POPULATION: 20 million

LANGUAGE: Arabic; Turkish; Aramaic (Syriac); Kurdish; Armenian; Persian

RELIGION: Islam (Shi'ah, 54 percent; Sunni, 41 percent); Christianity; Judaism


Modern-day Iraq is located on the ancient land of Mesopotamia, or "the land between the rivers." The first human civilization is thought to have flourished here, on the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. By the year 4000 BC , the Sumerians had established the earliest-known cities and government institutions. Writing, mathematics, and science also began in Sumer.

Eventually, a series of peoples invaded and conquered the region. These groups included the Babylonians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. During the Golden Age of Iraq ( AD 750–1258), under the Abbasids, Baghdad became the capital and the center of political power and culture in the Middle East. Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire from the sixteenth century until World War I (1914–18), when Britain invaded and conquered it in 1917–18. In 1920 an Iraqi Arab state under British mandate was created. Twelve years later, in October 1932, Iraq was recognized as an independent monarchy.

From 1980 until 1988, Iraq fought a severe and costly war with its neighbor, Iran. More than 500,000 Iraqis and Iranians died, and neither side was really able to claim victory. The war ended in the summer of 1988, with Iran and Iraq signing a cease-fire agreement arranged by the United Nations.

Internally, Iraq suffers from serious conflicts between the government and the Kurdish minority living in the mountains of the northeast, and between the ruling Sunni Muslim minority and the Shi'ah Muslim majority.

On August 2, 1990, Iraq's leadder, Saddam Hussein, led an invasion of the neighboring country of Kuwait. Other nations, including the United States, came to Kuwait's defense, sparking the Persian Gulf War. Iraq withdrew on February 26, 1991, and the war ended.


Iraq is located in southwestern Asia, in the heart of the Middle East. The total land area is about 170,000 square miles (400,300 square kilometers), a little larger than the state of California. Iraq has four distinct regions. The Delta region of the southeast is a broad alluvial (sand and clay) plain. West of the Delta are the Steppe-Desert Plains, part of the dry Syrian Desert, made up of sand and stony plains. The northern foothills between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is a fertile area of grassy flatlands and rolling hills. In the Kurdish Country of the northeast, the land rises steeply into the Zagros Mountains.

The population of Iraq is about 20 million people. Baghdad, the capital and largest city, has a population of about 4 million people.


Arabic is Iran's official language and the first language of about three-fourths of the population. Other languages spoken in Iraq are Turkish, Aramaic, Kurdish, Armenian, and Persian. Arabic is written from right to left in a unique alphabet that has no distinction between capital and lowercase letters.

"Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn . Other common greetings are as-salam alaykum, "peace be with you," with the reply of walaykum as-salam, "and to you peace." Ma'assalama means "goodbye." "Thank you" is shukran and "you're welcome" is afwan; "yes" is na'am and "no" is la'a . The numbers one to ten in Arabic are: wahad, itnin, talata, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, tamania, tisa'a, and ashara .

Iraqi Arabs have very long names, consisting of their first name, their father's name, their paternal grandfather's name, and finally their family name. A woman does not take her husband's name when she marries. Instead, she maintains her family identity. Muslims use first names with Islamic religious significance, such as Muhammad and Fatima. Christians, however, often use Western names.


The most famous collection of Arab folk tales, The Thousand and One Nights, was probably put together in Iraq sometime around AD 1000–1500. Supposedly, a beautiful woman named Scheherazade marries a king who has killed all his previous wives. Every night she tells him a story that is a "cliffhanger," so that he must keep her alive to find out the ending. This goes on for one thousand and one nights. Finally the king decides to let her stay alive forever as his wife. Among the stories she tells are the well-known tales of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp," and "The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor."

Another famous story originating in ancient Iraq (then known as Mesopotamia) is the Epic of Gilgamesh. The poem tells of Gilgamesh's struggles to achieve immortality.

