The Citadel of Erbil

by Ben Van Heuvelen

Yesterday I took a taxi to the center of town to see Erbil’s main tourist attraction, the Citadel. People first started living there 7,000 years ago, just after humans figured out how to smelt copper. UNESCO says it’s the oldest continuously inhabited structure in the world. To keep this record alive perhaps, the government allows a single family to continue living there while it’s being restored. (I didn’t run into the family yesterday, but maybe I’ll try to find them.)

The Citadel was built on an artificial earthen mound that rises about 30 meters above the rest of Erbil and the surrounding flatlands. From the parapets, you can see the city, the suburbs, and the Zagros Mountains to the north. The inside of the Citadel is divided in half by a wide north-south road. On either side, there’s a hive-like maze of corridors, huts, and hollows. I was walking around the Citadel at 4pm on a Friday — the middle of the weekend — and once I stepped off the main road it was entirely quiet. I’ve never been somewhere so ancient that was so recently inhabited. There were shoes and blankets inside some of the huts. In one, a dilapidated motorcycle. Here and there, restoration workers had left behind cement mixers and other large pieces of construction equipment. I imagined that I was encountering the aftermath of an Indiana Jones adventure in which protective ghosts have chased some agents of modernity from an old and sacred place.

The surrounding city is developing quickly. Qalat Park, just south of the Citadel, sits between Erbil’s grand bazaar and a mosque that looks curiously like the British Parliament. The park has some of the trappings of a tacky public space — fountains illuminated by tri-colored LED lights, walkways set so close to the fountains that a gust of wind can drench you — but the overall setting is so beautiful that the design quirks become charming.

I took a bunch of photos, some of which I’ve posted below. You ought to be able to click on any one of them to enlarge. Enjoy!