A Day Trip to Mosul, Visiting Iraq’s Destroyed City
Updated November 2023, A Day Trip to Mosul, Visiting Iraq’s Destroyed City was originally published in July 2022
Mosul has an outstanding history that stretches back to 6000 BC, coming to significance in 1800 BC when it became the ancient capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire- the City of Nineveh. Nineveh would go on to be an important city spanning several empires. But unfortunately in more recent years Mosul is most famously known for its destruction at the hands of ISIS and their 2014-2017 occupation.
Because Mosul has such a long history, it was one of Iraq’s (and arguably the Middle East region’s) most diverse cities, hosting an amalgamation of ethnic groups and religions. This isn’t as much the case these days following the mass exodus and murders of Mosul inhabitants during the ISIS occupation of Mosul.
Despite the horrors that went on in Mosul during those years under terror and the bloody Battle of Mosul, the residents of Mosul are starting to sift through the rubble Old Mosul was reduced to and piece it slowly back together.
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How to Get to Mosul
How We Did it: Hiring a Driver (No Guide)
I’ll preface this by saying that we took the easy option of arranging a driver named Mohammad Sabhan, who picked us up (me and my friend Brett) from our hotel in Erbil and brought us to and back from Mosul. In total it cost 200,000 IQD for the day trip.
We knew that we had to go through several checkpoints to get into Mosul and that if they discovered we were foreign at one of the checkpoints we may get turned around, so ultimately that helped us make the decision to hire a local driver for the day.
Note that the total travel time between Erbil and Mosul is about two hours, each way. From Baghdad, you can expect it to take five hours to reach Mosul.
Fully Independent using Public Transport
We had looked into making the Mosul day trip on our own using public transport and it is possible to do it, albeit with a little more legwork. We found out that there are minibusses (4,000 IQD) and shared taxis (10,000 IQD) that depart from Erbil to Mosul or that if we had wanted to come from Baghdad (we had thought about Baghdad-Mosul Erbil) shared taxis left the Allawi Garage for 25,000 IQD.
If you do opt to try to visit Mosul using public transport, just know that there is the possibility of getting turned around at a checkpoint if the officers working figure out that you’re foreign, so be prepared that this worst-case scenario may happen. It would be wise to have a sponsor in Mosul to help you out if you do get held up at a checkpoint. Check out the Iraqi Travellers Cafe group on Facebook to try and find a Mosul local who would be willing to sponsor you.
Taking a Guided Tour of Mosul
Note that the absolute easiest way of visiting and learning in-depth about Mosul is with a local Iraqi/Kurdish guide like Haval Qaraman who I met in Iraqi Kurdistan a few years ago, but you can expect this to cost in the realm of 360,000 IQD per person.
Crossing Through the Checkpoints to Mosul
We heard there were 4 checkpoints (2 Kurdish, 1 Iraqi Army, 1 Hasht al Sha’abi) to go into Mosul from Erbil, but we only went through 3 each way on our visit. Brett was checked at every checkpoint, I was not (it’s worth noting that no one really ever thought I was a foreigner when I’ve traveled around Iraq).
That said, you’re more likely to be checked at these checkpoints if you are male and if you look obviously non-Iraqi.
What Visa do you Need to Visit Mosul?
Since Mosul is in Iraq proper (or Southern Iraq, Arab Iraq, Federal Iraq…) and falls under the jurisdiction of Federal Iraq, you need an actual Iraq visa to visit Mosul. Those eligible for the visa on arrival in Iraq can easily get the Federal Iraq visa when entering Iraq at Baghdad, Najaf, or Basra Airports (note that the visa on arrival is not given at the Kurdish Airports in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah or at the land borders).
If you enter Iraq through Erbil or Sulaymaniyah Airports or at the Turkish or Iranian land borders with Iraqi Kurdistan, you will be given an Iraqi Kurdistan visa which will not permit you to enter Mosul, at least legally anyway. However, plenty of tourists have managed to visit Mosul with the help of a guide without an Iraq visa.
What We Visited in Mosul
East Bank of the Tigris
If you’re arriving from Erbil, then you’ll likely explore the east bank of the Tigris River first. This side was less devastated during the Battle of Mosul than the western bank. Highlights on the East Bank include the Tomb (Mosque) of the Prophet Yunus, Yunus Souk, the ancient Assyrian Ruins of Nineveh, and the Grand Mosque of Mosul (formerly Saddam’s Mosque).
Tomb of the Prophet Yunus
Our first stop as we arrived in Mosul was the 12th century Tomb of the Prophet of Yunus that sits perched atop a hill with grand views over the eastern side of the city (if coming from Erbil like we did this will be the first major site you’ll reach).
There is a gate you’ll need to unlock and drive through along the main road and then continue up the hill to a parking lot. Once at the lot you’ll meet the guard on duty here (this is where it helped to have a local driver as he knew the guard and was able to get us access as many times they do not want to let visitors in). The only condition on our entry was that we were not to take any photos of the destroyed structure (though eventually the guard caved and let us snap a few photos).
To be honest, not a lot of the tomb remains as most of it was reduced to rubble after ISIS blew it up during their occupation of Mosul. Some pieces of walls, broken arches, and parts of hallways remain and a couple of walls appear to have at least been rebuilt. The Tomb of Yunus was one of the few buildings that were heavily destroyed on the eastern side of the Tigris River in Mosul.
After we finished checking out the tomb and mosque, we exited out of a wrought iron gate and into a park where we walked down a staircase and across the street to go wander around the bazaar and have breakfast.
To be honest, I didn’t get the name of the souk here, but I’m calling it Yunus Souk since it sits just across the street from the tomb. It’s a covered souk selling just about anything you can imagine under the sun. It was quite bustling the morning we visited it and there were heaps of taxis swarming around it so it was clearly a major hub of Mosul.
