The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (or Iraqi Kurdistan) is one of the most welcoming places I’ve ever had the privilege to live and work in.
But it’s also one of the most fascinating, with incredible ancient buildings, historical sites, and stunning nature.
Despite the problems and conflict that have wrought the region in recent years, Kurdistan remains an incredible place to visit. And while caution should be exercised of course – especially when traveling to particular cities and areas where their has been past trouble – there’s no doubting that much of the Kurdistan Region is relatively safe.
Having spent a few years going back and forth to Iraqi Kurdistan, here my rundown of some of the best places to visit. And not one of them is in Erbil – because there’s a lot more to the beautiful Kurdistan Region than it’s bustling capital, with many many secret gems that tourists never visit.
Visit the incredible Mar Mattai Monastery
The last time I was at Mar Mattai Monastery, there were plumes of smoke rising above the desert directly in front of me – that’s because airstrikes were being carried out on ISIS militants that were advancing on the area and the monastery. If the extremist group had reached the monastery’s ancient walls, the monks who refused to leave their home and place of worship would have surely been killed, and the structure destroyed.
Thankfully ISIS were beaten back, and the monastery survives.
Built in the 4th century, Mar Mattai is perched high up on the side of Mount al-Faf, almost dangling off the mountain-edge. It looks over the Nineveh Plains towards Mosul, giving you a view of miles upon miles of raw Iraqi landscape.
While it is not in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, it is just a few kilometers outside the official borders and can be visited – just don’t treat it as a tourist attraction because it’s not. Go with respect and ask politely to come inside and pay homage to the sacred place of worship. You may well be treated to a tour by one of the monks who live there as well.
The building is beautiful, a place of tranquility and worship, where the smell of incense wafts from wall to wall, and chandeliers hang above your head.
Mar Mattai was named after St Matthew who worshiped here. His bones were also laying in a tomb in the building before being moved to safety when ISIS started to advance.
This monastery is an incredible place that was very close to being destroyed and lost altogether. In many ways it’s an example of just how important it is to visit such special, and sometimes threatened, places, because we can never be sure how long they will last.
Visit the Kurdistan Region, and Iraq’s most beautiful city
Amedi, in my mind, is not just the Kurdistan Region’s most beautiful city, but also Iraq’s.
It also remains one of the most incredible cities I’ve ever visited in the world.
The thing about Amedi is that it’s not beautiful in the sense that the buildings or streets are special, although some are. What’s beautiful about Amedi is how it looks as a city.
Amedi is perched on top of a mountain plateau 1400 meters above sea level, with all the buildings packed tightly together on top. Over 5000 years old, for generations the city was only accessible by a narrow stone staircase that wound precariously up the rock face.
Surrounded by lush green forest that falls down the slopes for hundreds of meters, this city is one that needs to be seen to be truly appreciated.
Being so old, and so remote, much of the architecture from centuries ago remains. Including the ancient citadel, and the Great Mosque.
This may be a very general suggestion, but I’m being general on purpose.
Iraqi Kurdistan is packed with waterfalls, especially in the Dukan region, as well as northeast of Erbil near the Turkish border (for example Bekhal, near Rawanduz).
While waterfalls in Iraqi Kurdistan are very beautiful, that’s not why I recommend you take a day to visit one. It’s more because they’ve been turned into all-day tourist attractions.
Restaurants have cropped up around them, in some places rising up the mountain edges alongside the falls. There are actual places where you can eat with your feet dipped in the water as it rushes by – a welcome feeling when it’s summer in Iraq. Or grab a shisha and smoke as you look out on the country’s nature around and in front of you.
Many of the waterfalls in Iraqi Kurdistan drop down over hundreds of meters in quite a gentle way. For example there will be ten meters of water tumbling down rock, and then a natural pool where families will swim and cool off in the heat of day.
It’s a fantastic way to enjoy a few hours, just as many locals do at the weekend or holidays.
Visit Nahum’s Tomb
In the Iraqi town of Al Qosh, in the Nineveh Plains just south of Dohuk, lies the tomb of Hebrew prophet Nahum.
While the fact that the tomb is 2700 years old, is pretty impressive in itself, what makes this such a special place to visit is the atmosphere.
Very few people visit the tomb, just a few pilgrims a year – and by few I really do mean just a handful of people.
The tomb lies in an ancient crumbling synagogue that blends into the surrounding town and mountainside behind it. It’s easily missed and hard to find, but if you ask around Al Qosh for the “Shajaa” family, that’s your way to discover this ancient piece of history.
That’s because the family have been looking after the tomb and synagogue since the Jewish population of Al Qosh fled persecution decades ago. The family were entrusted with the keys of the synagogue by the fleeing Jewish community and asked to look after the building and Nahum’s tomb until their return.
Those keys have been handed down from generation to generation by the Shajaa family who continue to act as caretakers.
The family is happy to show you around if you ask nicely (of course), and as long as you understand that this is not their job, but a favor they are doing – so if they are busy wait, go for a walk, ask if another time or day suits.
It’s not an easy destination to visit, but it’s well worth it. Stone arches hang over Nahum’s tomb itself (where the prophet’s bones still lie), and ancient Hebrew is inscribed throughout the crumbling walls. It’s an incredible place, with an amazing history, and if you step inside you really do get the feeling that you’re one of very few people that has had the privilege to be here.
Iraqi Kurdistan is full of architecture that is centuries old. There are beautiful centuries-old citadels in cities and towns throughout the Kurdistan Region, along with ancient places of worship.
But Iraqi Kurdistan also has a rich history of settlement from Neolithic times.
One of the countless sites that you can visit which touches on this period is Shanidar Cave, the resting place of ten Neanderthals from 40-60,000 years ago. It’s also a site where archeologists have found Neolithic tools and other implements.
The cave, located in the beautiful Zagros Mountains, is also home to a cemetery with 35 people from 10,000 years.
It seems the area has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, and when you visit the cave it does feel like a landscape that has remained the same throughout the ages.
Discoveries are still being made here, and it remains one of the most important historical sites in Iraqi Kurdistan, yet despite that it is hardly known and visited.