Day Trip to Basra

Basra third largest city in Iraq

We had visas and letters of introduction and were quickly ushered towards the diplomatic booth, the guard look at the ink smudged pages of my passport with a bemused smirk and called to his colleague for guidance, the advice was simple, just stamp them in. He did and we were.

As frontiers go Basra international airport was a breeze and minutes later we were driving through one of the most depressing landscapes the Middle East has to offer. The road potholed and broken, shops shuttered, orange flames and plumes of black smoke rise from refinery towers, silhouette of derricks against a filthy sky.

There are not many reasons to come to Basra these days, war and oil being the obvious ones, the taxi driver was asking why we were here, which company he asked several times, engineers he questioned, no sir, we are archaeologists.

I am not an archaeologist. My companions though were and it was their connections with the antiquities ministry that granted our papers. I quite liked saying I was an archaeologist and tried it out a few times at check points. In my time working across the Middle East I had used a number of nom deplumes, poet, actor, artist, once at hole in the fence crossing from Qamisli in Syria to Nusybin in Turkey the Syrian guard asked me to paint his portrait, I gulped but he gave a garrulous belly laugh, slapped me on the back and waved me through, better stick to poet I thought that time. Archaeologist had a ring of Indiana about it and I have been thinking about hats ever since.

Basra was deserted, we drove through shanty suburbs with streets empty, a mangy dog and few nervous cats, I walked the along the corniche beside the Shat Al Arab, a rat scrambled over packets of biscuits on sale inside a kiosk, I wasn’t hungry. I sat and chatted with an old guy fishing, he was cheerful and happy for me to sit with him, rusting wrecks and old pleasure cruisers were moored near-by, a hint of history and a more prosperous past, black flags were fluttering on the far bank, rubbish was clogging the water below the pier we were sitting on, any fish? I asked my new friend-I didn’t catch his name, some he said but very small, I think he was killing time more than expecting to catch his lunch. I glanced at the modern bridge spanning the waterway, built by the Italians he explained, very big he said proudly, very expensive. There was little else around that promised progress and little sign of promised prosperity. Its been 15 years since the fall of Saddam and 11 years since the British military turned tail and abandoned Basra to the Mahdi army and while the fighting has stopped the sad mess that survives is one fueled by oil greed and tribal domination, street protests are now common.

Basra third largest city in Iraq

The map made the stroll to Basra Museum seem simple enough so I left the fishermen and wandered off, the solid concrete blast wall outside the Basra International Hotel was a canvas of halcyon images, a mural of Mesopotamian Marsh life, the wetlands thought to be the Garden of Eden are now as far from Paradise as they could be, as I would find out in the coming days.

Basra third largest city in Iraq

I reached a checkpoint and deflected the questions with the aloofness of visiting professor, archeologist on my way to the museum I smiled, they check my bag and were very impressed by the size of my camera and soon had me snapping selfies. It tends to be like this in the Middle East, checkpoints can go one of two ways.


Past the checkpoint the street became wider, more water filled potholes, rubbish filled wasteland, more military, I walked alone and kept my camera in my bag. Suddenly the sound of boots and gasps of hht hht hht across the road, a small platoon of soldiers all had their weapons trained on me, one behind the other they snaked out of the gate of a tennis court, it took me a few seconds to process what was happening and bring a smile to my face and resist the temptation to get my camera out, just a training exercise of Iraqi army volunteers, they raided an abandoned building and I went to the museum.

Housed in what was once one of Saddams palaces, the museum opened in 2016 with help and support from the British Council and British Museum, I pushed the large wooden doors open and walked into the main hall with glass cases with pottery, coins and artifacts that date back as far as the first millennium BC. The importance of the archeological heritage of Iraq cannot be underestimated and the small museum in an almost forgotten Iraqi city is small sign of hope. I would later drink coffee with the indefatigable director Qahtan Alabeed who deserves so much credit for this beacon of light in such a dark place.

Basra Museum

Outside the heavens open and a deluge not seen since Noah, I splash my way towards the hotel, soaked to the skin a car pulls up beside me and the driver tells me to jump in as if kidnapping was not an actual threat.

What are you doing man he says as I drip all over his upholstery, its like summer in England I tell him with a smile, yeah, he says but are the roads this fucked? We weave around the rapidly flooding road, we pass the Italian bridge that leads to Iran now just a faint outline in the mist, I think of Sinbad who set sail from Basra in the time of Harun al Rashid as we pass a listing Dhow moored in the dirty Shatt al Arab, Sinbad battled many monsters in his quest to right wrongs, the British took his name in 2006 as they set out to right the wrongs created by the invasion of Iraq, Sinbad is a myth and Basra is a mess.


The driver pulls up outside my hotel and we chat a while longer, an old woman shrouded in black is standing in the middle of the street begging from cars passing on either side of her. Sistani saved Iraq the driver re-iterates, Sistani not Sinbad then.

Basra was a bustling hub of global trade in the 1950s, elegant villas and tree lined boulevards, the British writer and traveler Gavin Young was working in a shipping office then when he met the legend that is Wilfred Thesiger,Thesiger was headed to the Marshes and Young was keen for adventure and tried to persuade Thesiger to take him along, I will be back in six weeks for a bath said Thesiger, come with me then.

