Located between Erbil and Duhok are three of the biggest tourist attractions in Iraqi Kurdistan. The towns of Akre, Lalish and Alqosh, each have their own appeal and reasons for visiting, but together they make for an incredible day tour from either Erbil or Duhok.
This guide to exploring Akre, Lalish and Alqosh, will detail why you need to visit these three beautiful places in Iraqi Kurdistan and explain how you can do it independently or on a tour.
How to explore Akre, Lalish and Alqosh
Akre, Lalish and Alqosh are towns that are scattered between Erbil and Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan. This means that you have two options to explore the towns. The first and easiest option is to hire a private taxi or driver to take you from Erbil to Duhok, stopping at Akre, Lalish and Alqosh along the way. This is what I did, as it seemed to be the most time effective way of doing things.
I got in contact with Haval, one of two English speaking tour guides in Iraqi Kurdistan, and he organised the driver for me. He is contactable on WhatsApp and Facebook and his details are easy to find on Google. It cost me USD$125 for the entire day. We left at 8am from my hotel in Erbil and arrived at my hotel in Duhok at 5pm.
The other option is to visit the three towns individually as day trips using shared taxis and minivans. This is definitely possible, although you might have to allow a night spent at a couple of the towns as well in case there isn’t shared transport later in the day.
The problem with this option however, is that Akre is easily accessible from Erbil by shared transport and you can reach Alqosh from Duhok, but Lalish is not accessible with shared transport from either city. The only real way of getting to Lalish is by hitching a ride or taking a private taxi from either Erbil or Duhok (it’s closer to Duhok). This is why I ended up just combining all three together with a private tour.
Read next: A Travel Guide to Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s Capital
Akre is considered to be one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s prettiest villages and I couldn’t agree more. It’s said to have been founded around 700 BC, although much of the modern structures are from the 19th century. It’s built quite spectacularly on the side of the mountainous region and it’s a steep climb to reach some of the upper streets of the village.
I arrived around mid-morning and, being a Friday, it was quiet and many things were closed. I had a walk around the bazaar which was mostly shut and to the main mosque in the centre of the bazaar.
The locals are very friendly in Akre. I had the pleasure of chatting with a group of men sitting to the side of the square drinking tea (of course). One of them spoke perfect English and immediately invited me to sit with them and drink tea and eat some fresh figs.
His name was Ramzi and he’d spent much of the 70s and 80s living in Europe to escape Saddam Hussein. He even had a partner in Austria and was almost going to settle down until he decided to come back when his family were threatened by the regime. “It was a terrible time, terrible time,” he said, about the Saddam era. There was definitely more hope now he said, however, life is not easy and he said for the younger generation he’s not sure what will happen. Life in the Middle East is certainly unpredictable.
There’s also a lovely viewpoint of the village above the town, which is the best way to really appreciate how they built the village right down in the valley.
How to visit Akre
It’s possible to visit Akre as a day trip from Erbil independently by shared taxi. The frequency, however, is unreliable and there are no accommodation options in Akre village, although apparently a couple of kilometres outside of town there is a hotel.
Erbil’s main bus station and transport hub is known as Erbil Terminal, next to Shaykh Ahmad and Family Fun Mall in the city. From here, you can take buses and shared vans to cities in Northern Iraq, including Soran, Akre and Duhok. A shared taxi from Erbil to Akre should cost around 10, 000 dinars.
If you leave early in the morning and spend just half a day in Akre, you should be able to find a shared taxi returning tom Erbil. Always ask the locals in Akre!
Lalish is the holiest site for the Yazidi minority in the Middle East and is a large temple complex. The Yazidi religion is considered by many to be the oldest in the world and the first monotheistic religion. It’s often described as a blend of Christianity and Islam but is still quite unique in many aspects. The Yazidis are also considered an ethnic group and they inhabit similar areas to the Kurds, in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Being a minority in the Middle East, they have been persecuted for centuries and most recently under ISIS. Many of them were brutally tortured, murdered and enslaved by ISIS fighters and it’s remembered as a particularly dark time for their people, often referred to as an attempted genocide. In Iraq, many have now returned to their villages, including around Lalish and the community is steadily recovering.
I happened to arrive in Lalish on a special day marking a funeral for an important person. The entire complex was full of families and it was very busy. The most important thing to remember when visiting is to remove your shoes before stepping foot inside the complex as you must walk around the area barefoot.
A Yazidi university professor was there facilitating much of the event and he spoke fluent English. He took me for a tour of the temple and explained important aspects of the religion. He invited me for lunch with the elders of the community (only men, of course) and I gladly accepted. The men were very friendly, many spoke English and some had even travelled to Europe and Australia to visit the Yazidi communities there. It was a pretty special experience, however, being so busy it was difficult to take photos and wander freely.
I also met a female Peshmerga (Kurdish army) fighter near the main temple. It had been one of my hopes upon going to Iraqi Kurdistan because the Peshmergas are quite famous in the Middle East for being some of the most fearless and respectable fighters and also relatively gender inclusive. Females have been fighting for the Peshmergas for generations and are quite a well-integrated part of their organisation. She wasn’t in uniform and was extremely shy but I was glad to have met her.
Foreigners are allowed to explore the Lalish temple complex freely, as long as you respect others worshipping and visiting.
How to visit Lalish
Lalish is away from any main road and it’s not serviceable by shared transport. Most people visit on a day trip with a private taxi from Duhok or Erbil, although Duhok is closer. It’s best to combine it with a trip to Alqosh as well, as they are both not far from each other.
Alqosh is a Christian town that miraculously survived the advance of ISIS. It’s most famous attraction is the Rabban Hormizd Monastery, built into the side of the mountains above the main town. The monastery was founded around 7th century and was subsequently expanded over hundreds of years. It became one of the most important sites in the Chaldean Catholic sect until it was almost abandoned in the 18th century during the Ottoman-Persian war.
A new monastery was built in a safer place in the 19th century closer to town and most of the Chaldean Catholic monks moved there. Today, the ancient monastery is just visited by tourists like me and important delegates, although it is still used for mass on special occasions.
A caretaker from the Iraqi army provides free English tours of the monastery and he took me around, through the old tunnels in the rock and the many prayer rooms that were built from the 7th century up until the 19th century.
The view from the monastery over the valley was incredible and he told me that in 2016 he watched as ISIS advanced towards Alqosh. Most people from the towns below fled but he stayed and he said US airstrikes came just in time so that the Peshmerga could make a ground offensive to drive them back to Mosul. It was kind of a surreal feeling to think that just three years ago, ISIS and their twisted brutality were just kilometres away from taking over almost all of Kurdistan.
How to visit Alqosh
Technically, you can take shared transport to Alqosh village from Duhok. However, the drive up to the monastery itself would have to be done by taxi. It’s best to organise a private driver from Duhok (or Erbil) and combine it with a trip to Lalish as well.
Exploring more of Iraqi Kurdistan?
If you’re spending some time in Iraqi Kurdistan, check out my other posts:
- A Travel Guide to Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s Capital
- Best Things to Do in Sulaymaniyah
- How to Visit Amedi from Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan
- A Complete Guide to Travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan