The Citadel Situation

17 Nov

The Ancient Citadel in the center of Erbil

On another cloudless, warm day in Erbil we climbed to the top of the ancient Citadel that rises above the city centre with Chro, a student at the Foreign Language University. The man-made mound on which the present settlement rests was built up slowly over its 6,000 year history with each generation using the previous structures as foundations to build upward to the present height of 30 meters (100 feet). At the main gate to the city we came across a group of westerners having their picture taken with their security team in front of the towering sculpture of a famous Kurdish historian. Beth struck up a conversation with the American woman in the group who was in the country as part of a UN mission. She had just come from Baghdad and talked about her stay in the Green Zone where she was required to have full body armour on hand at all times and the incoming mortar alarm would sound at least 3 times a day. (Needless to say no mortar alarms needed in this part of the country)

Beth speaking with a UN representative

Entering the town, we were struck by its sheer size and evidence of modern life with wide roads, street lights and a mobile phone tower. The layers of history are evident in certain details of the idiosyncratic, labyrinthine architecture. The evidence of many decades can be found in the accumulated construction of a single section of a building. The thresholds of the houses that were worn down and the reinforcement of the roofs with an assortment of materials; straw mats, logs, old furniture, corrugated metal and old street signs.

Old house in the Citadel

One of the major historical claims of the Citadel is that it is the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in history. However the settlement, under consideration for nomination as World Heritage Site, was recently vacated by the government on the grounds that the buildings needed to undergo restoration because the inhabitants were not taking proper care of the site. There was concern inadequate drainage was disintegrating the hill of the Citadel. In the 80s and early 90s many of the families that had traditionally lived in the houses moved down to the city below and refugees from the turmoil of that period started to settle in the empty structures without permits. In 2006, the city drafted a master plan which would resettle the 800 families, over 2,000 people, to vacant land outside of the city and tear down the buildings surrounding the Citadel to provide a “buffer zone” which is a requirement for UNESCO world heritage sites. Some of the families took the government’s offer and others protested until basic services were cut and were forcibly removed. Currently the buildings are awaiting renovation and slowly falling apart as there is no one living in the structures to maintain them. The Master Plan details a restoration of a number of the buildings and there is currently a proposal under review which would allow a limited number of people to inhabit the Citadel, these new residents would likely be chosen through a selection process transforming the area into a “living museum”.


We went into a few of the ancient homes however access is restricted to the main road that bisects the town. Inside the homes, which were surprisingly cool, traces of old frescos could be seen and a few of the decorative carvings remained.

Carved column

Chro and Jason in front of a building with remains of frescoes

Near the entrance is a gift shop with a bizarre mixture of antiques, old telephones, pots, rugs and generic souvenirs including images of Raphael’s cherubs, and commemorative plates with painted portraits of Kurdish politicians, although no postcards.

Commemorative plates inside the gift shop

Mannequins in the gift shop

The Citadel is evidently still a popular place for local residents who come up to enjoy the fresh air and panoramic views of the city.

Flag of Kurdish Iraq in the center of the Citadel

Chro, Himan and Beth overlooking Erbil


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: