Geoff Hann: Extreme tour guide with a passion for Iraq whose final trip ended in tragedy

Champion of Iraq's ancient culture died under police guard with members of his party under arrest

Geoff Hann, second from right, leads one of his tours in Iraq. Photo: Raad Al Qassimi
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For a man called the world’s most extreme tour guide, Geoff Hann had treated war, sanctions, terrorism and a global pandemic as minor hurdles in a mission to share his passion for the ancient history of modern Iraq.

He took a party to the country during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, and was one of the first to take tourists to survey the destruction wreaked by ISIS in Mosul.

The Briton was there after western governments imposed sanctions on the regime of Saddam Hussein and when the Covid-19 travel bans were finally lifted.

But at the age of 85, a final tour of the riches of the nation proved one trip too far for Mr Hann, who died last month in a Baghdad hospital after failing to recover from a stroke.

The champion of the country’s ancient culture died under police guard, and with two members of his party facing charges of smuggling historic artefacts. It was a desperate end to a life of remarkable adventure.

The two European tourists are due back in court next month after their arrests for collecting fragments of broken pottery from the historic site of Eridu, south-east Iraq, as mementoes.

Briton Jim Fitton, 66, and German Volker Waldmann were held after border officials found the shards in their luggage as they prepared to leave the country on March 20.

Other members of the group had already left but the pair offered to stay behind to look after the now-stricken Mr Hann, who was taken to hospital after being deemed too unfit to fly, Mr Fitton’s family said.

Colleagues and family of Mr Hann declined to comment on the circumstances of the case because of the continuing legal action, but said he would have been horrified to learn that a couple of his charges were under suspicion of smuggling.

They said his life was dedicated to preventing looting of historic sites.

Despite travelling to some of the world’s hottest trouble-spots, Mr Hann felt the responsibility to his customers keenly.

“He was very protective and caring of the people he took,” said Karen Dabrowska, his former collaborator on respected guidebooks on Iraq.

“He was taking people them to places like Iraq and Afghanistan contrary to [UK] Foreign Office advice. I don’t think the Foreign Office loved him but he never put people at risk.

“He had very good people on the ground who could tell him about the dangers and they never really had any mishaps in Iraq.”

Mr Hann's powers of protection were sorely tested during a trip he led to Afghanistan in 2016.

The group was fired on by the Taliban and their tour bus torched, injuring him and five holidaymakers.

Despite telling the Mirror that members of the tour party could “dine out on that story for years”, Mr Hann was badly affected by the incident, his family says.

“It really disturbed him”, said his daughter, Louise Woffenden. “He came back and he obviously had some physical wounds as well. It was very difficult.”

He had wanted to go to Afghanistan to see how it had changed after the war launched following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.

“He was devastated when some of the factions in Afghanistan broke up the Buddhas [of Bamiyan],” said his daughter. “He was in tears.”

Because of the nature of his trips, Mr Hann was always conscious of the personal dangers he faced.

“I always spoke to him before every trip," Ms Woffenden said. "We always said we loved each other. Our goodbyes have already been said."

Geoff Hann in Iraq. Photo: Raad Al Qassimi

His passion for Iraq and for travel was undeniable. He started his tour company in the 1970s, inspired by a trip he took in a camper van to India with his two daughters.

His company, Hann Overland, ran trips to Kathmandu but he later came to specialise in the Middle East and countries with rich histories buy hid hard by modern strife.

Mr Hann was a pioneer in organising travel to places that were difficult to reach independently, said James Willcox, the founder of Untamed Borders, a company organising similar trips to the region.

“If people wanted to get to Iraq and see things, he was the man to do it for a long time,” he said.

Mr Hann was a meticulous researcher and an acknowledged expert on Iraq.

Before the 2003 invasion, the US Pentagon ordered copies of his guide to Iraq to try to avoid destroying 6,000-year-old treasures from the cradle of civilisation, said Ms Dabrowska.

“I don’t think he got a thrill from danger,” she said. “He wanted to take people to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and gave two fingers to Saddam and two fingers to the Taliban.

"He’d say these stories are more than them. 'The Tigris and Euphrates were there before we came and will be there after we’ve gone', he’d say."

An Iraqi guide who worked with Mr Hann for 20 years said that he explained his subject with enthusiasm and verve.

“Geoff was my favourite teacher, you didn’t feel bored with him,” said Raad Al Qassimi.

“Geoff is an Iraq icon. Everywhere he had friends. He loved Iraq and Iraqi people loved him. Unfortunately, we’ve lost him.”

Dr Mehiyar Kathem, the author of a gloomy report about the state of Iraq’s conservation efforts, said Mr Hann was well-known in Iraq for bringing tour groups with his company Hinterland Travel, however difficult the circumstances.

“He was an amazing guy," Dr Kathem said. "He was 85 and he kept being active and arranging these tours."

He said the recent case involving the two Europeans highlighted the need for Iraq to better protect its rich cultural heritage and to educate the people who visited about what they could and could not touch.

“A lot of sites are unprotected and are not really open to tourists," Dr Kathem said. "If you go to places like Babylon you can find broken cuneiform fragments all over sites.

“It’s just really unfortunate it ended this way. Many things that could have gone wrong, went wrong.”

Updated: May 22, 2022, 8:03 PM