The Irbil citadel predates Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurds and for that matter Arabs, Genghis Khan, the Persians, Greeks and Romans, all of whom passed this way. History is alive among its walls.
IRBIL, Iraq —
There are two ways to consider the imposing Irbil citadel, a huge mound 100 feet above the flat plain on which this city of 1 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.
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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. Down in the new city, black smoke belches from dozens of rooftop diesel generators during daily power cuts. Their cacophonous roar disrupts the tranquility of the scene, while hanging over it all for days on end is the pungent smell of burning plastic from a nearby trash dump.
Because of the regional Kurdish government’s ban on tall buildings in a buffer zone around the citadel, it retains a commanding aspect over the city and its ancient sobriquet as “the Crown of Irbil.” Even today, much of the road system in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, is arranged like the spokes of a wheel, with the citadel as the hub.
May Shaer, an architect who was UNESCO’s project director on the citadel, said that there were other sites as ancient, and fortified cities as big, but that few combined a living city on top of a massive archaeological mound, connecting ancient and modern history in an unbroken stream.
“It is really very rare,” she said, “really interesting.”
To hold on to the citadel’s “continuously occupied” title after the evictions, Kurdish officials arranged for one family to remain in their ancestral home in the middle of the old town.
For some reason, the director of the citadel, Dara al-Yaqoobi, would not allow journalists to meet the family. He said they were too annoyed by repeated visitors, and anyway, “They just sleep here. That is not life, that is not continued habitation.”
More important evidence of continuity, he said, were the citadel’s ancient Grand Mosque, which is still in use, and the museum of Kurdish textiles, the ceramics museum and the antiques store, all of which are new but open for business. “This is life,” he said.
And that flag? “Yes, it’s the flag of Kurdistan,” said Yaqoobi, whose office is in a beautifully restored Ottoman merchants’ house near the flagpole square and whose full title is head of the High Commission for Irbil Citadel Revitalization. “You can put in some new things in harmony with the overall environment.”
As it turned out, the last man living in the citadel, Rebwar Mohammed Qader, 32, was happy to talk, and showed visitors around his old two-room brick house, similar to the house nearby where he grew up, and to introduce his wife and four young children.
Overhanging his outer compound wall were the only two remaining shade trees in the citadel, one a dying oak, the other a mulberry tree, and within the compound was a tatterdemalion garden, where a scrawny pomegranate tree drooped with heavy fruit. The house was modest, but with triangular brick architectural flourishes above the door, characteristic of ancient house styles here.
Being the corporeal embodiment of 6 millenniums of human history isn’t easy, Qader said. For one thing, he has to bring groceries in by handcart from the new city, up the steep entrance ramp to the citadel’s south gate. There’s no parking for visitors, and his children have a 25-minute hike to school.
“It’s really boring to stay alone in this house with no neighbors, but I really love the Qalat,” Qader said, using the local name for the citadel. “I’m showing my respect for all those generations of 5,000, 6,000 years gone by.”
The Irbil citadel of course greatly predates Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurds and for that matter Arabs, Genghis Khan, the Persians, Greeks and Romans, all of whom passed this way, most of them not nicely. It is on what archaeologists call a tell — a mound built up from the dirt and debris of successive human settlements, typically at the rate of 1 meter every 200 years.
At 32 meters high, or about 100 feet, that suggests an age of more than 6,000 years, and there is evidence of habitation here in 4,500 B.C., during the Ubaid period, Yaqoobi said, when humankind was still trying to figure out the wheel.
There has been little archaeological excavation of the citadel’s tell, except for one project that bored down about a third of the depth and found an impressive set of brick fortifications that were dated to 2,300 B.C.
Deeper excavations might answer the question of whether the entire tell resulted from human habitation, and could therefore shed light on humankind’s earliest urbanizations, or whether a natural hill is underneath it all, so that it is not really as old as believed.
Qader was more concerned with domestic problems. His growing young family has gotten too big for their little house, and he doesn’t earn enough to expand it — plus that’s not allowed. He is employed as a government worker, managing the old (but not historic) water tower on the site, which provides water to shops at the foot of the tell.
There are other annoyances as well — especially mice. With no one else in residence, Qader’s house is the last rodent magnet in town. “We have cats,” he said. “But they’re lazy.”
If this were a living community, then as Qader’s family grew they could move to a larger home. That is his proposal to the citadel management and Yaqoobi, who have so far rejected it (which may help explain the director’s reticence about his last man). “I may have to get a lawyer,” Qader said.
One of his two sons is severely disabled. “He needs his own room,” Qader said. “I protect the name and the pride of the Qalat, but they need to remember that it is only because of me that generation after generation continues to live here.”