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The call of Babylon: Why some travelers are braving Iraq

By Mark Tutton for CNN
  • International airlines now fly to Iraq, opening up the country to trailblazing tourists
  • Known as the "Cradle of Civilization," Iraq has three UNESCO World Heritage sites
  • Last year just 73 tourists visited Iraq's archaeological attractions
  • Much of the country remains dangerous and the U.S. warns against traveling there

London, England (CNN) -- International airlines are once again landing in Iraq, the conflict-wracked home to some of the ancient wonders of the world.

Ongoing conflict has overshadowed Iraq's place as the "Cradle of Civilization," housing extraordinary sites like Babylon, just outside Baghdad.

But, an improving, if fragile, security situation means that, after years of isolation intrepid travelers can now fly directly to Iraq from Austria, Germany, Greece, Norway, Sweden and the UK as well as numerous cities in the Middle East.

Specialist tour operators are now stepping into the tourism void, catering to the smattering of tourists with an approach more Indiana Jones than package tour.

In June, French company "Terre Entiere" will lead its first tours of the ancient city of Ur in southern Iraq, with plans to take tours every three weeks from September.

While these could be the first signs of an emerging industry, tourism in Iraq is very much in its infancy. Iraq's Ministry of Tourism told CNN that last year just 73 tourists visited Iraq's archaeological sites.

As long as Iraq remains dangerous, and lacking any kind of tourist infrastructure, it is unlikely to appeal to the package-holiday masses. But for some, that's the attraction.

Video: Iraq's ancient city of Hilla
Babylon is definitely impressive. It's known throughout the world.
--Veronique Dauge, UNESCO
  • Iraq
  • Tourism

Sean Tipton, of the Association of British Travel Agents, told CNN: "You do find with some countries that were recently war zones, certain segment of travelers see it as attractive. Some people see it as off the beaten track. They view it as an experience."

Known as the "Cradle of Civilization", Iraq is a trove of treasures from the ancient world. The country currently boasts three UNESCO World Heritage sites, with another nine locations on the "tentative" list.

UNESCO's Veronique Dauge told CNN: "Iraq is a gorgeous country. It is probably one of the most pristine and extraordinary places in terms of history and remains. And it has huge potential in terms of tourism."

Not tempted yet? Here are four historical sites that might entice the most intrepid of travelers to visit Iraq.

1. Babylon

This ancient city on the banks of the Euphrates River is more than four thousand years old and was once the home of Nebuchadnezzar, who built the Hanging Gardens, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

"Babylon is definitely impressive," Dauge told CNN. "It's known throughout the world.

"Even the casual tourist has some collective memory of a place like Babylon, when you talk about people like Nebuchadnezzar."

Located 88 kilometers (55 miles) south of Baghdad, Babylon was extensively reconstructed by Saddam Hussein, meaning little of the original city is visible.

But travelers who make the journey can also stay in one of Saddam's old palaces that is now a hotel Video.

2. Hatra

About 112 kilometers (70 miles) south-west of Mosul in northern Iraq, the ruined city of Hatra is a picture postcard of sand-colored pillars and arches that recall ancient Greece and Rome.

The capital of the first Arab Kingdom, it became a major religious center of the Parthian Empire and withstood attacks from the Romans in the second century A.D.

3. Ashur

Also known as Assur, this is a truly ancient city, dating back to the third millennium BC, making it more than four thousand years old. It's located about 97 kilometers (60 miles) south of Mosul and was the first capital of the Assyrian Empire and a center of international trade.

There's not much left of Ashur -- hardly surprising given its age -- but the mud-brick foundations of temples and palaces offer a tantalizing glimpse of the dawning of the Assyrian Empire.

The ruins lie in a beautiful landscape by the side of the Tigris River.

4. Samarra Archaeological City

Samarra was capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, which once ruled an empire stretching from Tunisia to Central Asia.

Situated 129 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, the site spans 40 kilometers (25 miles) in all. Highlights include the largest palaces in the Islamic world and the ninth-century Great Mosque, with its famous spiral Malwiya minaret.

The site has suffered since the 2003 invasion, while an explosion damaged the winding ramps of the Malwiya minaret in 2005, Dauge said.

But remember the risks ...

Especially as the region between Mosul and Samarra is still one of the more dangerous parts of the country.

That serves to remind us why so few tourists travel to Iraq: The ancient land may have a wealth of archaeological attractions, but there's no denying it's a dangerous place.

The U.S. Department of State warns that "numerous insurgent groups remain active throughout Iraq" and "recommends against all but essential travel within the country."

And some of Iraq's biggest attractions are in dangerous regions. Babylon, Samara and Ashur are all located in areas where the British Foreign Office advises against travel.

Tipton told CNN: "If you travel to parts of the country where the Foreign Office advises against travel, quite apart from putting yourself at risk, your insurance would not cover you if you were to have some kind of incident."

Until security improves, Iraq will remain a fringe destination. But where the trailblazers dare to travel, the camera-toting hordes often follow.

But Dauge said Iraq's development as a tourist destination could help rebuild the country's economy.

"It has to be very carefully controlled," she said. "It can create disasters, but it can also be very good in terms of economic development and improving the living conditions of the communities."