World’s oldest tour guide dies in Baghdad

Veteran adventurer and esteemed tour guide Geoff Hann has died aged 85 in Iraq. Leaving behind a legendary legacy, he was revered throughout the Middle East for his willingness to explore, educate and enjoy the historical treasures of the region.

The life of Geoff Hann (85), possibly the world’s oldest tour guide, who died of a stroke at Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad in April, was celebrated at a memorial at the Abrar Foundation in London .

For 50 years Hann has taken tourists to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Kashmir… the list goes on.

Overland travel began in the 1970s when Hann drove from London to India where his wife had gone to live in an ashram. He lost a wife and the world gained an adventurer who, through his company, Hann Overland (and later Hinterland Travel) organized hundreds of trips to hotspots around the world.

“Hann treated war, sanctions, terrorism and a global pandemic as minor obstacles in a mission to share his passion for the ancient history of modern Iraq”

Hann’s daughter, Louise, recalled her father raising Vanessa, her sister, and her, from the ages of four and six respectively.

“He had a penchant for travel and history, so in 1970 we took our first trip to Turkey. We didn’t just fly over like a normal family would,” she explains.

“He placed an ad for a chaperone in the paper for Vanessa and me, and packed us all into the Ford family escort, then drove overland to Turkey. It took about a week to get there: we visited most of the sites and then drove home like it was completely normal.”

She continues: “Our second trip was in 1971, but this time it was to India in a VW campervan. There was a war at the time between Pakistan and India, so we just left the van at the border, flown over, and then continued by steam train from Amritsar to Bombay.

“The third trip was in 1972 again to India, but this time he switched to a Land Rover and had his first paying passengers. Thereafter he would go on tour without us and build his business out of the.

A pamphlet by Hann Overland when it was created [photo credit: Karen Dabrowska]

I met Hann in 2006 when I was writing the Bradt Travel Guide to Iraq. He gave me a skeptical look from a huge dining room table strewn with itineraries and travel brochures and asked, “What do you know about Iraq?” in a condensed tone. “Not a lot,” I admitted. That was the end of the conversation.

When I got home, Hann had sent me about ten emails containing information on sights in Iraq, photographs, practical advice on dealing with bureaucracies in the Middle East – everything I needed for the guide and more.

We developed a great working relationship and went on to write two more guides to Iraq for Bradt. He was a meticulous researcher and provided his visitors with detailed historical backgrounds and information about each site and country.

Hann and his partner Tina Townsend-Greaves at a travel fair [photo credit: Karen Dabrowska]

Hilary Bradt founder of Bradt Tourist attractions Editors recalled how for nearly 40 years she swapped stories about the trials and tribulations of being a tour leader with Hann.

“It is through his deep knowledge and love for Iraq that we remember him and how he began his long collaboration with Bradt guides. Geoff’s love of history and fondness for exploring little-known routes made him an obvious candidate to immerse himself in Iraq, and during the Iraq-Iran conflict his groups were often the only travelers there. .

“In 2003, he made a short-lived personal visit at the end of the war, then led a rather famous tour in Iraq after the war. Iraq from yesterday to today, Geoff recounted the bewilderment of military personnel – how could a group of tourists walk past their checkpoints while crouching in front of their machine guns? Unfortunately, this open window soon closed. In 2007, he operated two tours in Iraqi Kurdistan and waited for the reopening of southern Iraq,” she continues.

“His patience was rewarded and for five years he was able to travel all over Iraq. New restrictions limited such visits and the second edition of the travel guide was punctuated with safety warnings about areas still inaccessible. However, Geoff was the eternal optimist and anticipated that access would change again in the near future and, indeed, by the time the third edition of the Bradt guide came out last year, Geoff was again leading tours.”

Geoff Hann at the Iraq Museum [photo credit: Karen Dabrowska]

Prior to the 2003 invasion, the US Pentagon ordered copies of Hann’s guide to try to avoid destroying 6,000-year-old treasures from the Cradle of Civilization.

Hann treated war, sanctions, terrorism and a global pandemic as minor obstacles in a mission to share his passion for the ancient history of modern Iraq. Iraq and Afghanistan have been the mainstays of its activity over the past decade.

His partner Tina Townsend-Greaves described a trip through the Khyber Pass. “He wore an Afghan vest and had a gun with him. I asked him if he took a gun on all his trips. And he said, ‘No, just this one, this trip might be more risky than normal.’

“Do you know how to shoot?” I asked. He was in the RAF but spent a lot of time on the athletics team. He said he was going to save the honor of the ladies. “Thank you,” I replied. “How many bullets do you have?” Nine, he told me. “But there were ten of us.”

Poor health forced Hann to retire in 2022. In March, he led a final trip to Iraq which he described as “the last hurrah”. At the end of a wonderful tour, he suffered a stroke and died in Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad.

Raad Al Qassimi, an Iraqi guide who worked with Hann for 20 years, described him as an Iraqi icon. “Everywhere he had friends. He loved Iraq and the Iraqis loved him.

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

“He was an amazing guy. He was 85 and he continued to be active and put on these tours.”

Hann is survived by his partner Tina Townsend-Graves and his daughters Louise and Vanessa.

Karen Dabrowska is a London-based freelance journalist focusing on the Middle East and Islamic affairs. She is also the author of ten books. His latest biography, Mohamed Makiya: A Modern Architect Renewing Islamic Tradition was published by Al-Saqi in July