News / Middle East

Reporter's Notebook: The Soul of Kurdistan, Preserved

A view of the citadel in central Irbil.
A view of the citadel in central Irbil.

Irbil, Kurdistan, northern Iraq today is a gleaming city growing daily toward the sky. But the soul of this city, and of Kurdistan, is held in a special place high above today’s frenetic development and streets filled with new luxury cars.

More than 4,000 years ago, maybe longer, people in what is now Kurdistan, looked up at a steep hill and decided that it would be the perfect place to build a citadel, and within it, establish a settlement.

Long before the time of the Prophet Mohammed, and many of those spoken of in the Bible, this place on the hill was named in honor of four Gods that people there worshipped.  This settlement was called “Arba Ilo” – Arabic for “Four Gods” – which, of course, became the name Irbil. Or, as spelled sometimes, Erbil.

The founders of Arba Ilo were smart strategists.  As you can see in the photos, the citadel’s hill is so steep that horses could not climb it to enable attacks. And, the height of the hill made arrows useless.  Gunpowder, and cannons to use it, only came in the last 500 years. So for some 3,500 years, the only way to defeat those in the citadel was to starve them out.  In the 1300s, Mongol invaders laid siege to the citadel for 45 days without success, though the part of Irbil at the foot of the mount was shattered.  Life was fairly secure.

The citadel was built of mud brick, baked in ovens until strong.  The weather was kept out of its buildings and homes with roofs made of thick limbs from trees, covered with palm fronds in crisscrossed layers, and covered again with other vegetation and earth.  So close to the sky, yet, sealed from its intrusions.

From the citadel, roads fanned out to Turkey and Persia, placing Irbil in the crossroads of regional commerce, which gave Irbil purpose, and prosperity.  Fertile valleys not far away provided the food that nourished this settlement, while the Tigris flows nearby to the west. 

Countless generations walked the narrow streets of the citadel, their children becoming the parents of more.  And, slowly, the ground around the steep mount began to become filled with more inhabitants as the city evolved into the predecessor of itself today. 

A view from inside the citadel.A view from inside the citadel.
x
A view from inside the citadel.
A view from inside the citadel.

As time went on through the centuries, the citadel remained the center of Irbil, though its importance slowly declined. By the 20th century, it still held inhabitants, but fewer and fewer as the decades went on.

I first climbed the hill to the citadel and walked its streets in 2004.  There were still families there, along with their chickens and a few goats. The buildings by then had been worn down by wind and time, some of them now collapsed into crumbles.  But to all in Irbil, it was still the center of their city, and history. Walking about, I deeply felt the soul of this place, and sensed the footsteps of thousands, over the millennia, who also scuffed the dust that had been there since Ibrahim.

When I returned in 2005, I saw families there again, but even in one year there had been more of it lost.  It was a place where those remaining were largely poor, unable to buy into the prosperous city that lay at the citadel’s base.

Another view from inside the citadel.Another view from inside the citadel.
x
Another view from inside the citadel.
Another view from inside the citadel.

Wanting to begin the arduous challenge of restoring this most ancient place, the Kurdistan Regional Government decided in 2007 that it was time to empty the citadel of its inhabitants.  The government provided new places for them to live, and other assistance. And once they departed, the citadel was left for the winds to carry little grains of it to places far away.

Preserving and restoring something 4,000 years old of hard mud was an arduous challenge.  Slowly, carefully, its gates and buildings had to be taken apart brick by brick, and then reassembled with new mortar and wood.  Everything, of course, is so fragile – so each little piece had to be worked on by hand. The tap of a hammer could be fatal.

By 2014 the work was well underway.  Significant parts of it, such as its massive main gate, have been reconstructed to look the way they’ve always been. But there are still many crumbled parts to put back together.

Just recently, the efforts of the citadel’s preservationists have been given a profoundly important recognition.  UNESCO, the United Nations agency, has now declared Irbil’s citadel to be a World Heritage Site. This brings new energy, money, and attention to the task of bringing the citadel back to life.


Jeffrey Young

Jeffrey Young came to the “Corruption” beat after years of doing news analysis, primarily on global strategic issues such as nuclear proliferation.  During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include VOA-TV, where he created the “How America Works” and “How America Elects” series, and the “Focus” news analysis unit.

You May Like

Multimedia US Nurse ‘Cured of Ebola,’ NIH Says

Nina Pham, Texas nurse who treated first Ebola patient in US, received no experimental drugs; WHO expects vaccine surge in 2015 More

Video Islamic State Militants Encroach on Baghdad

Iraqi capital not under ‘imminent threat,’ US military says, amid worries about foothold More

Video Hong Kong Protesters Focus on Holding Volatile Mong Kok

Activists say holding Mong Kok is key to their movement's success, despite confrontations with angry residents and police More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid