My visit to Mosul after the liberation

is Mosul safe to visit

After going through that last checkpoint controlled by the Shia militia of Hashd al-Shaabi, we knew that we had finally entered Iraq, I mean Iraq proper.

That had been my third visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, but I had never managed to get into Arab Iraq and, now that we were there, it did feel very different, way more Arab, despite being so close to the Kurdish city of Erbil.

Upon our arrival in Mosul, we drove through a lively, busy bazaar where Iraqis seemed to be going with their normal lives. If it wasn’t for the several Iraqi soldiers patrolling the streets with their submachine guns, we would have never known that we were in a former war zone.

Our arrival in Mosul

We had entered Mosul from the east side, an area which had not been destroyed during the Battle of Mosul but then, we got ourselves ready to cross over the Tigris River to the west side of town, getting into the Old City of Mosul, the last ISIS bastion. It was all bloody destruction.

Yet, among those piles of rubble, there were signs that life was slowly coming back.

I visited Mosul in 2021, almost 4 years after its liberation, and here I want to tell you about my experience.

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A brief history of Mosul

You will be definitely interested in my Syria travel guide

In 2014, the unrecognized proto-state of the Islamic State took over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city

That had been their biggest military achievement so far, leaving them so close to controlling Baghdad. Mosul, a city whose existence had remained largely unknown by most of the Western world, was suddenly taking up headlines that filled the front pages from each and every newspaper worldwide.

The entire world was on the rack, looking in puzzlement at how powerful ISIS had become.

Nevertheless, travelers should know that Mosul has been a relevant city for a couple of thousand years. Inhabited since 6000 BC, its outskirts were the place where the city of Nineveh was founded in 1800 BC, the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and the largest city in the world for quite a few decades.

Bash Tapia Castle Mosul
Bash Tapia Castle is more than 800 years old

It wasn’t until the 7th century BC though, after the fall of Nineveh, that today’s Mosul gained significant importance, when it became a commercial center, linking Assyria and Anatolia.

Mosul literally means link, since it was the trading hub that linked many destinations in all directions.

For the following centuries and given its strategic importance, Mosul became part of several empires, including Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian and Sassanid, until it was annexed by the Arabs (Umayyad Empire) in the 7th century, becoming the capital of Mesopotamia.

From then, Mosul developed exponentially, but it never stopped being a yummy target for conquerors and, after being destroyed by the Mongols, it became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. They ruled for more than 400 years until it passed to British rule in 1918. Iraq became independent in 1932.

Overlooking the historical Tigris river and a destroyed bridge from a 12th century castle

Due to its long history, Mosul was one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse cities in the Middle East, home not only to Arabs but also Kurds, Yazidis, Armenians, Turks and Shabakis, among others. Most of them were Sunni Muslims but there were also Christians, Shia, Yazidis, Sufis and people practicing minor religions such as Yarsanism or Mandeism.

Mosul has been an unsafe city since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Because of the ISIS take over in 2014, nowadays Mosul isn’t the diverse city that it used to be.

trip to Mosul
This is Sadam Hussein mosque, today called Grand Mosque of Mosul. Its construction began during Sadam’s regime, in the 80s, but it has never been finished


Mosul today: our experience visiting the city

I also visited Aleppo shortly after the liberation

We had not even reached the first checkpoint but most buildings along the road were totally destroyed, which made us realize the power and influence of ISIS, whose territory had extended into Kurdistan itself.

Reconstruction, however, had begun. Brand-new buildings already rose among the rubble, plus many shops were already in business, including a recently open liquor store we found shortly after going through the last checkpoint, in Iraq proper.

Things have changed a lot since my last visit less than one year ago – our guide said

We celebrated our arrival in Iraq by stopping and taking the usual photo with the I Love Mosul signboard, located on a roadside somewhere in the Mosul suburbs. Exciting moments.