Iraqi folklore includes some common superstitions. For example, it is considered good luck to have a stork build its nest on your roof. Women who have had no children and people with blue eyes are not allowed to attend birth celebrations to keep harm from coming to the baby.


The majority of Iraqis, about 95 percent, are Muslim. Of these, 54 percent are Shi'ah, and 41 percent are Sunni. The remainder of the population is Christian and other faiths, including a very small Jewish population. The difference between Sunni and Shi'ah Muslims has played an important part in Iraqi history.

The Islamic religion has five "pillars," or practices, that must be observed by all Muslims: (1) praying five times a day; (2) giving alms, or zakat, to the poor; (3) fasting during the month of Ramadan; (4) making the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca; and (5) reciting the shahada (ashhadu an la illah ila Allah wa ashhadu in Muhammadu rasul Allah ), which means "I witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah."


Muslim holidays are not official state holidays. However, since the overwhelming majority of Iraqis are Muslim, their holidays are similar to state holidays. Most businesses and services are closed on Fridays, the Islamic day of rest.

The following are the main Muslim holidays: Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, is celebrated by complete fasting from dawn until dusk. Eid al-Fitr is a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Adha is a three-day feast at the end of the month of pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the hajj ). Families who can afford it slaughter a lamb and share the meat with poorer Muslims. The First of Muharram is the Muslim New Year. Mawoulid An-Nabawi is the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. Eid Al-Isra wa Al-Miraj is a feast celebrating the nocturnal visit of Muhammad to heaven.

Ahura is commemorated only by Shi'ah Muslims. It marks the massacre of Muhammad's grandson, Husayn, and a small band of loyal followers. Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, who is a Sunni Muslim, has outlawed observance of this important Shi'ah holiday.

The main Christian holidays are Christmas (December 25) and Easter (late March or early April).

National secular holidays include Army Day (January 6), Saddam Hussein's birthday (April 28), Labor Day (May 1), Declaration of Republic (Ba'ath Party coup, July 14), and Independence from the British Mandate (October 13).


Aside from Islamic holy days, weddings are the most important festivals in Iraqi life. Relatives and friends hold parties for several days before a wedding. The actual wedding ceremony is modest and brief.

The birth of a child is another occasion for celebration, especially if the child is a boy. Three days after the birth, family members and friends visit and bring gifts for the child.

Sometime between the ages of nine and thirteen, children begin the al'Khatma, or the "reading of the Koran." A child studies for a year or more to prepare for this difficult task. Those who read without an error earn the title of hafiz . After a successful reading of the sacred text, the family holds a celebration in the child's honor. Relatives give the child gifts and money, and everyone wears colorful clothes.


Iraqis are generous to their friends. If a friend asks for a favor, it is considered very rude to say no. While having a conversation, it is rude to turn one's foot out so that the sole is facing the other person. As in other Islamic cultures, the left hand is considered unclean so it is never used when eating. It is taboo to wish bad luck on someone because it might come true.

When talking, Iraqis touch each other more often and stand much closer together than Westerners do. People of the same sex will often hold hands while talking, even if they are practically strangers. (Members of the opposite sex, even married couples, never touch in public.)

The following are some common Iraqi gestures:


Gesture Meaning
Eyebrows raised and head tilted back: No
Clicking the tongue: No
Waving forefinger right-to-left: No
Right hand moving up and down with the palm facing down: Be quiet!
Right hand moving away from the body with the palm down: Go away!
Right hand out while opening and closing the hand: Come here!
Right hand on heart after shaking hands: Show of sincerity
Fist with thumb pointing upward: Sign of victory


The middle and upper classes in Iraq enjoy much better living conditions than does the lower class. Members of the lower class, mostly rural dwellers, live in reed and mud huts, generally without electricity or running water. Doctors and nurses tend to cluster in larger cities, so there is a serious lack of health care available in rural areas.

Housing is comfortable for the urban middle and upper classes. Traditional Arab homes are very private. Older houses are behind high walls, totally sheltered from the street and passersby. Even in urban apartment buildings, family privacy is maintained. Inside the home, there is usually a formal outer parlor in which the men of the family can receive male visitors. Modern houses also have high-walled roofs (where it is cooler) for sleeping in the summer.


