Who are the Mandeans of Iraq?

Among Iraq’s religious minorities, the Mandeans are some of the least known. In fact, many Iraqis haven’t even heard of them, and if they have, they have very little ideas about what they actually believe in. I was fortunate enough to meet the head of the Mandean sect (similar to the Pope in Christianity), where he explained to us many core principles of the religion, as well as answering any questions we might have.

mandean rituals baghdad
Mandeans perform religious rituals in Baghdad, Iraq

Very few Mandeans remain in the world, and a significant amount of those that do have emigrated from their homeland (southern Iraq and the Khuzestan province of Iran), escaping historical persecution. Worldwide, it is claimed that only around 70,000 Mandeans exist, with only a few thousand of them remaining in Iraq. Some people claim that Mandeanism is the oldest religion known to man that is still practiced today. What is clear is that their religion is older than Islam, Christianity and even Judaism, yet it is still monotheistic, and believes in many of the same religious figures as prophets. For instance, Adam, Abel, Noah and John the Baptist, all of which are biblical figures, are seen as prophets of God by the Mandeans. John the Baptist, however, is considered to be the final and most important prophet in their religion, in the same way that Muhammad is seen by Muslims.

The most important religious scripture is known as the Ginza Rabba, and the Mandeans we met were kind enough to give us a copy of it. This book is composed on two parts, the “left part” and the “right part”, with the right part being the most holy scripture. The original language of these reilgious texts is Mandaic, an Eastern Aramaic language spoken by Mandeans. However, most, if not all of them, also speak Arabic fluently.

Ginza Rabba Mandean holy book
The Ginza Rabba, holy book of the Mandeans

Yet despite their different religious beliefs, Mandeans are not easily distinguishable from other southern Iraqis. Not only is their everyday clothing the same, but their dialect is also indistinguishable. This is in constrast to other religious minorities in Iraq, such as the (no longer present) Baghdadi Jews, whose dialect is distinct. Or Assyrian Christians, who can easily be distinguished by their appearance.

Sheikh Sattar of the Mandeans
Me with Sheikh Sattar, the head of the Mandean sect.

The symbol of the Mandean religion is known as the “darfash”, which is a cross made by two branched of olive branches, covered by a white cloth. Many people mistake the darfash for the Christian cross, but it is clearly distinct, as you can see in the image below. Many historians say that the darfash predates Christianity, despite the resemblence.

Mandean darfash or drabsha
The Darfash, symbol of Mandeanism

On our Iraq Tours, visiting the Mandean community of Baghdad is often part of the itinerary. If the tour dates coincide with certain Mandean ceremonies, we can help arrange for you observe their rituals and learn more about their community and religion.

How to get a Syrian tourist visa 2023

Since 2019, it has become fairly difficult for citizens of most countries to get a Syrian tourist visa that allows them to visit the country independently. That does not mean, however, that it is difficult to visit if you book a guided tour. In fact, in that case, it is super easy. This article highlights the different methods of obtaining a Syrian tourist visa, and the conditions that are attached to each type of visa. If you are hell-bent on visiting Syria independently (without a guide) then keep reading on, as I’ve explained how you might go about doing that.

What is “security clearance” and do I need it to enter Syria?

Almost all citizens require something known as “security clearance” to enter Syria. If you apply for the visa through a Syrian embassy abroad, they will apply for security clearance on your behalf. Otherwise, someone will have to apply on your behalf from inside Syria. Once security clearance has been issued, one can receive the Syrian visa either from the embassy (if that’s where you first applied) or upon arrival at the Syrian border..

Even if, officially, no visa is required (as is the case for most Arab nationals), security clearance is. You will be denied entry without it. The only two nationalities that are exempt from this are Lebanese and Jordanian nationals, who can just show up at the border and enter without any prior approvals. Everyone else needs to get security clearance or they will be denied entry and possibly even given a ban simply for trying without approval.

Also, don’t believe Wikipedia when it comes to entry requirements. As someone that runs tours to the country for people from various nationalities, I can simply say that the entry requirements are wrong. For instance, Wikipedia says that Omani nationals can visit Syria visa-free. We’ve had Omani customers before and not only do they require security clearance, but the visa itself is also super expensive (150 USD if I remember correctly!).

Syrian tourist visa stamp, valid for one month in a Polish passport
A picture of a Syrian visa issued for one month.

So how can I apply for security clearance?

Iraqi citizens and Chinese citizens, although requiring security clearance, can get it fairly easily, with many companies offering them this service in their respective countries. They are also not bound by the condition of booking a guided tour, unlike citizens of most other countries. On the streets of Syria, it is a common sight to see Chinese and Iraqi tourists wandering around unaccompanied.