I too am headed to the Marshes and will be back for my bath very soon.

While you are here:

I have added two new sections to the blog so please take a look:

Safe House  and Travel with lots more content on its way.

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57 thoughts on “Day Trip to Basra

  1. I used to live and work in Basra with the UN in 2003 following the pointless invasion. My office was in the same palace that is now the museum. We had so much hope then. For Iraq and for Basra. The reality of what has become of this incredible land and its people is maddening and heartbreaking. The war should never have been perpetrated on the Iraqi people. It’s awful that no one is accountable and a whole country suffers till now. Thanks for the blog. It brings back bittersweet memories. Stay safe. Brigitte xx

    1. “. . . maddening and heartbreaking. The war should never have been perpetrated on the Iraqi people. It’s awful that no one is accountable and a whole country suffers till now.” I absolutely agree.

    2. Despite the awfulness it must have been a fascinating time Brigitte. 2003 was the time I moved to Damascus and started to cover the refugee crisis, mostly for UNHCR.
      In Iraq now after so long there are glimmers of hope and your old office becoming a museum is one of them, but yes, accountability.
      I should be headed back in the autumn.
      Thank you-keep in touch

  2. lynette wich

    *Lynette Wich* *Art Department Coordinator / 9-1-1 Year 2 /** Fox Television /**310.969.5879o / 808.222.8775c*

    On Sat, Feb 9, 2019 at 3:58 AM John Wreford Photographer wrote:

    > johnwreford posted: ” We had visas and letters of introduction and were > quickly ushered towards the diplomatic booth, the guard look at the ink > smudged pages of my passport with a bemused smirk and called to his > colleague for guidance, the advice was simple, just stamp them ” >

  3. Great to hear back from you John. Incredible how Basra has fallen in the cracks of history from those days of British occupation.

    What’s up with the Mid East and rubbish? Everywhere I went – Egypt Oman Palestine EAU Jordan Lebanon – it’s the same story. Rubbish everywhere, people tossing bottles without a care in the world. I remember arriving in Israel and thanking the first street sweeper I’ve seen. I understand poverty plays a part, but the utter lack of respect for the common good is disheartening.


  4. Anyone who mentions Thesinger in passing in a post about Iraq is worth a second and third read, especially with the breaking Assange development. Your insights into that part of the Arab world, including of course El Sham, are deep, and a refreshing departure from the usual lazy Instagramy, cursory tourist take on a world they barely understand. The photography is, as usual, stunning; but what is surprising is the quality of the prose: it is, in a word, superb. That a whole cadre of American neocons, and yes, our own dear Tony, were not hauled off before the ICC is one of life’s mysteries. I look forward to wading more deeply into your blog over the summer, before I decamp for the Minho region in Northern Portugal..By the way, not that this has anything to do with your Basra post, but I was banned last week on Twitter for calling Ivanka a fucking clueless cunt (which I meant in only the casual British sense), when she praised Sisi, on the eve of his US visit a few days ago, as a champion of women’s rights in Egypt. I dittoed the same response to Rees Mogg, when he expressed the hope that Brexiteer UK MEPs create havoc in the EU parliament. I guess a Trumpian platform, whose second (or is it first?) largest shareholder is a totally not corrupt Saudi princeling, has its principles and high standards. Nice to have a WordPress blog, where no Overlordian bot censors what you have to say. But I digress: great “post” — and hope your were able to find a commercial venue for your excellent photographs!

    1. Alibey
      Well congrats on the twitter ban! The word cunt is still somewhat emotive.
      My blog is very much a sounding board for my writing, honestly I don’t give it a great deal of time and attention although I should, so compliments are much appreciated
      Thank you
      Hope the moving is going well

      1. Hi John, The move is off. The voyage is now internal. Both body and web site being re-upped. German sheppie pup on the way. What got Twitter was not the usage of this term, but the fact that I used it 5 times in rapid succession against various political actors. The experiment workedl The Twit bot picked it up. I no longer read this platform — and focus instead on the many other things this world has has to offer beyond an obsession with an orange — how shall I put this? — fascist cunt.

  5. Great post ~ how I would like to travel to Basra and just see this land… very sad, but still a spectacular place with a history and culture almost unmatched. Superb photos.

    1. Thank you Janet
      Yes Qahtan is an amazing and dedicated chap. Actually there are many hard working Iraqis that tend not to get much attention but are working so hard for the future of Iraq

  6. In depth insight and images of a world few Americans see or understand. Thank you. And thank you for taking the time to read and like my post Remains of the Daze. Though from my heart, it feels almost trivial after reading this.

  7. I really love this kind of photos, they show the daily life of places that are mostly know by headlines of war. So thank you for presenting Basra in this way. To me this is powerfull photography and writing

  8. I had been away for much too long. Thanks for checking out my latest post and reminding me that there’s a whole world out there… Your photographs and stories take me there. Fascinating! Glad to re-connect.

  9. Pingback: How travel narrative blogging has changed over the last decade

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