Iraq | Blocking the Sky

In Erbil, an ancient citadel gets a new life even as the city grapples with a troubled history

The citadel of Erbil, believed by some to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world, has been emptied of all residents, except for one family. JAN KURDISTANI / CC-SA 2
01 January, 2013

NAWZAD HADI, THE GOVERNOR OF ERBIL, holds meetings late into the night. He has to, he says, because during his eight years as governor, his hometown has become a city. In Iraqi Kurdistan there are urgent projects that need approval, new businesses that must open, roads to build and potholes to fix. After being elected, Hadi famously gloated: “Six years ago, Erbil was a village. In six more years it will be Dubai.” When I met him in his office one evening last August, he put it another way: “In 2003, there were 34,000 cars in Erbil, all old models. Now there are half a million cars, all brand new. And a lot more roads.”

Those roads, for now, radiate out from one central point in the city: the ancient citadel, a 7,000-year-old walled cluster of sand-coloured homes on a 32-metre-high hill that overlooks Erbil’s old and new sprawl. The citadel is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities—some historians, and some local politicians like Hadi, consider it the oldest—and it’s showing its age. But the citadel is benefiting from Iraqi Kurdistan’s big budget future, the result of generous untapped oil reserves and eager foreign investment in the stable post-Saddam years. In the hopes that Kurdish ambition, and the oil money driving it, won’t steamroll Kurdish history, the citadel is getting a very Kurdish makeover.

The government-funded High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalization (HCECR) began in 2007 with the aim of restoring the citadel’s hundreds of buildings into expensive homes, hotels, museums, shops, and research centres for future excavation projects; UNESCO is also involved in the renovation. Over the years, the citadel has housed generations of Erbil’s poor, who were responsible for the maintenance of their own neighbourhood. But as Erbil developed and acquired the polish of a booming city, the citadel began to look to city administrators less like a low-income neighbourhood and more like a flaw.

After decades of neglect, newer buildings—mostly crude two-storey residences built by Kurds displaced from rural areas—were in different stages of disrepair, and the inhabitants themselves were seen by some as a reminder of the Saddam Hussein era, during which hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forced to leave their villages. When renovation work began on the citadel, its inhabitants were resettled outside the city.

Saddam’s legacy in the ancient city, like in other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, is one of destruction. “The previous Iraqi regime started to demolish the houses,” said Dara Yacoubi, the head of the HCECR. “They wanted to destroy the Kurdish national architecture.” Under the revitalisation project, those destroyed homes will be rebuilt. Crafts relegated to history or appropriated by the dominant cultures in which Kurds live—Persian, Turkish and Arab—will be reclaimed by historians working in the citadel. “It will be a living museum,” Yacoubi said, over tea in an on-site trailer serving as the project headquarters. “It proves that Kurds have a history.”

Until Saddam’s deposition, Iraq’s oil wealth, far from liberating the Kurdish population, subsidised their oppression, providing money and strength to Saddam’s forces. Saddam, in his 23 years as president of Iraq, targeted the uprising-prone Kurdish peoples in the north, who make up about 20 percent of Iraq’s population. The regime perpetrated systematic human rights abuses against the Kurds, culminating in the notorious Al-Anfal campaign in 1988, during which at least 80,000 Kurds (some sources cite much higher numbers) were massacred with chemical weapons.

Iraq’s Kurds supported—to put it mildly—the fall of Saddam. Unlike Baghdad, just 390 kilometers south of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan has thrived since the 2003 invasion, becoming an ally of the US and, later, Turkey. Protected by a no-fly zone and enjoying relative peace during occupation, Erbil and its surrounding area attracted investors, even tourists. Exiled Kurds returned and the population swelled. Untapped oil reserves—small compared to the rest of Iraq, but in a much more stable region—made Iraqi Kurdistan desirable to oil companies, first Turkish and now American and European. Another of Hadi’s statistics is also a gloat: in Baghdad, Iraqis have, on average, a few hours of electricity a day; in Erbil, Iraqi Kurds are treated to almost a full day of power. Every Friday, Erbil hotels are filled with Arab Iraqis from Baghdad who drive those 390 kilometres to spend a weekend under working lights.

