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Unexplored places to go when you visit Iraqi Kurdistan » Iraq (part 1)

Visit Iraqi Kurdistan

Visit the Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Visit the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Iraqi Kurdistan is known to almost all adventure travelers. Officially named Kurdistan Region of Iraq by the country’s constitution, it is an autonomous region located in northern Iraq.

As you probably guess, not many people travel to Iraq, so how come I decided to make a page about the off the beaten path destinations in Iraqi Kurdistan? Isn’t everything in this part of the world off the beat already?

Well, the fact is that in the past decade a few adventure travelers did go to Northern Iraq either independently or using tour companies, but the reality is that most people just want to check Iraq off their bucket list. Consequently, they end up visiting the same places they find mentioned on the Internet, without really exploring other destinations on their own.

Famous places in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq:

  • Erbil
  • Sulaymaniyah
  • Halabja
  • Dohuk
  • Amedi
  • Rawanduz

On this page, I focus on the least famous destinations in Iraqi Kurdistan: Archaeological Sites, Villages, Castles, Tombs, Palaces, Mountains, Canyons, Caves, and Lakes.

If you’re searching for the most conventional places to visit in Iraqi Kurdistan, check out my other travel guide to the region or my other pages about the southern parts of Iraq.

Kurdish region of Iraq political division

Unexplored places to go when you visit Iraqi Kurdistan » Iraq (part 1)

Presently, the Kurdish region of Iraq can be divided into three sections:

  1. Kurdistan region RED MAP (Dohuk Governorate, part of Erbil Governorate, part of Sulaymaniyah Governorate, Halabja Governorate);
  2. Disputed areas that make part of the Kurdish Regional Government since 1991 PINK MAP (part of Ninawa Governorate, part of Erbil Governorate, part of Sulaymaniyah Governorate, part of Diyala Governorate);
  3. Disputed areas under the control of the central government in Baghdad YELLOW MAP (part of Ninawa Governorate, Kirkuk Governorate, part of Salah ad-Din Governorate, part of Erbil Governorate, part of Sulaymaniyah Governorate, part of Diyala Governorate, and part of Wasit Governorate).

Some destinations on this page are located on disputed areas and under the control of the central government in Baghdad. Technically and by the Iraqi constitution, they don’t belong to the Kurdistan region, and are indeed controlled by the Iraqi Army and not by the Kurdish Peshmerga army. Because these regions are a kind of buffer zone, check-points are not as tight, and I was authorized to pass through driving my camper van. In some regions of Diyala, I was 15 km away from the line of fire against terrorist groups.

Iraqi Kurdistan Off the Beaten Path Destinations – Part 1

1. Bakrawa Archaeological Site

موقع تل بكراوا الأثري

Visit Bakrawa Archaeological Site
Visit Bakrawa Archaeological Site

This interesting ancient site dating back from the late Chalcolithic Period is a bit abandoned. You can explore the different excavation sites and go up the hill where you have a decent view of the whole area.

Ephraim Speiser discovered this site in 1927 and it was excavated for the first time by the Iraqi Directorate-General of Antiquities between 1959 and 1960.

Photos of Bakrawa Archaeological Site

2. Hawar Village


Visit Hawar village in Iraqi Kurdistan
Visit Hawar village in Iraqi Kurdistan

This small mountain village located near the Iranian border is the perfect off the beat destination for those who like isolated places with friendly people. Hawar is located in the region of Sulaymaniyah some 256 km (159 mi) North-East of Baghdad, the country’s capital.

Hawar is home to the Kakei people, a religious minority. Kakeis follow the Yarsan religion and are now represented with two seats in the Halabja Provincial Council.

Photos of Hawar village

3. Kalar


Visit Kalar in Iraqi Kurdistan
Visit Kalar in Iraqi Kurdistan

Kalar is a city located north of Baghdad in the province of Diyala near the Iranian border. Currently, the city has a population of 120,000 people.

One of the main reasons to visit Kalar is its picturesque Chirwan Castle on the shores of the Diyala River (Sirwan). It was built between 1866 and 1874 by Mohammed Pasha Jaf, who was the head of the Jaf tribe.

Photos of Kalar

4. Khanaqin


Visit Khanaqin in Iraqi Kurdistan
Visit Khanaqin in Iraqi Kurdistan

Khanaqin is a city in Diyala Governorate near the Iranian border. Khanaqin was subject to the Arabization policy of Saddam Hussein trying to overcome the majority Kurdish population so you will see many Arabs living among Kurds.

The majority of the town’s inhabitants are Shia Kalhor Kurds which are supposedly the most ancient of the Kurdish tribes (also on the Iranian side).

The Naft Khana oil field is located near the city. One of Khanaqin’s main attractions is the 100-year-old Lalonde Bridge located in the city center.

