SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We often hear reports of destruction and war from Northern Iraq. Here's a story about restoration, a plan to revitalize one of the oldest habitations in the world. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from Erbil.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: A map of this city looks like a dartboard, circles radiating outward from a central core. The bull's-eye sits high on a hill crowned by ancient walls. The Erbil Citadel has stood here for at least 6,000 years. It may be the oldest continuously-inhabited site on Earth. There is no commerce in the Citadel now. The public is no longer allowed here, just teams digging to put in water and electricity. A half-dozen workers here are wearing hard hats and neon vests, carrying shovels and pick axes. There's a small bulldozer moving earth. It's a tricky place to do construction because you dig just a couple of feet underground, and you're hitting the ancient thousand-year old ruins.
DARAA AL-YAQOOBI: I am Daraa al-Yaqoobi, the head of the High Commission for Erbil Citadel and the director of Erbil Citadel Project.
SHAPIRO: Yaqoobi says this restoration project started in 2007. Structures are being repaired and rebuilt, city services like electricity and water are being upgraded. It'll be done in stages over 25 years. Last year the effort got a boost when UNESCO named this a world heritage site. For Yaqoobi, the Citadel Project is personal.
YAQOOBI: My father, my grandfather, all my previous families were from Erbil Citadel. My grandfather was the governor of Erbil Citadel.
SHAPIRO: The house that used to belong to his grandfather will be an information center when this is done. Yaqoobi says the final product will be for tourists and locals, a mix of markets, museums and homes - for some people.
YAQOOBI: Not every standard typical family could live here. A family he has two cars with different kind of visitors, so he cannot live here. But different, another kind of people who may love the area who is a small family, who is maybe a single person, he can live here.
SHAPIRO: People in Erbil describe this Citadel as their heart that has pumped life through the city for thousands of years.
ARAZ ABDULKHALAK: (Through interpreter) Everyone who lives in Erbil feels that this is their home, even families that aren't from the Citadel. It's hard for people not to be able to visit.
SHAPIRO: Araz Abdulkhalak is taking us on a walking tour of the buildings.
ABDULKHALAK: (Through interpreter) Families show up and say, please just let us spend a few minutes inside these walls. We just want to smell it.
SHAPIRO: We're standing in a courtyard with a dry fountain in front of us and on one side of the fountain is an olive tree. On the other side is a fig tree. And there are these stone arches inside of which there is this tessellated ceiling and multicolored tiles. Right now it's very dusty and ruined and dry, but you can just imagine the water flowing, the birds perched in the trees and what this would look like sitting high above the modern city of Erbil. Now we're in that modern city at the base of the hill, in the tailor shop of Hathem Salih. His family lived in the Citadel for at least 600 years. Maybe longer - the records don't go back that far. Saddam Hussein's government commandeered some of the nicest houses in the Citadel 25 years ago and kicked Salih's family out. He was 10 years old.
HATHEM SALIH: (Through interpreter) We left all our history, all our memories. It was a trauma for my family.
SHAPIRO: He would love to move back there, but he says it's too painful just to visit. When the current government moved everyone out for the restoration, families were given money or a plot of land to build new homes. One family was allowed to remain. That's to keep the Erbil Citadel in the running for the title of longest continuously inhabited site in the world. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Erbil, Northern Iraq.
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