Kurds Displaced in Effort to Preserve Ancient City Kurdish authorities are trying to preserve an ancient citadel above Irbil that local historians say has been a site of human habitation for 7,000 years. But in order to preserve it, they've had to relocate its most recent habitants — refugee Kurds.
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Kurds Displaced in Effort to Preserve Ancient City

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Kurds Displaced in Effort to Preserve Ancient City

Kurds Displaced in Effort to Preserve Ancient City

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The U.S. military confirmed today that all four helicopters that have crashed in Iraq in the last two weeks were shot down. A military spokesman said it's unclear whether this is a new threat to U.S. aviation, but the military is adjusting its tactics and procedures for deploying helicopters.

In Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, Kurdish authorities are trying to turn a historic landmark into a United Nations-approved World Heritage Site. The ancient citadel in Irbil has been the site of human habitation for more than 7,000 years, but that came to an end last month.

NPR's Ivan Watson traveled to Irbil and found a ghost town.

IVAN WATSON: Local historians say thousands of years before the birth of Christ, Sumerians named a town located on the flat Mesopotamian plains Ur Bilum. As civilizations came and went, each wave of new inhabitants - including Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Ottomans - built on top of the ruins of their predecessors. The result is a crumbling brick citadel which stands on a giant man-made hill; it looms some 100 feet above modern-day Irbil.

Mr. SAMI AL-KOJA (Citadel Board of Renovation): It's the oldest continuously inhabited place in the world.

WATSON: Many scholars contest the claim of Sami al-Koja, who is an adviser to the citadel's board of renovation. He says due to decades of conflict and isolation, the mountain of human history the citadel was built upon has never been excavated or studied by archaeologists.

Mr. AL-KOJA: You've got seven civilizations under where we're standing now. So it is a jewel. It's seven to 8,000 years old. What do you call it? It's a jewel.

WATSON: Within the fortress's massive walls stands an entire city of sagging, brown brick houses crisscrossed by a labyrinth of winding, unpaved alleys. Until last month, this was a ghetto that reeked of raw sewage and housed thousands of Kurdish refugees who moved during the '70s and '80s after Saddam's army destroyed their villages in the countryside.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

WATSON: Today visitors will be surprised to find the lively ghetto has been transformed into an eerie, empty ghost town. And houses that thousands of people once lived in stand completely empty. In fact, the doors are wide open. You can walk into any of them, like this one right here, and look at what was a pretty crude home for people.

Last month, local authorities evacuated all but one of the 828 families living in the citadel, giving each of them plots of land and $4,000 for new homes. The evacuees left behind garbage and scattered belongings, like a woman's shoe, a child's schoolbook, an empty pack of cigarettes.

Mr. LOLAN MUSTAFA (Historian): When the houses are built, the idea, it is to bring back people but under the regular control of antiquity. You know, they should, you know, take care of the house, preserve the house. So it should be a living city again.

WATSON: Lolan Mustafa is a local historian. He has mixed feelings about the evacuation order. But he ultimately believes it will better protect history.

Mr. MUSTAFA: The problem when they're - all the citadel were overpopulated by the refugees and the water were running everywhere.

WATSON: Two years ago, Mustafa opened a museum of textiles in a renovated two-story house near the Citadel's main gate.

Mr. MUSTAFA: We have around 400 pieces are displayed here.

WATSON: He is trying to preserve the traditional art of Kurdish carpet weaving that all but died out during Saddam Hussein's scorched earth campaign to pacify the Kurdish countryside.

Mr. MUSTAFA: What happened when starts - Saddam started in the middle of '70s relocating the villages and the tribes to the - let's say concentration camps and to the city. So they've abandoned their animal husbandry and weaving tradition. And now most of the women died or they are very old.

WATSON: Not far from the textile museum, classical music echoes from another renovated mansion.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: Here Frenchman Mathieu Saint-Dizier runs a European cultural center which presents free Western art exhibits to the public.

Do you get a lot of Kurdish visitors? Are they interested?

Mr. MATHIEU SAINT-DIZIER: The problem is about the place. The citadel had in the past a bad reputation. Many poor people was working there.

WATSON: Irbil's city government advisor, Sami Al Koja, wants UNESCO to help guide the citadel's rebirth.

Mr. SAMI AL KOJA (City Government Advisor): You've got so much potential in it, you know, like archeological sites, excavations, museums. Make it a touristic place, but not like a Disneyland.

WATSON: Only one family has been allowed to stay for now to tend the citadel's water tower, which supplies the modern city below.

Ms. AZIZA KADR ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: Aziza Kadr Ali lives with her husband and children in the shadow of the tower.

Ms. ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

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

The citadel's former residents have been resettled on a barren plain about 25 miles east of Irbil, where an entire new neighborhood is now under construction. Instead of brown brick houses, the homes here are much larger and built of gray cinderblock. But the new arrivals are clearly nostalgic for their old home. They've named this neighborhood the new citadel. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

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