Erbil: Iraqi Kurdistan’s culture hub

The Erbil Citadel may claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited place on Earth, but this doesn’t translate into the kind of mass tourism such a marketing label would normally generate. This, after all, is Iraq and although Erbil is the capital of semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, it’s still tainted by Iraq’s bad reputation. To underscore this point, I landed in Erbil just three days after the US base at the local airport was struck by five missiles in retaliation for the killing of Iranian General Suleimani.

My taxi driver who pointed out the spot also mused about Erbil being a culture hub for all Kurds who form the world’s largest stateless nation. From all the Kurdish flags, it soon became clear how the city has been kurdified. Even without all the effort, Erbil could hardly be anything but Kurdish. The traditional garb incorporating the shalwar, a pair of baggy pants tight at the ankles, was on view everywhere. Unlike Iraqi Arabs who have adopted Western clothing, Kurds have stuck to their own culture.

“…Erbil [is] a far cry from the war zone you may have imagined it to be”

Nowhere is this more evident than at the fortified Erbil Citadel in the heart of the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Like a round layered cake, the Citadel is an elevated, egg-shaped mound surrounded by flat terrain where settlements going back some seven millennia have been built on top of one another. Successive dwellings were mostly built with mud bricks which in time disintegrated. By piling up, they also heightened the Citadel which, now raised by some 30 metres, is a workout to climb in a burst of excitement.

The first written record of the Citadel is from 2300 BC, but its most ancient traces date back to about 5000 BC. Unsurprisingly, the structure has undergone several phases of destruction, most recently by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and subsequent reconstruction, the latest of which started in 2007 and is still ongoing. In addition to its local Kurdish inhabitants, various waves of outsiders have left their mark here, including Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mongols, Ottomans and Europeans.

Along the Citadel’s main thoroughfare stands the impressive Kurdish Textile Museum. The carpets and kilims exhibited here were woven in the villages of Iraqi Kurdistan or by nomadic Kurds on small transportable looms hung from door frames. In addition to exhibiting, the near-lost art of weaving is also being re-taught here since it’s almost impossible to find a carpet or kilim from Iraqi Kurdistan after the mid-1980s when Saddam’s brutal regime began to target the Kurdish villagers and their traditions.

In the shadow of the famed Citadel is Erbil’s central square which is home to the local replica of the Big Ben, London’s iconic clock tower, a sweeping oriental souk and countless tea sellers whose customers sit on every conceivable surface to enjoy the strong Iraqi brew. Further afield is the small but significant Erbil Civilisation Museum with three halls of artifacts from Iraqi Kurdistan’s long and multi-layered history. All of this adds to Erbil as a far cry from the war zone you may have imagined it to be.