3 km north from the bridge you can also visit several interesting shrines in the cemetery of Alyawa village. Search for the peculiar underground shrine with green dome.

Photos of Khanaqin

5. The Vault Tomb of Sarqala

مدفن كردولكاة

Visit the Vault Tomb of Sarqala
Visit the Vault Tomb of Sarqala

The Mound Tomb of Sarqala is an archaeological site dating back to the Parthian period (57 BC – 19 AC) and was first excavated and reconstructed by a team from the Garmian Directorate of Antiquities in 2013.

I found this place as I found most places in the region. I saw a road sign and decided to explore on my own. It is rather a small complex but everything historical in Iraq is always worth to explore.

The vault tomb of Sarqala, located northeast Kifri town, to the west of Diyala River in Iraqi Kurdistan. This paper deal with archaeological excavation at Sarqala in the spring 2013, uncovered vault tomb, the tomb represents a rectangular room (5.10 x 4.80 m), its ceiling’s height (2.70 m) divided into four platforms, the width of each platform (ca. 0.65m). Above the platforms, there are two blind half-arch in southern and northern walls. There is a small gate in the western wall its width (0.75m). The vault tomb made from well-backed bricks. The walls and the ceiling covered with white plaster. We discovered 10 skeletons, 2 skeletons on each platform, and the last two skeletons are buried in two glazed ceramic sarcophaguses. in addition, numbers of different objects have been discovered in this vault tomb, including 12 Parthian coins, and some of golden earrings; rings, and necklace. Even more some other metal rings, belts, spearhead, blades, daggers, kohl jar, and 6 small glasses, 5 ceramic jars which burnished with turquoise glaze, …etc.

The Parthian Vault-tomb in Sarqala in Iraqi Kurdistan
(Preliminary report on the Results of the Archaeological Excavation page 72)

Photos of the vault tomb of Sarqala

6. Kifri


Visit Kifri in Iraqi Kurdistan
Visit Kifri in Iraqi Kurdistan

Kifri is a town in the north of the Diyala Governorate. The original citizens of Kifri are Turkmen but it all changed with enforced Arabization in the 1980s and Kurdization policies from 2003 onwards. So while walking in the city center, you will notice all these three groups living side by side.

During the Babylonian era, Kifri city was the center of an independent state called “the state of Chimash“. While you visit Kifri you will notice a large number of road signs directing to the several exhisting historical places.

Places to visit in Kifri: the Manmade Caves, the cemetery with historical graves, the Bawa Shaswar Dam, the Quldar Mill, the Qazi Watermill, the Tomb of Dakhmat, and Kifri Qaysari (market).

Photos of Kifri

7. Mahmud Pasha Jaf Palace

قصر محمود باشا جاف

Visit Mahmud Pasha Jaf Palace in Iraqi Kurdistan
Visit Mahmud Pasha Jaf Palace in Iraqi Kurdistan

Mahmud Pasha Jaf Palace dating from the 19th century is located west of Tazade village 18 km northeast of Kalar. This palace came as a total surprise and was one of my Iraqi Kurdistan trip’s highlights.

There are two buildings: the upper one was the storehouse and the barn, and the lower one was the main palace built in 1885. It is a bit hard to find but totally worth the effort.

Photos of Mahmud Pasha Jaf Palace

8. Bamo Mountains

جبل بامو

Visit Bamo Mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan
Visit Bamo Mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan

Just on the division between Diyala and Sulaymaniyah Governorate lies Bamo Mountain. Be careful not to look too suspicious because the border is just a step away, and the Iraqi army will stop you to ask questions.

This incredible mountain range is the perfect spot to make a picnic. On Friday and Saturday this place gets filled up with local families that come to enjoy nature while day camping, cooking and spending quality time together.

Photos of Bamo Mountain

9. Sartak Canyon Road

الوادي في طريق سارتاك

Visit Sartak in Iraqi Kurdistan
Visit Sartak in Iraqi Kurdistan

Sartak Road is the way to Iran. Arriving there will make you cross the incredible Sartak Canyon that instantly impresses with its steep rocky walls.

To get to Sartak, you have to pass a first bridge check-point near the main road, and consequently check-in at the border patrol office. Take into consideration that the Iranian frontier is just a couple km away. If the customs police approve your stay, try to visit the Tombs of Horen and the old Sartak fortress, on the cliff above the police compound.

Photos of Sartak Road

10. The tomb of Sheikh Jibril

مقبرة شيخ جبريل

Visit the tomb of Sheikh Jibril in Iraqi Kurdistan
Visit the tomb of Sheikh Jibril in Iraqi Kurdistan

Another unknown highlight of my trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. While traversing empty fields to get to Darband-i-Belula I came across a road sign pointing out to a certain important man’s grave.

