ERBIL, Iraq — There are two ways to consider the imposing Erbil citadel, a huge mound 100 feet above the flat plain on which this city of one million sits.
One. The citadel is one of the oldest continuously occupied human settlements on earth, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and Kurdish officials have gone to great lengths to restore and preserve it despite a severe financial crisis.
The warren of alleyways in the old town had become overcrowded slums as the historic buildings crumbled from neglect, but in 2006, the authorities relocated the more than 500 families elsewhere, in what was one of the Middle East’s most ambitious preservation projects.
Two. Six thousand years or more of human civilization have come to this: In the citadel’s central square is a tall metal pole with a Kurdish flag the size of a boxcar.
We recently visited the Kurdish region of Iraq and, maybe because of news reports, it was nothing like we expected. It’s not Arab. It’s not a war-torn desert wasteland. It’s safe. It’s peaceful. It’s green and mountainous, graced with abundant waterfalls and hilly, fertile farmland. Plus, Arabs, Kurds and foreigners all vacation together. No wonder Iraqi Kurdistan has been called “The Other Iraq.”
Westerners have no idea what they are missing.
A little about the Kurds
The “cradle of civilization” gave birth to the Kurdish peoples, yet they still dream of their own nation. Their homeland has been occupied by various empires for millennia. Medes, Assyrians, Sumerians, Parthians, Persians and others have ruled over them. Now, they are separated by political borders, but whether they live in Iraq, Syria, Turkey or Iran, they always consider themselves Kurds first.
At least 18 sites within the 6,000 year old Erbil citadel have been restored and are now open to visitors.
Work on the UNESCO World Heritage site has been delayed due to the financial crisis.
Considered one of the oldest inhabited areas in the world, the citadel was home to 6,000 residents at its height. It has, however, suffered from decades of neglect and many of the houses were crumbling.
One of the attractions where visitors can now enter is the Citadel Antiquities, which is full of Kurdish traditional heritage items and relics.
The other sites now open to visitors include Guest Reception Center, Kurdish Traditional Clothing Museum, Citadel Great Mosque, Citadel Public Bath, Erbil Hand-made Carpets Center, Citadel Cultural Center, Mideast French Institute, Kurdish Waive and Knit Museum, Citadel Upper Gate, Erbil Museum for Rocks and Jewels, and the Citadel Main Commission Office.
A UNESCO official has expressed worry that the slow progress being made in the reconstruction of the Erbil Citadel could result in the organization removing the historic site from its World Heritage list.
Speaking to NRT, conservation architect May Shaer – who currently works with UNESCO in Iraq – called for the resumption of development in the area of Erbil’s Citadel in order to ensure the site is not delisted.
“If developments and reconstructions go on slowly the way it is going on now, there will be danger that this historic site will be removed from the World Heritage list,” she said.
“We consider Erbil’s Citadel remaining in the World Heritage list as important,” she added.
The Erbil Citadel that dominates the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan was granted World Heritage Site status in June 2014.