Kurds Displaced in Effort to Preserve Ancient City

The Citadel i i

Irbil's crumbling citadel still dominates the skyline of the city. Local officials want to renovate the ancient structure and turn it into a cultural and historical center for tourists. Ivan Watson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ivan Watson, NPR
The Citadel

Irbil's crumbling citadel still dominates the skyline of the city. Local officials want to renovate the ancient structure and turn it into a cultural and historical center for tourists.

Ivan Watson, NPR

A City That Goes Way, Way Back

In the 1st millennium BCE, Irbil appears prominently in the records of the great Assyrian kings. Between the 9th and 7th centuries, they established an empire that dominated the ancient world, encompassing all of Mesopotamia and Syro-Palestine and extending, for a time, into Anatolia (Turkey) and Egypt.

Read more about the history of Irbil

Textile Museum i i

Volunteer tour guide and American-educated anthropologist Lolan Mustafa shows carpets on display in the Kurdish Textile Museum, a center he opened in the Irbil citadel three years ago. Mustafa is trying to revive traditional Kurdish carpet-weaving - an art that all but died out during decades of conflict in northern Iraq. Yerevan Adham hide caption

itoggle caption Yerevan Adham
Textile Museum

Volunteer tour guide and American-educated anthropologist Lolan Mustafa shows carpets on display in the Kurdish Textile Museum, a center he opened in the Irbil citadel three years ago. Mustafa is trying to revive traditional Kurdish carpet-weaving - an art that all but died out during decades of conflict in northern Iraq.

Yerevan Adham
New Neighborhood i i

Twenty-five miles east of Irbil, a new neighborhood is under construction. Residents are former refugees, who lived for decades in the old citadel. Yerevan Adham hide caption

itoggle caption Yerevan Adham
New Neighborhood

Twenty-five miles east of Irbil, a new neighborhood is under construction. Residents are former refugees, who lived for decades in the old citadel.

Yerevan Adham

In Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, Kurdish authorities are trying to turn a historic landmark into a United Nations-approved World Heritage Site. According to local historians, the ancient citadel in Irbil has been the site of human habitation for more than 7,000 years.

The Sumerians built a town on the flat Mesopotamian plains here they called "Ur Bilum." Civilizations came and went. Each wave of new inhabitants — including Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Ottomans - built on top of the other. Today, a crumbling brick citadel looms over modern-day Irbil on a giant man-made hill.

"It's the oldest continuously inhabited place in the world," says Sami Al Koja, who serves as an adviser to the citadel's board of renovation.

Many scholars contest this claim. Al Koja says that the mountain upon which the citadel sits has never been excavated or studied by archaeologists, due to decades of conflict and isolation.

Within the fortress' massive walls, an entire city of sagging, brown-brick houses is divided by a labyrinth of winding, unpaved alleys. Until recently, this was a ghetto that reeked of raw sewage and housed thousands of Kurdish refugees. They moved here during the '70s and '80s after Saddam Hussein's army destroyed their villages in the countryside.

Out of the Old City and into the New

The citadel's once-lively ghetto has been transformed into a ghost town. Last month, local authorities evacuated all but one of the 828 families living in the city. Each family was given a plot of land and $4,000 for new homes. They've been relocated to a barren plain about 25 miles east of Irbil, where an entire new neighborhood is under construction. The homes there are made of gray cinderblock, but that hasn't stopped them from naming their neighborhood "the New Citadel."

The old citadel, however, is now empty. Doors were left wide-open, and forgotten belongings — a woman's shoe, a child's schoolbook, empty packets of cigarettes and garbage — are scattered on the ground.

The one family allowed to remain in the city is responsible for tending to the water tower, which supplies the city below. Aziza Kadr lives with her husband and children in the tower's shadow.

"I feel lonely here," she says. "It was very sad when all our neighbors left."

For Preservation's Sake

Lolan Mustafa, a local historian, has mixed feelings about the evacuation order. But he believes it will ultimately protect the history of the place.

"When the houses are rebuilt, the idea is to bring back people but under the regular and control of antiquity," he says. "They should take care of the house, preserve the house. So it should be a living city again."

Two years ago, Mustafa opened a textiles museum in a renovated two-story house near the citadel's main gate. He's trying to preserve the traditional art of Kurdish carpet-weaving, which nearly died during Saddam's scorched-earth campaign to pacify the Kurdish countryside. Over 400 pieces are on display in his museum.

Not far from the textile museum, classical music echoes from another renovated mansion, where a Frenchman named Mathieu Saint-Dizier runs a European cultural center. It presents free Western art exhibits to the public. But the public, as it turns out, isn't very large.

"The problem is the place," Saint-Dizier says. "The citadel doesn't attract a lot of people. The citadel had in the past a bad reputation. Many poor people were working there."

Irbil city government adviser Sami Al Koja wants UNESCO — the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — to help guide the city's rebirth. He sees potential in the crumbling brown bricks on top of the mountain - for archaeological discovery and for tourism.

A City That Goes Way, Way Back

Crumbling Citadel

The courtyard of one of the citadel's neglected, crumbling houses. Yerevan Adham hide caption

itoggle caption Yerevan Adham

Irbil is a very, very ancient city. From as early the 21st century B.C., Irbil was known by the name "Urbilum."

Today's occupants live above layers upon layers of former habitations. Because the citadel of Irbil has continually been inhabited, it has not been excavated. Much of what we know about Irbil's history — especially its ancient history — comes from external sources reporting on events that took place there. In addition to its valuable strategic location along the Tigris at the foot of the Zagros Mountains, the city was once an important center for religion and scholarship.

From as early as the 13th century B.C. (and probably even earlier), Irbil was known as the site of an important temple to Ishtar, the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of sex and war. She was the most powerful female deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, and her temples were major social and economic centers, as well as enormous investments of community resources.

In the 1st millennium B.C., Irbil appears prominently in the records of the great Assyrian kings. Between the 9th and 7th centuries, they established an empire that dominated the ancient world, encompassing all of Mesopotamia and Syro-Palestine (an area that includes modern-day Israel, Syria, the Palestinian territories and adjacent regions). The Assyrian kings' reach extended, for a time, into Anatolia (Turkey) and Egypt. The city served as a jump-off point for Assyrian military campaigns to the northeast. A hymn from this period proclaims Irbil on a level with the better-known religious centers, Assur and Babylon. Also, Irbil and its Ishtar temple were home to female prophets, patronized extensively by King Esarhaddon and his mother.

The temple of Ishtar of Arbela was restored and rebuilt numerous times over the millennia. Kings from the 12th century to the 7th century B.C. reconstructed the temple as an act of royal devotion. The city wall and the façade of the Ishtar temple are depicted in a monumental relief sculpture from an Assyrian royal palace at Nineveh, executed when that city was the political capital of the Assyrian Empire. The fragmentary sculpture is housed today in the Louvre, where visitors can see the cuneiform label inscribed with the name of the city amidst the defensive towers of its walls.

After the fall of the Assyrian and then Babylonian empires, Irbil became part of the Achaemenid empire when Babylon succumbed peacefully to Cyrus in 539. The city continued to play an important role, and in 331, Alexander the Great defeated Darius III at nearby Gaugamela to cement his hegemony over the ancient Near East.

Kathryn Slanski is a lecturer in Near Eastern languages and civilizations and the humanities at Yale University and an expert in ancient Mesopotamian civilization.

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