Tours of Iraq's ancient wonders open up





Foreign tourists will soon be tramping around Mesopotamia again after a French company on Sunday opened an office offering visits to ancient sites in war-ravaged southern Iraq.

"We have organised our inaugural journey between 6-14 June to the region of Nasiriyah and we will do it regularly, every three weeks from September," said Hubert Debbash, boss of Terre Entiere, a cultural and religious tours operator.

With the road from Baghdad not yet secure, the visitors will arrive in Kuwait and cross the border to reach Nasiriyah about 370 kilometres (230 miles) away. The nine-day tour will cost 2,500 euros (3,375 dollars).

The company hopes to secure 100 clients this year, rising to 500 in 2011, Debbash said at the opening of an office for Babil Tours, a subsidiary company, in a Nasiriyah hotel.

The tourists -- in groups of 20 -- will be accompanied by an archaeologist to Ur, the Biblical birthplace of Abraham, and one of the cradles of civilisation.

Ur of the Chaldees, as it is called in the Bible, was one of the great urban centres of the Sumerian civilisation of southern Iraq and remained an important city until its conquest by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC.

Among its glories is a well-preserved stepped platform, or ziggurat, which dates back to the third millennium BC, when it was part of a temple complex that was the administrative centre of the Sumerian capital.

With Iraq ravaged by conflict and strife in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, there has been a lack of large-scale digs at Ur, and only small teams have been working since 2005.

The tourists will also visit other historic sites in the area, including Babylon and the region's marshes, one of the world's ancient ecosystems which is undergoing rehabilitation after being drained by Saddam to punish his Shiite enemies.

"After a long time of war in Iraq we wanted to organise tours to this area, where civilisation started," said Debbash, who was joined at the office opening by the French ambassador to Baghdad, Boris Boillon, and his family.

Although tourism is acknowledged by the Iraqi government as a valuable source of income, the industry has yet to take off despite considerable security improvements across the country in the past two years.

Iraqi officials held an event last November in London, where Babylon and the Garden of Eden, which according to some historians is located 80 kilometres north of the southern city of Basra, were touted as premier attractions.

The officials, who were seeking investment to help restore many of Iraq's hotels that have been left in a poor state by the war, as well as expertise to help promote the country as an up-and-coming tourist destination, said "very few pockets" of the country remain dangerous.

Iraq is already a well-known destination for religious travel for Muslims from near neighbours such as Iran, Pakistan and Bahrain, and in 2008 received almost one million tourists, mostly from the Middle East.



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