Irbil – The Citadel
The city of Irbil has been around for a long time. At 8000 years old, it is among the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world, after Damascus, Jericho and the like. And interestingly, its name has remained essentially the same through Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Sassanian, and finally Arab rule over it: Erbila, Urbilum, Erbilim, Erba-Ela, Arabaelo, Arbail, Arbela, Erbl, Irbil. It is known in Kurdish as Hewlar.
We got in late at night from the border. We only have a few requirements for a hotel: cheap, no visible bugs, sit-down toilet. We don’t need turn down service and a mint on the pillow. The first hotel we went to flunked the last requirement so we went to the Jabbar Palace next door. Haitham, our Iraqi friend from the train, had recommended it, and by the lobby it fancies itself a five-star joint. We stayed a night, then moved to the much more pleasant, much less ostentatious Hotel Shahan, a no-frills nice-enough place that was walking distance from the Citadel.
The thing that strikes me first and hardest is the language issue. Since 1991, when Kurdistan gained internal autonomy, the Arabic language has not been taught in schools. All newspapers, radio, and books are in Sorani Kurdish. The older generation learned Arabic, but the younger did not. What that means on a practical level is that anyone under 30 doesn’t speak Arabic. Some young people I met understand it but can’t really reply. However, a plus-side of this is that the Arabic-speakers we did meet were also speaking a second language, so they spoke in clear, short sentences of Classical Arabic. The fact that we spoke only with the older generation made for an odd reversal of practice for me; usually I avoid talking to old people in a foreign language because they’re typically the toughest to understand. This often is exacerbated by a lack of teeth.
The city is a series of concentric circles radiating out from the Citadel. Built on top layers of previous settlements, it rises up from the surrounding sprawl. It has 500 houses inside the walls, but the residents were evacuated in 2006 because houses were collapsing. Now, only one family remains. We walked through the Citadel in the early hours of the morning and found it eerie, an ancient ghost town. That morning, one of the members of the last family came out to have a chat with some of the soldiers who were milling around the main street.
The last resident of one of the oldest human settlements in the world.
As we walked around, we came upon 3 men sitting on a wall. We spoke for a few minutes with the older guy (who spoke Arabic) and then I noticed the other two speaking Turkish to each other, so we switched to Turkish. They took us inside one of the reconstruction projects currently going on, a refurbishing of the former houses of Irbil’s noble class. Once completed, they will be a museum.
After speaking for a quarter-hour, a gang of 20-odd young men showed up in work clothes. They filed into a burnt-out husk of a huge former home, and started the days work: cleaning out what was destroyed by the fire, so that the house can be turned back into something beautiful.
For me, the city feels very much like Sana’a. It is an ancient city that pulses with life, yet is a bubble of calm and normality among a great vastness of chaos surrounding it. The lack of any real tourist business means a lack of touristy shops in the market; everything is utilitarian.
Having lived in Arab, Israeli, and Turkish societies, I can honestly say that I have never experienced a culture as kind, warm, welcoming, and genuinely hospitable as Kurdish culture, as represented on both sides of the border. From the cab driver who refuses to accept any payment from us, to Karzan, a bookstore owner and student of English who refuses to charge me for the map of Kurdistan, to Sherwan, an Iraqi Kurd who has lived in Kentucky for the past 18 years, to the dozens of smiling shopkeepers and pedestrians offering us welcome, Kurdish people surprised us again and again with their warmth and generosity.
For those wishing to go to Iraqi Kurdistan, I highly recommend it. For more information, have a look at the blog Backpacking Iraqi Kurdistan. All of the information was spot-on, and very helpful.
All photos (except the top one) by Rachael Strecher.