French tour group breathes new life into Iraq's rich past

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The Independent Online

Staring out at the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu with the sun beating down in the midst of the Iraqi desert, Philippe Cousin breathlessly exclaims, "It's extraordinary.

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The retired French engineer's family, even his country's foreign ministry, urged him not to make the trip for security reasons but, he says, "I just had to see this with my own eyes."

Cousin is travelling with 18 others as part of the first French tour group to visit Iraq since 2003. On the itinerary are the ancient cities of Ur, Babylon and Uruk, sites regarded as the birthplace of civilisation that few foreigners have seen since the US-led invasion of that year.

"This really stirs up the emotions," murmurs Cousin as Catherine Sudre, one of the group's four guides, recalls Girsu's history, and details of Sumerian gods and goddesses and various legends that have influenced biblical stories such as those of the Great Flood and of Cain and Abel.

"Everyone would love to see these sights, but they are afraid, they say it is impossible to visit such a country," the tall white-haired 65-year-old says. "We know that we are pioneers, but other people probably think we are crazy."

Ur, the biblical birthplace of Abraham, "is extraordinary, it's amazing, it's moving," says Christiane Leroy Prost, a 65-year-old academic.

"We've all been dreaming of seeing places like this since we were kids when we read stories and legends about the Middle East."

The idea of organising the tours of Iraq originated with Hubert Debbasch, an entrepreneur and founder of Terre Entiere, a cultural and religious tours operator.

"Iraq has a concentration of sites with religious or spiritual importance, whether they be Christian, Muslim or Jewish," the 44-year-old says.

"We are in the cradle of civilisation, the birthplace of writing."

For Debbasch, the trip has political significance as well.

"I detest how some countries are portrayed as evil and others as good - the best way to close the gap is to build bridges with human contact."

However, security is a major concern in a country where violence, though down from its peaks in 2006 and 2007, remains high. In May, 337 people were killed as a result of attacks, according to government figures.

As a result, the group was forced to fly into neighbouring Kuwait and drive up to the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriyah, a 370-kilometre (230-mile) trip.

Baghdad, however, is out of bounds.

"Too dangerous," Debbasch remarks. "The south, contrary to what the foreign ministry believes, is a peaceful region. If I had even the slightest doubt, I would cancel the whole thing."

The group, made up of adventurers or passionate historians, is taking precautions, though, and travels with a security detail made up of three Iraqi police officers.

In Tello, 50 kilometres north of Nasiriyah, their bus abruptly comes to a halt when their security team spots a motorcycle parked in the middle of the road ahead.

"Our police officer is going to go by himself to check that the motorcycle does not have a bomb," Debbasch tells the travellers, before a false alarm is declared.

Iraq has acknowledged that tourism is a crucial potential source of income for provinces that lack oil resources or modern religious shrines, but the industry has yet to take off, with security remaining the main concern.

The country is already a well-known destination for religious travel for Muslims from near neighbours such as Iran, Pakistan and Bahrain. In 2008, it hosted almost one million tourists, mostly from the Middle East.

But in a bid to attract visitors from further afield, Iraqi officials held an event in London in November. As premier attractions, they touted Babylon and the Garden of Eden, which some historians say is located 80 kilometres north of the port city of Basra.

The French group's nine-day trip costs 2,500 euros (3,025 dollars), while a visit organised last year by a British company, the first officially approved tour since the invasion, was pegged at several thousand pounds (dollars).

Sudre, the tour guide, acknowledges that travel to Iraq remains inaccessible for most holiday-makers.

"Tourism in Iraq is really designed for people who already have knowledge of the country," she says. "I shouldn't say this, but I don't think customers of FRAM (a popular French travel agency) will be coming here. It's not the same audience."

Even so, familiarity with the region did not stop some of the travellers from offending locals. During a break for lunch, two female members of the group waded into the Tigris river to cool off, wearing sleeveless tops, which residents of the nearby village found unacceptable.

"You have to cover your shoulders - we are starting to get into trouble," Debbasch warns.

Despite the concerns, local Iraqis welcomed the visit, with the surrounding province's governor even joining the group aboard their tour bus to personally welcome them.

"My good friends, you are the first tour group to visit the land of our ancestors," Dhi Qar chief Taleb al-Hassan says. "We ask you to pass along the message to others who wish to come."

And during a pre-arranged visit with locals in Shatra, the nearest town to Girsu, crowds gather "to see the French".

"I heard that they were here, so I hurried to come and take pictures," says Mohammed Sahib Ali, 38.

Maurice Gaziellio, who made the trip with his wife Elisabeth, notes: "In terms of emotions, this trip has been very powerful."

"We've been to the Louvre, to Berlin, to the British Museum, and none of it compares to seeing these sights for yourself."

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