I love Mosul

Upon our arrival in downtown, the first thing we noticed was that Mosul is a city that is guarded by heavily armed soldiers. Fierce soldiers with stern looks on their faces but, surprisingly, the ones belonging to the Iraqi Army were actually pretty relaxed and usually, more than happy to take some photos with anyone who asked.

Mosul trip
Posing with the Iraqi Army

It wasn’t the same with the Shia militias though. As you may know, Iraq is very polarized, both Sunnis and Shia struggling to rule one over the other, and militias are powerful armed groups representing the Shia community in Iraq.

The problem in Mosul, however, is that the Shia community is very small but, since these militias were prominent in the Battle of Mosul, fighting along with the Government forces and the International Alliance, they decided to stay here against everyone’s will. They have filled the city walls with Shia propaganda and their presence is only adding unnecessary tension among the local people.

To avoid any trouble, don’t even look at them, because they may ask a lot of questions and you are not technically allowed to be here – my guide said

Visiting the East Bank of the river

Mosul is divided into two parts, separated by the historical Tigris River. Coming from Erbil, we entered from the east side of the river, which just looked like a typical Iraqi or Arab city, with impersonal unpainted buildings, bazaars, shawarma stalls and loads of people, like completely packed.

Mosul today
Mosul city center

Obviously, the east bank also belonged to ISIS but it seemed to be relatively untouched, probably because there wasn’t any intense fighting here, unlike in the Old City of Mosul.

Perhaps, the most interesting part of our trip to Mosul was visiting the bazaar which, according to our guide, was nearly as bustling as it used to be before.

A fire extinguisher shop Mosul
A fire extinguisher shop
A coffee stall in Mosul’s bazaar

Cotton candy stalls and balloon sellers were a clear sign of recovery but also the occasional young lady without hijab and relatively tight clothes, something rare to see in one of the most conservative cities in Iraq.

mosul bazaar
The bazaar of Mosul

Besides the bazaar, the east bank of the river is home to some of the most important places to visit in the Middle East, including the Assyrian ruins (city of Nineveh) and the 12th-century Mosque of the Prophet Jonah (Yunus), which is also his tomb.

Both sites were blown up by ISIS.

Lunch in Mosul, traditional foul


Visiting the West Bank of the Tigris river

The West Bank of the river is connected by 5 bridges which were all destroyed during the fierce battle. Today, nonetheless, they have put a temporary fix on a few of them, so we could easily cross into the Old City of Mosul.

Mosul’s Old City is sobering. Being one of the oldest neighborhoods in the Middle East, this was the last ISIS stronghold, so it was completely wiped out in a matter of weeks, and the several-hundred-year-old buildings were all destroyed.

is Mosul safe
The Old City of Mosul

We visited the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, the oldest mosque in Mosul (12th century), today under reconstruction. This is where the historical ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-declared the ISIS caliphate, the first and only time he ever appeared in public.

al Noori Mosque Mosul
This is al Noori Mosque in Mosul

Another highlight was visiting the Synagogue of Mosul which despite being damaged, did survive the bombings. The Islamic radicals knew the USA would not dare to bomb it directly, so they used it to store their ammunition.

Sinagogue Mosul
The sinagogue of Mosul

Nevertheless, the most interesting part wasn’t those piles of rubble but witnessing the ongoing reconstruction that is encouraging many people to finally come back, Iraqis full of hope who are slowly opening their falafel and fruit stalls, as well as other businesses.

Interesting to mention is the area in which an NGO has contributed to building a set of souvenir shops where they sell stylish handicrafts, fridge magnets, and stuff like that. I actually bought a Mosul bag for going to the beach 🙂

We finished our visit in Bash Tapia Castle, a 12th-century fortress overlooking the Tigris river, also partially destroyed by ISIS.

A souvenir shop in Mosul


Practical information for your visit to Mosul

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Overlooking the Tigris river in Mosul


Can you go to Mosul?

Yes, nowadays, Mosul is open for visitors.

Nonetheless, the situation remains quite tense and the different members of the Iraqi Army and Shia militias may not get the idea of a foreigner visiting Mosul for tourism purposes, not yet.

