Welcome to Nasiriyah, Iraq. Nestled along the banks of the Euphrates River, this vibrant city offers a rich blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. Whether you’re a history buff, an adventure seeker, or simply yearning for an authentic travel experience, Nasiriyah has it all.
In Nasiriyah, you can step back in time while exploring the ancient ruins of Ur. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the world’s oldest cities. You can also immerse yourself in its lively souks, where vendors sell traditional crafts, spices, and mouthwatering local dishes.
Nasiriyah is a gateway to the breathtaking Iraqi Marshes, an enchanting wetland ecosystem teeming with diverse flora and fauna. Here, travelers can take boat tours through the waterways. Along the way, they’ll see local birdlife and learn about the ancient way of life of the people who call this place home.
I visited Nasiriyah and the Iraqi Marshes with my friends Jafar and Ali from Bil Weekend in September 2022. It was one of the most unique experiences I had in Iraq and gave me a much different and eye-opening look at life in this beautiful and misunderstood country. I walked away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of Iraq as a whole. Here’s why you need to visit Nasiriyah, Iraq and the Iraqi Marshes.
One of my first (and most delicious) experiences in Nasiriyah, Iraq, was trying a traditional dish called mahrotha. My guides took me to meet a local chef, Ali Sido, runs a popular restaurant where he serves the dish. It’s rarely found in restaurants and is typically only made in people’s homes. It made the experience all the more special.
Mahrotha is made from dried fish, tomato paste, fresh tomatoes, and spices, and it has its roots in ancient Mesopotamia. Chef Ali boiled the dried fish and tore it into smaller pieces. Then, he removed the bones and added tomatoes, tomato paste, and onions. He added oil, butter, garlic, and onions to a pot before adding the fresh tomatoes and tomato paste. He added turmeric, pepper, salt, and the dried fish next. Then, he covered and cooked it for 20 minutes while preparing rice on the side.
The mahrotha comes on top of torn bread soaked in its broth, along with rice, fresh tomatoes, onions, and lemon. He also served a fried fish called zuri on the side. Mahrotha is salty and tomato-rich with a texture that complements the soaked bread.
I’m usually wary of fish dishes containing bones, but the mahrotha was exceptional. The zuri also paired well with lemon and bread. I preferred it over the masgouf (the Iraqi national dish) I’d had earlier in my trip!
During our trip, we visited the ancient city of Ur, located just 40 minutes outside of Nasiriyah, Iraq. This Sumerian city-state is famous for its ruins, particularly the impressive Zigurrat of Ur. The ziggurat is a towering structure dating back to the 21st century BC. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ziggurat has undergone some restoration work while preserving its original bricks.
Ur holds significant historical importance. It’s the birthplace of iconographic written language and Sumerian, the two oldest forms of writing on Earth. After I climbed to the top of the ziggurat, I was able to see ancient inscriptions on one of the original bricks. Remarkably well-preserved, the ziggurat remained hidden beneath layers of sand for thousands of years.
Continuing our exploration, we saw the Temple of Nanna and a royal palace. We also saw nearby royal tombs and the arched passageways of the house of the prophet Abraham.
You can’t fully appreciate the wonders of Nasiriyah, Iraq without exploring its vibrant street food scene. Nasiriyah’s street food scene comes to life after dark, as locals seek a respite from the oppressive heat and sun during the day. Vendors here offer so many options, it’ll make your head spin: kebda (liver and kidney kebabs), kubba saray (a dense ball of dough stuffed with lamb), falafel sandwiches, burgers, shawarma, and more.
I loved the earthy kebda and fresh and crispy falafel sandwiches. I also tried the chicken shawarma with amba, fries topped with macaroni in tomato sauce, and a delicious lamb burek. The vendors were so kind and wouldn’t stop feeding me. Others refused to let me pay even though I insisted!
I ended with some amazing sweets, including a crispy and cheesy knafeh made with Nutella, a rich, cream-filled baklava, and a rare sweet from the marshlands called khirret. I didn’t love the chalky, powdery khirret by itself but I could tell it would have been great with some chai!
Nasiriyah, Iraq is considered the gateway to one of the country’s most beautiful natural wonders, the Iraqi Marshes. Also known as the Mesopotamian Marshes, these wetlands are one of the world’s most important ecological areas. The marshes are formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, creating a unique ecosystem that supports a diverse range of plant and animal species.
For centuries, the Marsh Arabs, known as the Ma’dan, have called these wetlands home, relying on the marshes for their livelihoods and cultural practices. Unfortunately, the Saddam Hussein regime drained the marshes as part of a campaign to crush the Marsh Arabs and suppress dissent. However, there are now efforts to restore the marshes to their former glory.
I got to travel through the marshlands in a motorized canoe. Our route to our local hosts took us past thick reeds and dense sawgrass, which is home to herds of water buffalo, fish, and thousands of migrating birds. The contrast between the marshlands and the desert cities I’d previously explored was awe-inspiring.
Along the way, I got to see homes among the sawgrass, before we finally arrived at a humble grass home deep within the marsh. It was an incredible look at a side of Iraq that westerners often don’t see.
After we arrived at the grass home in the Iraqi Marshes, I got to meet our gracious hosts. I watched them build a fire over a flat stone using buffalo dung. They then kindly served us various dishes including buffalo milk cream, date syrup, tahini, fresh cheese, and bread made from rice flour. The cheese was slightly sour, reminiscent of mozzarella.
The cheese, date syrup, and tahini with the bread were unbelievable together. We also enjoyed some delicious Iraqi chai. Everything was fresh and flavorful, and the mix of salty, sweet, and savory had me salivating. After the meal, the host told us he wanted to share his culture, passed down from his Sumerian forefathers, with us.
He then sang us a beautiful, emotional song. We ended our time there with a quick tour of the home before saying goodbye to our hosts and riding back through the marsh to the city of Chibayish. The marshland scenery during the boat ride reminded me of the Everglades in my home state of Florida. It was gorgeous!
Another city that allows travelers to access the Iraqi Marshes easily is Chibayish. This historic town in southern Iraq lies along the banks of the Euphrates River. it serves as the capital of the Al-Chibayish District and is a center for traditional boat-building and the Marsh Arab culture.
One of the best ways to get a taste of life in Chibayish is to visit the local market. There, my guides and I got to see butchers chopping and selling fresh meat, poultry, and fish. We also saw produce vendors and others selling clothing and household items. I bought some turbans for 26,000 Dinar to add to my growing collection!
Our local guide also graciously invited us to enjoy a meal with his family. They grilled fish and duck for us, which they served alongside red rice, basil, pickles, and khubz tannour bread. I’m a massive fan of duck, and the tender, flaky masgouf was delicious, as always.
I loved every bite, but the company was the best part. Our guide and his family were so warm and accommodating and were a highlight of our time in the Nasiriyah, Iraq area.
Exploring southern Iraq is a must for anyone who wants to truly dive into the history and culture of the country. Whether you do it by wandering street food markets of Nasiriyah, visiting the ancient city of Ur, or exploring an often unseen side of the country in the Iraqi Marshes, I urge you to get a taste of the heritage here.
My guides at Bil Weekend made everything smooth and easy for us, and our local guides were absolutely wonderful. Book a trip to Nasiriyah, Iraq today to experience the magic of southern Iraq for yourself!