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Introducing Iraq

Long ago in the fertile valleys between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the great civilisations of the age were born. Modern Iraq was ancient Mesopotamia, from the Greek meaning 'between two rivers', and it was here that human beings first began to cultivate their land, where writing was invented and where the Assyrians, Sumerians and Babylonians all made Iraq the centre of the ancient world.

With the arrival of Islam, Iraq again took centre stage. Islam's most enduring schism - between Sunnis and Shiites - was first played out on Iraqi soil. Baghdad also became one of Islam's greatest capitals, home to the Abbasid caliphs whose reign has become a byword for Islam's golden age of learning and sophistication.

The country remains rich with the resonance of a glorious history, but recent history has dealt less kindly with Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, widespread political repression and conflicts with Iran, Kuwait and the West earned Iraq international infamy and also drew the attention of international human-rights organisations and Western armies in equal measure. Indeed in recent years, few countries have experienced such external interference as Iraq has, culminating in the 2003 American-led invasion of the country.

Iraq has now dominated international news headlines for more than a decade for all the wrong reasons, just as Vietnam did three decades before it. The country's future is uncertain, with Iraqis struggling to eke out an existence and build the institutions of a democratic Iraq against the backdrop of political and religious tension, and amid the numbing constancy of terrorist attacks.

Iraq is now one of the most dangerous countries on earth, but few countries can boast such a rich history. When the country gets back on its feet, it will be one of the great travel destinations of the Middle East.

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