If you are traveling to Mosul with a guide, you won’t have any problem. Nevertheless, for independent travelers, it’s recommended to have a local contact to show you around, but having a guide is not mandatory.

#I>3MOSUL


How to go to Mosul

There are two ways of going to Mosul, from Kurdistan and from anywhere in Iraq proper.

Traveling to Mosul from Erbil (Kurdistan)

Warning – This option is not entirely legal and this post is merely informative, so you will always be fully responsible for yourself.

As you may know, a visa for traveling to Kurdistan doesn’t allow you to travel in Iraq proper, and vice-versa. While it’s true that since March 2021, Iraq is finally issuing visas on arrival, you can’t get one if coming from Erbil by road for the simple reason that there isn’t an actual border between Iraq and Kurdistan.

There isn’t a border because it’s the same country, so there isn’t any immigration staff, but only military checkpoints, hence you can’t get a visa.

That’s why the only way of getting into Iraq from Kurdistan is to make your way through all those checkpoints and for that, you will need the help of an expert local guide who knows exactly what to tell those guys in order to let you in.

There are 4 checkpoints in total: 2 controlled by the Kurds, 1 by the Iraqi Army and 1 by the Shia militia. My guide had a different speech for each one of them and generally, the more Arab you look the better, but he has been successful with people of all skin tonalities and nationalities.

My guide was Haval Qaraman. You can contact him, no problem, but be aware that he doesn’t travel to Mosul with anyone, but only trustworthy or experienced travelers.

Anyways, Erbil is only 90km from Mosul, and the journey is a pleasant 2-hour ride. We left at 8am and came back to Erbil at 6pm. Haval doesn’t do overnight trips, and I don’t think there is any guide who does if entering from Kurdistan.

Traveling to Mosul from anywhere in Iraq

As I said, you can now get an Iraqi VOA if arriving via any of its international airports, which allows you to move freely and independently around the country.

Mosul is the second-largest city in Iraq, so there is plenty of transportation from any city in the country.

Where to stay in Mosul

Al Sultan Palace Hotel (فندق قصر السلطان) is one of the few decent options in town. They typically charge 60,000 dinars per night.

Is Mosul safe?

Is it safe to travel to Mosul?

Mosul was liberated from ISIS back in 2017 and those ISIS members who weren’t killed were put in prison.

Today, Mosul does feel like a safe city where life is slowly going back to normal but, according to some locals, there might be what they call sleepy ISIS, meaning former ISIS supporters living there in secrecy.

Nobody knows, really, but being extra careful would be wise. Don’t walk alone night and stuff like that, as you would do in the rest of Iraq.

Want to read more travel stories?

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6 comments

  1. Hey Joan,
    Awesome trip! I was looking into doing this exact day trip. How much did Haval charge you for doing this?
    Best,
    Peter

  2. Diego Jesus Sogorb Martinez

    Hi Joan,
    You’re so brave doing these trips, I keep reading your posts and getting amazed of how artfully you get around safe and sound. Keep posting but please make sure you’re safe.
    Best,
    Diego

  3. Hello Joan!!!!
    Interesting trip( all your trip are interesting).Thanks.
    I Hope travel to Kurdistan soon( failed travel 2017 , when the independence referendun and Iraqui goverment close the air space and airport).
    I wait you write about your travel to Afghanista!!!please!!! , my number one in the countries to Know list.
    Thanks for tell us about your trav

    1. Hi Pablo! Oh, yeah, that time was crazy when they closed the whole country! If you are interested, I am bringing 2 groups in November and March:
      https://againstthecompass.com/en/against-the-compass-expedition-iraqi-kurdistan-2/
      https://againstthecompass.com/en/against-the-compass-expedition-iraqi-kurdistan/

      About Afghanistan, I am currently writing the first piece 🙂 I don’t think now it’s a good time to travel there, however, but let’s see how the situation evolves in the upcoming months

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