If you’re not Chinese, Iraqi, Lebanese or Jordanian, then there are a few different ways you can go about visiting Syria, and they are as follows:

  1. You apply for security clearance through a registered tour company in Syria: By doing this, the company accepts responsibility for you whilst in Syria, and applies for your security clearance from inside the country. You are able to stay in the country during the days that you have booked a tour with a registered tour guide, and, in most cases, you must leave once the tour is over. This option is super easy – all you have to do is send them your passport copy, your job title and your contact information and, for most nationalities, your security clearance will be approved within a matter of days. Once issued, you will be able to get the visa on arrival at the Syrian border. For independent travellers, however, this doesn’t sound ideal.
  2. You apply through a Syrian embassy abroad: This option is considerably trickier and there’s a good chance you’ll be rejected. When filling in the visa form, you will have to put the details of a sponsor in Syria, as well as other documents such as those listed on the website of the Syrian embassy in Berlin. This sponsor can be a Syrian individual or business. However, it’s likely that your sponsor will be contacted about your visit, and if your reason for visiting isn’t convincing enough, or if you don’t know your sponsor in person, your visa will likely be rejected. Furthermore, the embassy visa usually takes around a month to process. The benefit of this method, however, is that you’ll be able to travel independently in the country. If you have entered the country by getting a visa this way, it is easy to get an extension by going to the “Immigration and Passports Department” in Damascus, and you won’t have to pay much money at all.
  3. Your sponsor can apply for you from inside Syria: This is basically the same as method number 2, but the difference is that the application process starts from inside Syria. Furthermore, the approval/rejection process is usually quicker, and they often give you an idea about the chances of approval upon application, unlike the embassy visa where they won’t tell you much. Bascially, your sponsor will have to go to the “Immigration and Passports Department” in Damascus and apply for your security clearance on your behalf and will be asked details about your visit.

In conculsion, for most nationalities, visiting Syria independently isn’t easy unless you have good friends in the country which are willing to sponsor your visit. However, it is possible to get a Syrian tourist visa with the help of a tourism agency – this method is very simple and easy. If you’d like to visit Syria on a group tour with us, check out our upcoming departures. Otherwise, get in touch with us so that we can arrange a custom tour for you that includes security clearance, allowing you to easily get into the country.

Syrian Railways: History and Current Situation

By Xavier Raychell Blancharde

Although the situation of the Syrian railways is currently quite dire, that hasn’t always been the case. Since 2011, however, Syria has been affeced by a brutal war, with much damage sustained to many of the rail lines, as well as the inoperability of the routes due to them having to cross frontlines. As such, almost all passenger services were halted, and only two passenger routes operate in the country today. I’ll talk about those routes later.

Our Syria Tour Leader, Xavi, in Jibrin, Aleppo, after riding a train to that village.

What is the history of Syrian Railways?

Syria’s first railway line dates back to 1895, during the Ottoman Empire, when a line was opened between Damascus and Beirut. The most famous historic railway in Syria, however, was the Hejaz railway, linking Damascus to Medina in Saudi Arabia in 1908, forming one of the most important pilgrimage routes for Muslims to perform Haj and Umrah. Over the following two decades, rail lines were expanded to Aleppo, Tripoli and Nusaybin. Much of the train lines at this point formed part of the Baghdad Railway, with Aleppo being a major stop on the route. During WWII, where Syria was a French mandate, the Allies used its railway networks to transport goods for military purposes.

Following WWII, railways in Syria ended up becoming nationalised, with further rail lines being developed over the years. Tartus, Latakia, Raqqa, Deir Ezzour and other major cities and towns across Syria were all connected to the Syrian rail network before the end of the 1970s.

Over the years, and following Syrian independence, international railway links remained with Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon. However, routes to Lebanon were ceased after the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s, routes to Iraq were ceased following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and finally routes to Turkey were ceased following the start of the Syrian war in 2011.

The Current Status of Syrian Railways

Right now (2023), to our knowledge, there are only two passenger train routes that operate in the entirety of Syria. The first route is between Latakia and Tartus cities (this region wasn’t affected by the war). The second route is from Aleppo city to a small town called Jibrin which is located just east of Nairab Refugee Camp in Aleppo countryside. Both trains run on a regular basis, but I can’t speak about the Latakia-Tartus train to fine details as I haven’t actually been on it.

I went on the train from Aleppo to Jibrin, however, last week (March 2023). I can confirm that the train runs twice a day, once at 7:15am and once at 3:15pm. It’s possible to ride both of these train lines as a tourist in Syria, and if that’s something you’d like to do in the country, let us know and we will arrange it on one of our tours! Below, you can watch a video I made about the train trip experience from Aleppo to Jibrin.

The railway line between Aleppo and Damascus is all under government control, and most of the country has now become safe for visitors. Hence, hopefully, once maintenence works are finished, this line will be up and running again. When that might be, however, who knows…

Syria is now open for American tourists.

By Xavier Raychell Blancharde

Since Covid border restrictions were imposed in 2020 by the Syrian government, it has been almost impossible for Americans to enter Syria. Well, at least to enter the areas of Syria controlled by the government. Even when Syria reopened to tourism in 2021, visas for Americans were not being issued.

Well, that’s no longer the case, as the Syrian government is now issuing visas for American citizens to visit Syria for tourism. The process is, however, slightly more complicated than for other citizens, and it takes more time. For this reason, we are charging US citizens a slightly higher amount to join our Syria tours. However, it is now possible! This is great news for the many Americans that have been constantly asking when Syria will reopen for Americans.

Restrictions for foreign tourists in Syria remain, however, with almost all foreign visitors having to book a tour with a licensed tour operator in Syria in order for the visa to come through. Once the pre-approved visa is issued, it will be given to you upon arrival at the Syrian borders.