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Kurds Displaced in Effort to Preserve Ancient City

Irbil's crumbling citadel still dominates the skyline of the city.  Local officials want to renovate the ancient structure and turn it into a cultural and historical center for tourists.
Ivan Watson, NPR
Irbil's crumbling citadel still dominates the skyline of the city. Local officials want to renovate the ancient structure and turn it into a cultural and historical center for tourists.

In Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, Kurdish authorities are trying to turn a historic landmark into a United Nations-approved World Heritage Site. According to local historians, the ancient citadel in Irbil has been the site of human habitation for more than 7,000 years.

The Sumerians built a town on the flat Mesopotamian plains here they called "Ur Bilum." Civilizations came and went. Each wave of new inhabitants — including Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Ottomans - built on top of the other. Today, a crumbling brick citadel looms over modern-day Irbil on a giant man-made hill.

"It's the oldest continuously inhabited place in the world," says Sami Al Koja, who serves as an adviser to the citadel's board of renovation.

Many scholars contest this claim. Al Koja says that the mountain upon which the citadel sits has never been excavated or studied by archaeologists, due to decades of conflict and isolation.

Within the fortress' massive walls, an entire city of sagging, brown-brick houses is divided by a labyrinth of winding, unpaved alleys. Until recently, this was a ghetto that reeked of raw sewage and housed thousands of Kurdish refugees. They moved here during the '70s and '80s after Saddam Hussein's army destroyed their villages in the countryside.

Out of the Old City and into the New

The citadel's once-lively ghetto has been transformed into a ghost town. Last month, local authorities evacuated all but one of the 828 families living in the city. Each family was given a plot of land and $4,000 for new homes. They've been relocated to a barren plain about 25 miles east of Irbil, where an entire new neighborhood is under construction. The homes there are made of gray cinderblock, but that hasn't stopped them from naming their neighborhood "the New Citadel."

The old citadel, however, is now empty. Doors were left wide-open, and forgotten belongings — a woman's shoe, a child's schoolbook, empty packets of cigarettes and garbage — are scattered on the ground.

The one family allowed to remain in the city is responsible for tending to the water tower, which supplies the city below. Aziza Kadr lives with her husband and children in the tower's shadow.

"I feel lonely here," she says. "It was very sad when all our neighbors left."

For Preservation's Sake

Lolan Mustafa, a local historian, has mixed feelings about the evacuation order. But he believes it will ultimately protect the history of the place.

"When the houses are rebuilt, the idea is to bring back people but under the regular and control of antiquity," he says. "They should take care of the house, preserve the house. So it should be a living city again."

Two years ago, Mustafa opened a textiles museum in a renovated two-story house near the citadel's main gate. He's trying to preserve the traditional art of Kurdish carpet-weaving, which nearly died during Saddam's scorched-earth campaign to pacify the Kurdish countryside. Over 400 pieces are on display in his museum.

Not far from the textile museum, classical music echoes from another renovated mansion, where a Frenchman named Mathieu Saint-Dizier runs a European cultural center. It presents free Western art exhibits to the public. But the public, as it turns out, isn't very large.

"The problem is the place," Saint-Dizier says. "The citadel doesn't attract a lot of people. The citadel had in the past a bad reputation. Many poor people were working there."

Irbil city government adviser Sami Al Koja wants UNESCO — the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — to help guide the city's rebirth. He sees potential in the crumbling brown bricks on top of the mountain - for archaeological discovery and for tourism.

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Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.
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