Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Erbil Eyes Archaeological Tourism

Government plans to renovate ancient citadel in Kurdistan’s capital.
By Hogar Hasan
Iraqi Kurdistan government’s bid to link its rich archeological heritage to economic development got a boost this week with a string of new discoveries and an important step in the stalled renovation of Erbil’s iconic citadel.



For thousands of years, the citizens of Erbil sought refuge from invaders in the ancient hilltop fortress at the heart of the city. In more recent times, the citadel has been a beacon for refugees seeking safety from warfare inside its crumbling walls.



In recent weeks, progress has been made in the preservation and study of the site, believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements in the world. Since the early 20th century, scholars have pleaded with the authorities to protect the ancient fortress – believed to be 8,000-years-old - but until 2007, it was still inhabited despite its state of disrepair.



“The future is bright. If we could revitalise the sites in the region, believe me, each year millions of people might visit Iraqi Kurdistan,” said Nihad Qoja, the mayor of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.



“This is going to bring commerce for the city, improving the livelihoods of locals. Look at Egypt … It is greatly befitting from archaeological tourism.”



Following meetings held last month in Amman, Jordan, officials from Erbil and the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, said the citadel is on its way to a complete renovation and expect it to become a centre of tourism.



Mohamed Djelid, UNESCO’s country director for Iraq, said structural work will begin next year. A master plan envisages a visitor-friendly area complete with hotels, restaurants, museums and galleries.



“The fact that the citadel is going to be rehabilitated in next few years will bring more life to Erbil city,” Djelid said in a phone interview from Jordan.



“Iraq is so rich in terms of cultural heritage. The citadel is on par with Petra in Jordan or the old city in Yemen. This is something Iraqis can be proud of.”



The 100,000-square-metre site is built on archaeological layers left behind by Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Greek and Islamic cultures, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalisation.



It is one of an estimated 3,000 archaeological sites in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, according to a report this week by Kurdistani Nwe, a local newspaper.



Despite pleas from scientists and scholars going back to the 1930s, a full excavation of the citadel has never been conducted.



“Nobody knows who built the citadel. We’re talking about 8,000 years ago, so it’s a real mystery,” Djelid said. “During the time of Saddam, studying the site was not a priority, and until now the Kurdish government didn’t have the capacity. There has been no research like we’re talking about now. I’m sure we’re going to find a lot of fascinating things in the city.”



While archaeological experts and preservationists have championed efforts to rehabilitate the site, many homeless families who resided there for decades are still sour about having to be relocated - and still consider it home.



The influx of squatters, which reached approximately 840 families, took its toll on the fortress. And after an outer wall collapsed in early 2007, the government gave each family a 250-square-metre plot of land and 4,000 US dollars to build a home in a resettlement area some ten kilometres outside of Erbil.



Even though the families agreed to the compensation package, they have found it hard to adjust to their new home, claiming that it has poor facilities and services.



Critics have also charged that the KRG has moved too slowly in its preservation efforts, expressing frustration with the citadel’s ongoing deterioration and the lack of transparency surrounding the multi-million dollar renovation plans.



But Dara Yaqubi, a former member of the commission to revitalise the citadel, told IWPR the KRG will pay for the bulk of the estimated 35 million dollar renovation plan. According to Djelid, UNESCO will provide a team of experts and seek international funding.



“The plan is to make the citadel a working city again, but it needs huge, huge work,” Djelid said. “What we are going to do is start in a few houses – 10 or 20 that urgently need work

- and we will try our best to use original materials. This will give us a model, so people can see that something concrete is happening.”



Yaqubi said the next phase of reconstruction will begin in four or five months. During that time, the KRG will campaign for the citadel to be named a UNESCO world heritage site, a distinction that Djelid expects will attract tourists and jobs. Iraq has only three such sites – two of which are listed as “in danger” due to neglect and decades of war.



Meanwhile, other ancient archaeological remains in the Erbil area are being discovered.



A team of German experts from the German Institute of Archaeology announced at a press conference on November 19 that a joint Iraqi-German excavation would begin work on a burial chamber discovered recently about 100 m from the base of the citadel.



It was found by a local resident digging a backyard pit and estimated to date from 700 BC. An Iraqi team of archaeologists found three sarcophagi, and then asked their German counterparts to help with further excavation.



Additionally, local newspaper reports this week told of an ancient statue unearthed by a farmer in Hasne village, in Erbil governorate’s Barzan district, while he was ploughing his field.



“Archeologists would always say that there had to be other archeological sites in Erbil other than the citadel. The discovery of the tomb and another one which [the German experts] will visit … proved the archaeologists were right,” said Qoja, Erbil’s mayor. “There might be many more archeological sites in central Erbil, but the city has not been surveyed yet.”



Hogar Hasan is an IWPR local editor based in Erbil. IWPR trainee Hussein Mardan contributed to this report.