Technically, a family consists of all related kin and can include hundreds of people. Rural families live with or near each other. Urban families do not always live together. However, they are always willing to help each other out in times of need. It is considered a disgrace to speak badly about a family member or to tell family secrets.

The traditional household of a typical middle-aged couple consists of the husband and wife, their unmarried sons and daughters, their married sons with their wives and children, the man's mother if she is still alive, and frequently his unmarried sisters if he has any. Financial power is in the hands of the husband, although his wife is not completely without influence. Women have a great deal of power at home and over their children, including their grown sons. Sex roles are very clearly defined. The strict division of labor in rural areas causes the sexes to be almost completely segregated except when eating and sleeping.

Most marriages are still arranged by families. However, the couple must approve the match. Traditionally, first or second cousins are preferred as marriage partners. Divorce is fairly simple under Islamic law. Even so, it rarely occurs. Children belong to their father's family, and in the case of divorce the father is automatically awarded custody.

Iraqis believe that wisdom increases with age, so the elderly are deeply respected.


Most urban Iraqis wear Western-style clothing, while most rural Iraqis wear traditional clothing. Women traditionally wear a veil (which they begin to wear after their first menstrual period) and a dark robe called an abaaya . The abaaya is an outer cloak that covers the body from head to ankle. Under the abaaya, they wear brightly colored dresses. Veils are only removed at home or in female-only groups. For men, traditional dress consists of a caftan and a head cloth. A caftan is an ankle-length robe with long sleeves. Light cotton caftans are worn in summer, and heavy woolen ones in winter. Rural men wrap their head cloths around their heads like a turban. Urban men drape theirs over their heads and hold them in place with a cord.

12 • FOOD

Staple foods in Iraq are wheat, barley, rice, and dates. Iraqis cook almost every part of an animal, including the kidneys, liver, brain, feet, eyes, and ears. The meat is usually cut into strips and cooked with onions and garlic. It may also be minced for stew and served with rice. Sheep and goats are the most common meat animals. Islam forbids the eating of pork. Lamb and mutton are traditionally used for special feasts.

Iraqis usually drink their coffee with sugar and cream or milk. Coffee and tea are the favorite drinks, served before and after (not during) meals. Ice water is drunk frequently in the summer, and Western soft drinks are popular in the cities. Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol.

An Iraqi meal has several courses. It starts with appetizers, such as kebabs cubes of marinated meat cooked on skewers. Next come soups (which are drunk from the bowl). They are followed by a simple main course (such as lamb with rice). The meal ends with a salad and khubaz— a flat wheat bread served buttered with fruit jelly spread on top. Iraqis love desserts, especially one called ma'mounia, dating from the ninth century AD . A recipe for ma'mounia follows.


The quality of education in Iraq has improved dramatically in recent decades. Public education is free to all Iraqi citizens through the secondary level. Primary education lasts for six years, from ages six to eleven. Almost all Iraqi children complete primary school. Secondary education also lasts for six years, from ages twelve to seventeen. The first three years consist of training in math and science. Students can choose to spend the second three years either in a college preparatory program or in vocational training. Many rural families prefer to send their children to religious schools rather than the government-run public schools.




  • 3 cups water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • ½ cup sweet (unsalted) butter
  • 1 cup semolina flour (a type of wheat flour)
  • whipped cream
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon


  1. Combine water and sugar in a large saucepan. Heat over low heat, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves.
  2. Increase heat slowly, bringing the mixture (which will begin to look like syrup) to a boil. Add lemon juice.
  3. Reduce heat and let simmer until syrup thickens slightly (about 10 minutes). Set aside.
  4. In another saucepan, melt butter and add semolina flour. Stir until semolina is lightly browned.
  5. Add the syrup from the other pan. Simmer the mixture another 10 minutes, stirring constantly.
  6. Remove from heat and let cool 20 minutes.
  7. Spoon ma'mounia into individual serving bowls, top with whipped cream, and sprinkle with cinnamon.