Obviously, I decided to explore further and came out to discover an ancient cemetery with very photogenic surroundings and historical graves dating a few centuries back.

Photos of the tomb of Sheikh Jibril

11. The rock-relief of Darband-i-Belula

منحوتة دربند بيلولة

Visit Darband-i-Belula in Iraqi Kurdistan
Visit Darband-i-Belula in Iraqi Kurdistan

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is full of surprises, and what I am about to show you changed my perspective of how this region is often seen as a place without any historical interest comparing to the rest of Iraq.

While crossing the bridge check-point before Sartak, the army man told me to search for Belula. I didn’t really know what to look for until I actually saw the road sign.

After going up the rocky mountain and spending almost 30 minutes searching for the old rock-relief, I had the help of two friendly army guys that came for my rescue and showed me the exact place of this hidden historic treasure.

The Darband-i-Belula rock-relief dates back to the late 2nd millennium BC and represents the victory over the king’s enemies.

Photos of the rock-relief of Darband-i-Belula

12. Yasin Tepe

Visit Yasin Tepe in Iraqi Kurdistan
Visit Yasin Tepe in Iraqi Kurdistan

There are a few of these mount tombs near Darbandikhan Lake. They are totally integrated with the landscape.

Yasin Tepe was excavated by the Iraqi Directorate-General of Antiquities in 1973. Yasin Tepe burrial mound dates back from 3000 years BC.

Photos of Yasin Tepe

13. Darbandikhan Lake

سد دربندخان

Visit Darbandikhan Lake in Iraqi Kurdistan
Visit Darbandikhan Lake in Iraqi Kurdistan

Beautiful Darbandikhan Lake is an artificial dam using the waters flowing from the Sirwan river. Accessible by road from Darbandikhan city and through the villages of Ulwur and Zimnakaw, Darbandikhan Lake shores are the perfect stop for a weekend pic-nic with the family, like most local people do.

Photos of Darbandikhan Lake

14. The rock-relief of Darband-i-Gawir

منحوتة دربند كاور

Visit Darband-i-Gawir rock-relief in Iraqi Kurdistan
Visit Darband-i-Gawir rock-relief in Iraqi Kurdistan

My App pointed out another rock-relief that I couldn’t refuse to visit. A bit out of the main road and deep into the countryside towards dangerous Kirkuk Governorate, I decided to engage myself in finding this ancient site.

Darband-i-Gawir can be found 45 km south of Sulaymaniyah city within the Goshan Valley in the Qaradagh area. The rock-reliefs are around 4000 years old and depict the statue of the Naram-Sin, the Akkadian King who ruled from 2254-2218 BC.

After we arrive at an isolated parking lot, we have to trek 20 minutes inside the canyon. I love history, so this was possibly one of the most interesting places I visited in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Photos of the rock-relief of Darband-i-Gawir

15. The Rock Catacomb of Qiz Qapan

منحوتة قزقابان

Unexplored places to go when you visit Iraqi Kurdistan » Iraq (part 1)

Qiz Qapan Tombs (Gazzkaban) are located on a rocky cliff in an astonishing beautiful valley, 50 km west of Sulaymaniyah. These catacombs date back to the era of the Median Kingdom in the 7-century BC. The site consists of a variety of rooms, three burial graves, statues, and sculptures.

While I decided to spend the night there, I was taken away to a safer place by the Iraqi Army. They said it was too dangerous because of the proximity of Kirkuk and some known local bandits.

There were indeed some people hiding in the rocks as we heard some noises, and they ran with their guns and flashlights cutting our conversation short. Crossing the road at night, I heard some shots and they were indeed worried about the situation.

Photos of Qiz Qapan

16. Cave of Zarzi

كهف زرزى

Visit Zarzi Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan
Visit Zarzi Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan

Zarzi Cave is located at the bottom of Mount Zrza Kounkotr. With a
semi-circular entrance this cave dates back to the Stone Age when it was used as shelter. In 1988, researcher Dorothy Karon excavated the cave and found many animal bones and stone utensils.

Photos of the Cave of Zazi

Visit the second part of this page, with more places to visit in Kurdistan:

Kurdistan Region of Iraq Unknown Destinations Part 2

NOTE: I’ve been to Iraq three times. The first time back in 2010, the second time at the beginning of 2016, and the third time just recently in 2018 traveling for one month driving my campervan. Throughout recent years, Iraq has become safer, and there are many areas that can be visited without any issues. If you think you’d like to make such a trip, check out RJ Travel‘s available Iraqi Kurdistan Tour Packages.

Disclaimer: All these images are protected by copyright and cannot be used without permission.