Most people do not consider taking their next vacation to Iraq. The residents of the city of Najaf hope to change that. One of the holiest cities in Islam, Najaf is home to the tomb of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. It also contains the biggest cemetery in the world, Wadi al-Salam (the Valley of Peace), famous in recent years as the site of deadly battles between Iraqi insurgents and coalition forces. Muslims, in particular Shiis from Iran, Pakistan, India, Lebanon and Afghanistan, flock to Najaf, as well as the other important shrine cities of Karbala, Samarra, and Kadhimiya in Baghdad, to visit the tombs of the family of the Prophet Muhammad, considered to be infallible in Shii theology.
The city developed around the Tomb of Imam Ali, which was first constructed by the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid in the late eighth century. It later became the centre of Shii Islamic learning when Sheikh al-Tusi, escaping to the safety of Najaf during widespread persecution of Shiis in Baghdad, founded the first madrasa, or school of higher Islamic education, in the eleventh century. The ancient city of Kufa, right next to Najaf, has pre-Islamic origins and is a must-visit for any history buff. It is home to the seventh-century Kufa Mosque and other important religious sites from early Islamic history. Babylon is only an hour’s drive away, another attraction for those interested in Iraq’s pre-Islamic civilisations.