book if you have any special dietary requirements. We will try to accommodate you as much as possible, but we cannot always guarantee this.
Luggage and packing
The first rule of packing is not to bring too much. There will be plenty of occasions where you’ll need to carry your luggage yourself and so you should be able to do this without help. Most people are surprised at how little they actually need to bring, and it’s normally possible to get laundry done along the way. It doesn’t matter whether you bring a suitcase, rucksack or holdall, but please don’t bring more than 20kg of luggage as this may be difficult to accommodate in the vehicles we use. You’ll also need a day pack.
Iraq is quite a conservative country in terms of clothing. Men should wear long trousers and both sexes should keep their upper arms covered.
You don’t need to be especially fit to join our trips in Iraq, but there will be stairs to climb, hills to walk and sites to explore, so you’ll enjoy it more if you have a reasonable level of fitness.
In Iraq, like many of the destinations we offer, environmental thinking is not at the forefront of everyday life and you will see a lot of litter in places. However, we ask that you don’t contribute to this and to please take all litter back to the hotel where it can be disposed of properly, including cigarette butts.
You may well come across beggars. There’s no hard and fast answer on this and everyone has a different view – some feel that giving simply encourages begging while others see it as helping someone in need. Some guidebooks will tell you that you should only give if you see a local person also giving, to determine whether the beggar is genuine. The issue is particularly difficult when it comes to children, but we’d ask that you don’t give to children as in poor communities this can often act as a discouragement to going to school. If you feel that you’d like to contribute then speak with your guide who will be able to make appropriate suggestions.
Most people like to take photos, and it’s sometimes easy to forget that the photogenic person in front of you may not want their picture taken. Always ask if it’s okay, and respect their wishes if they say no. You’ll often find that in remote villages or among more traditional communities the older generation, and women in particular, are not comfortable with having their picture taken.
On the subject of photography, it’s often forbidden to take photos of ‘sensitive’ areas such as military buildings or border posts, and doing so can land you in trouble with the authorities. If you’re not sure, ask your guide.
If you’re happy with the services of your guide and driver then we would recommend leaving a tip for them at the end of your trip. The amount is entirely up to you, but a reasonable amount for a group to tip would be between £100-130 for the guide, and perhaps £60-80 for the driver – however it is not obligatory and if you do not wish to tip then this is up to you.
When travelling to some of the destinations we offer you need to bear in mind that things won’t always work here as we’re used to them working at home. Travelling in underdeveloped and untouristed destinations requires both patience and a sense of humour. There may be problems with infrastructure, attitudes may be different, and maintenance may not be as high a standard as we would always like, but this is very much part and parcel of travelling in such a place. We aim to resolve any issues as quickly as possible, and thank you for your patience.
We keep a very close eye on the travel advice issued by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that we can keep you up to date with any warnings. At the time of writing the FCO advises against all but essential to Iraqi Kurdistan.
This relates to advice from the British government – other nationalities need to check the stance of their own governments.
Sunni Arab areas of Iraq (unlike Kurdistan) have had numerous and almost continuous security issues since 2003. Kurdistan has for many years been a separate autonomous region with its borders secured by the local very sizable and competent Peshmerga (Kurdistan military). One of the key reasons both media and many governments often refer to Kurdistan as ‘The Other Iraq’ is that the region has remained relatively safe and stable over the past decades—unlike the rest of Iraq.
The Kurdish security forces are on a higher state of alert and readiness, but that is purely precautionary to insure the integrity of the region. Otherwise, there are no changes in terms of movement, control, or conduct of daily business. The border areas have received large numbers of displaced persons, but they are being held in displaced persons camps if they do not have relatives or others who can vouch for them inside of Kurdistan.
It is important to know that our local team is in constant contact with the Kurdistan security forces leadership and are well aware of the real time situation. We are also constantly evaluating our routes and destinations to ensure we are staying clear of any areas that are potentially troublesome. The safety of our travellers is paramount and we would not operate tours where we felt there was a significant risk to safety. We are operating our scheduled tours in Kurdistan for the foreseeable future, as the security situation within the Kurdistan Region is largely unchanged.
Iraq – Then and Now – The Bradt Guide
Geoff Hann and Karen Dabrowska
A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts
Road through Kurdistan
A Modern History of the Kurds
Please note that the information contained above is highly susceptible to change, and while we endeavour to keep up to date we recommend that you use this as a guide only. Should you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
Updated 17 August 2016
|14 October 2017||£2,949||£320||Available||
|14 April 2018||£3,049||£320||Available||
|13 October 2018||£3,049||£320||Guaranteed||
|13 April 2019||£3,099||£320||Available||
|12 October 2019||£3,099||£320||Available||