Ancient Ninevah Assyrian Ruins
As mentioned earlier, Mosul (then called Nineveh) served as the ancient capital of Assyria and was at its zenith, the largest capital city in the world. Unfortunately, it’s not really possible to visit ancient Nineveh, though you can do as we did and visit the gate and walls to get a glimpse of what remains of the former city. Note that the site of ancient Nineveh was blown up by ISIS and damaged.
Archeological explorations led by Nicolò Marchetti of the University of Bologna and the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage are currently underway of the Assyrian site of Nineveh to restore and repair damaged and destroyed parts of the ancient city and to unearth more artifacts.
The Grand Mosque of Mosul (formerly Saddam’s Mosque)
Not far from ancient Nineveh and near the Tigris River is the unfinished Grand Mosque of Mosul. It is a Sunni mosque originally named Saddam’s Mosque after the nation’s long-time dictator.
Construction on the mosque was halted and has never been completed and from the sounds of it never will be as there is a general tendency all over Iraq to not continue work on anything that had to do with Saddam.
So the Grand Mosque of Mosul just sits in the middle of an empty dirt field with a couple of cranes looming over its cupolas. Note that you basically just have to admire the mosque from the main street.
West Bank of the Tigris
The Western Bank of the Tigris is a much more sobering experience, seeing the extent of the devastation reigned down on Mosul’s Old City’s historic buildings. This original core of Mosul is among the oldest neighborhoods in all of the Middle East.
Mosul’s Old City was Daesh’s last stronghold as forces took back the city and as such this section of the city was almost completely reduced to rubble.
Likely the first thing you’ll notice as you make your way to the other side of Mosul is the five bridges that cross the Tigris, connecting the east and west banks. Some of these bridges have been patched up enough for use again, but the scars of war are very present as much of the damage is still very much visible.
Old Mosul Souk
Upon crossing the Tigris, we first went to the Old Mosul Souk, parking the car in a lot by the river in order to explore the historic souk of Old Mosul before continuing on into the Old City.
Traditionally it would have been mostly agricultural products traded here in the Old Mosul Souk, but these days you can find just about anything your heart desires here. It’s quite a photogenic spot too as you will find that many locals (mostly men) will stop you to smile and pose for the camera and give you a warm ‘welcome to Mosul’.
Mosul Old City
As mentioned earlier, Mosul’s Old City is among the oldest neighborhoods in the world but sadly the Old City has been almost entirely reduced to rubble following the Battle of Mosul. As you wander the narrow lanes you’ll find structures still partially intact among piles of brick and ceramic.
One thing to note is that you will see that some people have moved back into some of the structures here in Old Mosul and it appears that some are making efforts to try and restore them.
There are countless old buildings, many of which are hundreds and even over 1,000 years old in Mosul’s Old City, here are just a few we made time to see:
Al Musfi Mosque
At over 1,000 years old, Al Musfi Mosque is among the oldest structures in Old Mosul. To be completely honest, it was my favorite of all the places we visited in Mosul on our day trip.
Passing under crumbling arches you’ll eventually reach the interior of the mosque, which on a sunny afternoon is perfectly lit through a high window.
Al Tahera Syriac Catholic Church
The Al Tahera Catholic Church was another of my favorite structures we visited in Mosul. Sadly Al Tahera Church was badly damaged by ISIS in its attempts to destroy cultural heritage to those they deemed heretics.
Al Tahera is a Syriac Catholic Church that’s construction began in 1859 and was completed in 1862. Reconstruction efforts are at least underway to help restore it as well as the other structures around it.
Great Mosque of Al Nuri
The Great Mosque of Al Nuri dates back to the 12th century and is one of the most important mosques in Mosul. The mosque was badly damaged and is under construction at this time, so you can see it from the outside but you cannot go in for obvious reasons.
Al Nuri Mosque climbed to fame yet again in 2014 when the first ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared the Islamic Caliphate from the mosque in his first and old public appearance.
Bash Tapia Castle
North of the Old City of Mosul, but still on the West Bank of the Tigris is the 12th century Bash Tapia Castle, sat high on a hill offering sweeping views over Mosul from a strategic high point. At its pinnacle, it was continuous with neighboring Qara Serai Palace holding soldiers and ammunitions.
Bash Tapia was damaged by Amir Timur’s army in 1393 and later rebuilt by the Ottomans. Much like the rest of Mosul’s West Bank, Bash Tapia was badly damaged during their reign over the city.
Qara Serai was built following the construction of Bash Tapia as a royal palace under Sultan Badruddin Lulu. The palace was quite spectacular fountains, statues, and gardens, though you’ll need to use your imagination as the palace has nearly rotted completely away following decades of neglect.
Al Imam Mohsin Mosque
Sitting just across the street from Bash Tapia and Qara Serai is Al Imam Mohsin Mosque, impossible to miss with its green cupola and striking minaret. The mosque was built atop the ruins of Madrasa Al Nuria in 1210 AD.
The mosque once housed the Tomb of Imam Al Mohsin, but it was destroyed by ISIS in 2014. You’ll have the best views of what remains of the mosque from Bash Tapia.
Where to Stay in Mosul
If you’re planning to spend the night in Mosul, the only hotel bookable online is the Royal City Hotel, located on the West Bank of the Tigris near the Grand Mosque of Mosul.
Where to Stay in Erbil
If you’re day-tripping to Mosul as we did, then you’re more than likely staying back in Erbil. In Erbil, we stayed at the Sinaia Palace Hotel and recommend it as it’s close enough to walk to many things and it was pretty cheap for Erbil.
Have any questions about visiting Mosul?
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