The Middle East has a deep-rooted culture of walking, from historical pilgrimage paths to following in the footsteps of traditional nomads and shepherds, and a new long-distance hiking trail in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is encouraging travelers to see a side of the country that doesn’t often make the headlines. 

The 215km-long Zagros Mountain Trail is the latest addition to the region’s portfolio of paths and traces the routes of shepherds, pilgrims, traders and solace seekers through the peaks of northern Iraq. The idea for the trail first came about in 2016, but it wasn’t until 2019 that it started to take shape.

“It just struck me that this place had all the elements of the perfect hike: great natural beauty, many layers of history, existing trail networks, a really rich, deep culture, and an intrinsic hospitality from people,” explains Leon McCarron, a writer from Northern Ireland  who is passionate about the area and one of the trail’s co-founders.

Breathing in Music Valley, Safeen © Zagros Mountain Trail

Is Kurdistan safe for travelers?

Iraq is hardly known for being a destination for casual travelers, let alone for hiking. Mention Iraq and the conversation quickly turns to politics and war. The US State Department warns its citizens against traveling to Iraq at all, and the UK and other European countries advise against all but essential travel. The country’s painful recent history has presented unique challenges in the development of the trail, but its creators have ensured that it remains rooted in place. The Zagros Mountain Trail passes through 35 communities, each with homestays and local guides.

Ahmed Rezani, local guide in Balakayati area © Zagros Mountain Trail

“Trails, I believe very keenly, are a great way to help reimagine a place,” McCarron says. “We've seen this in lots of parts of the world where tourism – and particularly this type of slow, immersive tourism – is a great way to help move past conflict or trauma in a nation or a region's history and give it a new identity.”

The Zagros Mountain Trail threads its way through a variety of landscapes, including lofty passes up to 2000m in elevation, and the creators of the trail hope it will lure all types of travelers.

“I want to see all kinds of hikers on the ZMT. I want the ZMT to be a platform for culture exchange,” says Lawin Mohammad, a Kurd from Syria and a trail co-founder. “I want them to remember our food, culture, music and our history.”

Though the trail covers a huge distance – and will continue to be expanded even further – guides currently offer weekend day hikes that leave from Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil.

“We're not quite at a point where we are opening up and inviting people to come and join,” McCarron explains. “We're taking it step by step, having these weekly walks. Hopefully by the fall and early next year, we'll be moving to the next stage.”

Growth of long distance hikes in the Middle East 

A growing number of long-distance and community-focused trails have opened in the Middle East in recent years, including the Wadi Rum Trail in Jordan and the Sinai Trail and Red Sea Mountain Trail in Egypt, offering visitors a chance to access areas rarely seen by outsiders while walking in the company of expert local guides.

A hikers' meal in Shush, the trail passes through 35 communities, each with homestays © Zagros Mountain Trail

“We at Zagros Mountain Trail aim to make the Kurdistan Region one of the most desirable and successful destinations in the Middle East for outdoor tourism,” according to Lawin Mohammad, a Kurd from Syria and a trail co-founder. “For myself personally, I always dreamed of a platform to meet new people from different backgrounds, to tell and hear stories, to be able to show the beauty of our land and to show the deep history and the coexistence of our area.”

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