Makes 4 servings.

Adapted from Susan M. Hassig. Cultures of the World: Iraq. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1993.

The number of women attending Iraq's colleges and universities has risen dramatically since the 1980s.


Iraq has a rich cultural history dating back to the Sumerians, thought to be the first advanced civilization on Earth. The most famous literary works to emerge from this tradition are the Epic of Gilgamesh (an Akkadian hero tale) and The Thousand and One Nights (a collection of Arab folk tales). Modern Iraqi literature is becoming Westernized. It is turning from traditional poetry and narratives to short stories about everyday life and nonrhyming poetry on personal subjects.

Visual art in Iraq has been greatly influenced by the Islamic prohibition against depicting human or animal forms. Artists have focused on intricate geometric and floral patterns, as well as calligraphy (decorative lettering). The rich legacy of Islamic architecture can be seen particularly in Iraq's mosques. Iraq is also famous for its carpets, woven from fine threads in brilliant colors.


Iraq was once an agricultural nation. After oil was discovered, however, it quickly grew to become the principal industry. By 1986, only 30 percent of Iraqis were still farmers. Wheat, barley, tobacco, and dates are the major crops. Only 10 percent of the population work in small manufacturing. These industries include textiles, cement, paper products, food processing, and leather. When they grow up, rural children usually do the same type of work as their parents.


Soccer is the favorite sport in Iraq. There is also growing interest in boating, basketball, volleyball, weight lifting, and boxing.


Outdoor activities are popular in the mountains of the north. Swimming and fishing are favorite recreations in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers during the summer.

Iraqis are extremely social people. In rural areas, men hunt and fish with friends. Rural women visit with each other, talking, cooking, or making handicrafts. In the cities, people visit museums, haggle over prices in the bazaars (street markets), or shop in large shopping complexes with their families and friends. Men frequent teahouses, and everyone enjoys watching television.


Handicrafts are very popular in Iraq. There are hundreds of arts and crafts fairs each year to sell all the handicrafts produced. Most crafts are in the form of jewelry, rugs, blankets, leather, and pottery. Several households may chip in together to buy a pottery wheel and share the use of it.


In the 1990s, the main social problems in Iraq stemmed from the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War (1990–91), including the economic embargo (other nations prohibiting trade with Iraq). The United Nations has estimated that 500,000 or more children in Iraq have died of malnutrition and diseases because of the embargo. There is continuing oppression of the Shi'ah majority by the Iraqi government, as well as separation of the northern Kurdish population from the rest of Iraq.


Foster, Leila Merrell. Enchantment of the World: Iraq . Chicago, IL: Children's Press, 1991.

Hassig, Susan M. Cultures of the World: Iraq . New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1993.

Iraq…in Pictures . Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Co., 1990.

Simons, G. L. Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.


ArabNet. Iraq. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Iraq. [Online] Available , 1998.

User Contributions:

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Oct 13, 2008 @ 11:11 am
this article was very helpful for research for a school project.
intissar altimimi
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Apr 26, 2012 @ 1:13 pm
hi. im intissar
first i would like to thank you for this very helpful information. but i want more information about Iraqi folklore if you can. that is would be so helpful to me to do my school project.
thanks a lot
intissar altimimi
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Mar 1, 2015 @ 8:20 pm
this is a really good article. it gives a lot of information and had helped greatly for my project. one thing you could include is huge historical events that contributed to what Iraq is like today. thanks!
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Apr 21, 2015 @ 6:18 pm
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Oct 9, 2015 @ 9:09 am
this is a really good article. it gives a lot of information and had helped greatly for my project. one thing you could include is huge historical events that contributed to what Iraq is like today. thanks!
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Dec 1, 2015 @ 6:18 pm
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da nigga
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Feb 20, 2018 @ 10:10 am
This is really helpful. I think I will get a good grade for my project with this information.

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