Its high walls built on sloping, steep hills didn’t protect Iraqi Kurds from Saddam’s attacks, but the citadel remained at the centre of Erbil culture—it wasn’t razed or occupied by Saddam’s forces. “The nineties were a dark day in Kurdistan,” Hadi said. “But there was always life in the citadel.”

The centrepiece of the citadel’s cultural renaissance is the Kurdish Textile Museum, which opened in 2004. Lolan Sipan, the museum’s director, fled the Saddam regime in the early 1980s to Sweden, where he studied anthropology, focusing on Kurdish nomads. When Saddam fell, he came home. “When the Saddam regime destroyed thousands of villages and relocated villagers, the handicrafts died,” Sipan said. “The Saddam regime was successful in many ways.” Sipan seeks out people he calls “mentors”, mostly older women who grew up making the traditional thick carpets and bright screens in villages that vanished under the Saddam regime. The women are part of Erbil’s underclass, and their talent for rural Kurdish crafts is denigrated by many business-driven Iraqi Kurds, who prefer not to think about the past. Sipan’s task, benign in theory, is tough and political in practice. “It’s too hard to think about that time. People don’t want to think about the past destruction of their villages, of war and conflict. It was always seen as a backwards time,” he said. “Kurdish people have an identity crisis.”

Part of that crisis arises from Erbil’s dependence on foreign investors, especially Turkey. Since the fall of Saddam, in its ambition to modernise, Erbil has developed a fruitful business and political partnership with Turkey, which has had a profound cultural impact on the city. Turkish construction built the new Erbil and other Turkish businesses followed while the cement was still wet. Their tracks are everywhere: markets are full of Turkish products, and Turkish restaurants, cafés, and shops dominate Erbil’s many malls. It makes some residents uncomfortable; Turkey, after all, is notoriously oppressive of its own Kurdish community. People like Sipan work to resurrect a Kurdish culture that has been absorbed into dominant societies, like in Turkey. “In Istanbul, rug shops have a lot of valuable Kurdish pieces, but for years there were no scholars capable of, or willing to, label things as Kurdish,” he said. “This is the way to make a culture vanish.”

Some critics worry that the plans for the citadel mirror those for Erbil at large, which is being designed primarily as a home for the rich. Before the revitalisation project began, the citadel was full, still functioning as a town within a town. Today, only one family lives there—the Qadr family, comprising the Director of Water, who is in charge of the citadel’s water supply, and his wife and young kids—in a small but tidy home surrounded by a yard full of chickens and children’s toys. The Qadr family had to stay amidst the construction because of a technicality: without them, the “longest continuously inhabited city in the world” would cease to be inhabited.

The 900 families that were the Qadr family’s neighbours were relocated to a planned community 11 kilometres from downtown. I was assured by one young man living there, who preferred to remain anonymous, that most residents are pleased with the new homes, even adopting the government-coined nickname for their neighborhood: the “New Citadel”. The families were given a few thousand dollars to vacate their homes and start anew, in a swathe of undeveloped desert on the outskirts of Erbil; much greater sums are being spent on renovating the homes they left—at least half a million dollars on each, Yacoubi said—to turn them into exclusive residences for Erbil’s new wealthy elite.

Yacoubi and his team reach out to the families, interviewing them about their time in the citadel, anticipating that each abandoned home will be part of the living museum—individual Kurdish histories that make up a whole, new city. “Who was the owner? What happened in this house?” Yacoubi asked. “They are all part of the social memory of the citadel.” That social memory includes the early moments of the revitalisation project, when the citadel’s remaining families lived with the noises and smells of construction, waiting to be relocated to the edges of Erbil. The young man, sitting in front of a churning air cooler in a modern home near a new, wide highway leading further away from the city, remembers those days. “In the citadel our windows used to open up to our neighbors,” he said. “When they started renovating, we had to close those windows to keep out the dust, and our homes became very dark.”

Reporting for this story was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.