The citadel in Erbil can lay claim to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited place on Earth. But towering over the old mud-brick structures, one recent addition on the hilltop stands out: a brand new gate.
The gate was built to replace another thrown up by Saddam Hussein, just one in a long line of different rulers – from the Assyrians to the Mongols to the Ottomans – who have incorporated Erbil into their empires. But since Saddam’s fall in 2003, a clear identity has come to dominate the city’s public spaces: Kurdish.
Since 2006, Kurdish authorities have been working to renovate the citadel, which was badly neglected under Saddam. As well as shoring up the crumbling homes and clearing out squatters, they have also scrubbed away any sign of the former dictator, whose traces they are eager to erase.
Near the gate, now reconstructed in an older style, an enormous Kurdish flag – a red, white and green tricolour with a sun emblem – flies from the citadel. Along the main roads radiating out from a central hill, there is a Kurdish music archive, a Kurdish costume gallery and a Kurdish textile museum.
The idea, says Sertip Mustafa, assistant manager of the textile museum, is to maintain a culture nearly wiped out by Saddam’s genocidal assaults on the Kurds. “Every people needs to take an interest in its culture, in its traditions, in order to preserve itself,” he said, sitting among a colourful display of rugs and handicrafts.
So far, the efforts seem to have paid off. The city has steadily emerged as the capital of Kurdish Iraq, the dominant political and economic centre of a roughly 35 million strong ethnic group whose politics have been defined largely by division, their homeland split since the first world war between Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey.
When the US invasion toppled Saddam in 2003, ending a decade of sanctions and making Erbil the heart of the first officially autonomous Kurdish region, Kurds have flocked to the city, fleeing repression and conflict or simply lured by its boomtown economy.
A wave of oil firms, property developers, chain stores, hotels and consulates has inundated the city, reshaping its character and pushing its borders out into the surrounding plains and scrubland. Kurdish migrants from neighboring Syria, Iran and Turkey have poured in, joining migrant workers from Europe to South Asia, and refugees from across Iraq. Over about a decade, the population nearly doubled.
“It was like an explosion,” says Chwas Sabr, a former urban planning official of how the rush of oil money and government jobs drew hundreds of thousands to the city.
Yet the very names of the neighbourhoods in Erbil’s old city, a bustling warren of backstreets, cafes and markets, attest to a more complicated history. There is an old Jewish quarter, as well as a district named simply Arab. About a century ago, under Ottoman rule, the area was populated largely by Turkmen. Kurds who arrived to Erbil from the surrounding villages tended to learn Turkish, says Saadi Haruti, a professor of history at Erbil’s Salahaddin University. “Sometimes they even forgot their own language.”
Yet, by the time of the Kurdish revolts against Baghdad in the 1960s and 1970s, migration from the countryside had made Erbil a more distinctly Kurdish space. After a no-fly zone was imposed by a US-led military coalition in 1991, giving Kurds de facto self-rule from Baghdad, the city faced a new set of questions. How should a Kurdish capital look? Which names should grace its street signs, which statues its squares? How should its history be emphasised, and what logic should guide its development?
Today, the memory of Erbil’s multicultural past is hardly evident. In the city’s downtown today, everything celebrates Kurdish figures. There are streets named after Mustafa Barzani, historic leader of the Kurdish independence movement and father of current President Masoud Barzani, and Salahaddin, a Kurd who led campaigns against the Crusaders. Statues celebrate Giwi Mukryani, a Kurdish publisher, and Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji, who led revolts against Iraq’s colonial British authorities.
Nearby, men in traditional Kurdish salwar pants and turbans sip tea in cafes plastered with images of fighters of the Kurdish peshmerga, whose name means “those who face death”, while traditional Kurdish music plays. The tricolour flag hangs from bunting, joined by banners urging “yes” votes in the controversial independence referendum, held last month.
It would seem a Disneyfied spectacle – Kurdish culture fetishised and commodified for tourists – but for the fact that there are few tourists here, and the intended audience seems to be the Kurds themselves.
But if one theme of Erbil’s development has been the studious preservation and curation of Kurdish identity, another is the almost complete neglect of that identity during the city’s breakneck expansion. Outside the citadel, the communal atmosphere swiftly collapses into a sprawl of hotels, freeways and malls.
Inasmuch as there was any template for this stage of Erbil’s development, it was not any idea of Kurdistan’s past, but the vision of the future represented by Dubai, a regional byword for wealth and prosperity. Flush with oil revenues, Kurdish officials consciously strove to emulate the Emirati city by fashioning Erbil into a regional hub of tourism and trade. When oil prices collapsed in 2014 and Islamic State militants swept across northern Iraq, dreams of a new Dubai largely faded as well. Today, unfinished concrete skeletons and empty storefronts dot the city’s middle bands.
An effort to give what’s left a Kurdish flavour feels slightly absurd: one display of statues celebrating great women of the past, such as poet and historian Mastoureh Ardalan and martyred activist Leyla Qasim, stands at the entrance to a vast mall. In other cases, they hint at deeper complexities and divisions. Sami Abdulrahman Park, built on a former military base, was named for a figure from the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) who was killed in a suicide bombing in 2004. But to supporters of the main rival party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the name is a reminder of the bitter civil war they once fought against fellow Kurds in the 1990s, when Abdulrahman invited Saddam’s troops to help oust them.
In other cases, they hint at deeper complexities and divisions underlying the region’s past. Sami Abdulrahman Park, a two-square kilometer public garden built on a former military base, was named for a figure from the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) killed in a suicide bombing in 2004. But to supporters of the region’s main rival party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the name is a reminder of the bitter civil war they once fought against fellow Kurds in 1990s, when Abdulrahman and fellow KDP leaders invited Saddam’s troops to help oust the PUK.
As Erbil expands ever outwards, planners must decide not only how to navigate such contradictions but also how to tame the uncontrolled development of the city’s middle belts. To that end, Abdelmomen Maroof, director of urban planning at the regional government’s Ministry of Municipalities and Tourism, says the city has devised a “Green Belt” of parks, farms and wooded areas to control urban sprawl and exploit Kurdistan’s naturally rich – but highly neglected – agriculture.
To succeed, Maroof says, this vision could benefit from the city’s history: not a falsely unified vision of the past, but one that embraces its historical diversity. The area’s older-style buildings, he notes, were generally better suited to their environments than today’s. “In the past you’d go from one village to another village, and you’d know there must be something different, because here they used brick, here they used natural stone, and here they used mud,” Maroof said. “But now everywhere is cement blocks.”
As the region lurches toward talks with Baghdad meant to head toward secession, the city’s visible marks of identity will be less important than whether the region it governs will be able stand on its own in independence. Sitting beneath the citadel drinking tea, Nabaz Garda, a 57-year-old accountant, said corruption and over-investment in consumption without focus on infrastructure or education had left the Kurdish economy – and therefore the region’s people – vulnerable.
“The Kurdish people struggled for all this time to win their identity – their language, their newspapers, their books, Kurdish education, the media, holidays. Thank God, this Kurdish identity is here,” he said. “But if we talk about the economy? It’s fragile.”