Earlier this month, Iraqi Airways relaunched its Baghdad to London connection, the first time it has flown the route since 1990, when Gulf War One brought the airline’s UK activities to a halt. The plane arrived at Gatwick with a VIP delegation including the British ambassador to Baghdad, Simon Collis, who Tweeted excitedly that it was a “big day for UK Iraq relations”.
True, it has taken a full ten years since the fall of Saddam for the airline to get its act together again, partly because of ongoing concerns about security at the Baghdad end. Even now, the flight from Baghdad to London has what is known as a “security stop” in Sweden first.
But it’s hoped that the new flight will now run three times per week to Gatwick, connecting Baghdad with the large Iraqi community in Britain. The idea is that with security in Iraq gradually improving, British businesspeople will soon follow too – and, ultimately, British tourists, for whom Iraq has potential as an off-beat holiday destination.
For current affairs junkies, there’s the chance to see the country that dominated our headlines for much of the past decade. For nature enthusiasts, there is billiard-table flat desert in the west, Alpine-style mountains in the Kurdish north, and unique marshland in the south. And for history buffs, there is one of the most impressive collections of ancient monuments in the Middle East.
One long-established firm that does tours of Iraq is Surrey-based Hinterland Travel, which is run by Geoff Hann, a veteran Iraqi hand, and which resumed its operations there in 2009. The tour parties – which these days have armed escorts with them – visit nearly every major historical site in the country, some of which tell Iraq’s modern story as well as its old.
The itinerary takes in the holy city of Najaf, for example, where the Mehdi Army fought fierce pitched battle with the Americans in 2004. And it also visits the Golden Shrine at Samarra, a Shia pilgrimage site that was bombed by Sunni extremists in 2006, sparking the brutal sectarian civil war.
Other stop offs include Saddam’s old home town of Tikrit, and the marshes town of Qurna, said to be the location of the original Garden of Eden. There’s even a derelict hotel there that claims to have the original Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil growing in its backyard, although when I went there in 2003, all I found was a withered stump buried in concrete.
Arguably best of all though, especially for fans of horror movies, is the “Exorcist Experience” at the ancient sun temple of Hatra, a spectacular collection of pre-Christian ruins near the northern city of Mosul. Full of spooky stone masks that glower down from the walls, it features in the opening sequence of the 1973 horror classic, in which a priest at an archaeology dig unearths an ancient talisman that belongs to a demon called Pazuzu.
In Mesopotamian folklore, Pazuzu was a bogeyman that parents used to frighten their children with. The story is that he would be alerted and empowered whenever one of his talismans was touched anywhere in the world. In the film, he then goes on to possess the young American girl Regan, who then does her famous vomiting, headspinning routine.
The last time I visited Hatra, in late 2003, the temple was being guarded against looters by US troops, who were billed in a derelect tourist hotel nearby. They had no idea of the site’s past until one of them, Captain Nik Guran, watched The Exorcist on his laptop one night and noticed something oddly familar about the shots of Hatra’s skyline in the opening sequence. Then it dawned on him that they had been filmed from a window in the very hotel he was staying in.
“It was filmed a bit before Saddam really came to power, and the opening scene was made at an actual excavation that was taking place here at the time,” he told me. “I thought, ‘Wow – that’s the place we’ve been guarding’.”
Spotting its potential, the soldiers trained up locals to revamp Hatra as a tourist centre. However, a year later the nearby city of Mosul was over-run by al Qaeda militants, and from then on, the whole area was completely off-limits. It was only last year that security improvements allowed Hinterland Travel to put it back on their itinerary again.
On which note, should you be thinking about joining one of their tours, be reassured that so far, the so-called Curse of The Exorcist, which plagued all those associated with the film with bad luck, has not resurfaced. Quite the opposite, if anything.
“Our tour party missed a bomb in Kirkuk by about 25 minutes in 2009,” says Hinterland’s Mr Hann. “But otherwise we haven’t had any issues.”
Colin Freeman, who was based in Baghdad as a freelance journalist between 2003 and 2005, returned to the Iraqi capital last month to report on how life has changed. This blog is one of a series. His book about living in Iraq is The Curse of the Al Dulaimi Hotel and other half-truths from Baghdad.