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.