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Historic Iraqi City Hopes To Become Tourist Destination

The northern Kurdish city of Irbil is one of the oldest cities in the world. Located along an important trade route, Irbil came under control of the great empires of the ancient world including the Assyrians, Persians and even Alexander the Great. Ongoing violence in Iraq is presently preventing foreign archeologists from exploring this historic site.

The ancient citadel of Irbil overlooks the hustle and bustle of everyday life in the modern city. Scholars believe this historic Iraqi city is over 5,000 years old and may be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.

Kanan Mufti, director for antiquities in the western Kurdish region, says over the years the population has remained constant in number.

But the character of the neighborhood has changed dramatically from housing the city's elite in the past to today providing shelter for refugees who escaped persecution by Saddam Hussein.

"In my opinion Irbil and the citadel will become a center of cultural and intellectual exchange among different people, and not only for intellectuals and tourists but also for archeologists."

In the future, he adds, he hopes to relocate the refugees and restore the citadel's historic prominence.

This vision of the citadel as an artistic enclave and historic tourist destination is slowly taking shape. Some of elaborate old homes are being used as backdrops for local filmmakers.

Lolan Mustifa opened the Kurdish Textile Museum over a year ago, which preserves and displays intricately designed carpets made by local tribes. He says he wants to preserve traditions of old.

"So we are trying to learn from the older generations of tribes but still it is not so clear as to how these designs are transferred from one generation to the next."

He says his museum, which already gets about 50 visitors a day, demonstrates real potential even in these dangerous times.

"It is a good sign for showing Kurdish culture, art and history and the kind of stability that they can hang around in the citadel."

The citadel has also attracted French artist Matthew Saint Dizier. He opened a French cultural center in 2004, which occasionally shows French films, and currently is displaying an exhibit of post World War II photographs. He sees something pure and pioneering about bringing art to this troubled part of the world.

He says, "I was looking for a new land for making art. Step by step we make it. If nobody comes it is not a problem. We make it. It's important to make something."

It is difficult to see the Irbil of the present as a tourist destination. But with time, stability and peace, the city's proponents believe its past prominence can be restored.