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

UN Ambassador Power Highlights Plight of Women Prisoners

She launches the 'Free the 20' campaign, aimed at profiling women being deprived of their freedom around the world More

Satellite Launch Sparks Spectacular Light Show

A slight delay in a satellite launch lit up the Florida sky early this morning More

Fleeing IS Killings in Syria, Family Reaches Bavaria

Exhausted, scared and under-nourished, Khalil and Maha's tale mirrors those of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries who have left their homes in the hopes of finding a better life More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs