Mak­ing their move: Kurds restor­ing an­cient ci­tadel to show­case cul­ture

The Washington Times Weekly - - WORLD - By Ja­son Mot­lagh

IR­BIL, Iraq — Kur­dish au­thor­i­ties have re­moved hun­dreds of fam­i­lies, cleaned up their trash and have be­gun de­vel­op­ment in an an­cient ci­tadel, which they say is the site of the old­est con­tin­u­ously in­hab­ited set­tle­ment in the world.

Their plans — to es­tab­lish a cul­tural cen­ter­piece in north­ern Iraq that will at­tract tourists and ar­chae­ol­o­gists from around the globe — ex­tend well be­yond the fortress it­self.

All across this Kur­dish re­gional cap­i­tal are signs of a city­wide makeover in progress. Fancy new ho­tels and for­eign-built of­fice build­ings rise above the din of diesel trucks and clat­ter of men at work.

“Un­der Sad­dam [Hus­sein], the Kur­dish peo­ple never had a chance to show off their her­itage,” said Kanan Mufti, gen­eral di­rec­tor of an­tiq­ui­ties for the Kur­dish re­gion and leader of the ci­tadel project.

“Now we have a po­ten­tial stage to tell the world. When vis­i­tors see all this his­tory, they will re­ally come to re­spect the Kur­dish peo­ple. [. . . ] If I had per­mis­sion, I would call [the ci­tadel] the eighth won­der of the world.”

Lo­cal his­to­ri­ans say the Ir­bil ci­tadel has been the site of hu­man habi­ta­tion for more than 7,000 years. The Assyr­i­ans, Sume­ri­ans, Greeks and Ot­tomans are among the peo­ples known to have lived in the Ir­bil re­gion, a fer­tile plain at the junc­tion of two rivers near the Za­gros Moun­tains.

Some ar­chae­ol­o­gists dis­pute that claim, cit­ing a lack of hard ev­i­dence. Mr. Mufti coun­ters that probes sunk into the man-made hill have in­di­cated mul­ti­ple lay­ers of civ­i­liza­tions — sup­ported by writ­ten ref­er­ences that date back to the 21st cen­tury B.C. — though civil con­flict and iso­la­tion have so far pre­vented ex­perts from un­der­tak­ing a proper ex­ca­va­tion.

A study car­ried out by the Iraqi gov­ern­ment many years ago cat­a­logs more than 3,000 ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites in the Kur­dish re­gion. Mr. Mufti said fewer than 25 have been un­earthed be­cause Sad­dam op­posed digs in the area in or­der to sup­press Kur­dish cul­ture.

Ex­plo­ration in the ci­tadel ended com­pletely in the 1980s, when Sad­dam waged a scorched-earth cam­paign against rural Kurds. Masses flocked to the cities to blend in and es­cape, and many found refuge in the an­cient fortress.

Roughly 5,000 peo­ple were liv­ing inside un­til the Kur­dish gov­ern­ment moved to re­lo­cate them be­fore a col­laps­ing sewer sys­tem could dam­age the lay­ers of buried ar­ti­facts.

More than 800 fam­i­lies were given plots of land about 25 miles east of Ir­bil and $4,000 for hous­ing ex­penses. Only one fam­ily has been per­mit­ted to re­main inside in the ci­tadel to pre­serve the con­ti­nu­ity of habi­ta­tion.

Since the re­lo­ca­tion, al­most 6,000 cu­bic yards of trash have been re­moved, ex­pos­ing labyrinthine al­leys and crum­bling homes. Mr. Mufti and his team are in con­sul­ta­tions with UNESCO, the United Na­tions’ cul­tural agency, which is look­ing into the pos­si­bil­ity of ren­o­vat­ing parts of the city.

Many in Ir­bil hope this will lead to cov­eted sta­tus as a U.N. World Her­itage Site, but they are aware of the work that must be done to meet the agency’s stan­dards.

Sami al-Koja, an ad­viser to the ci­tadel’s board of ren­o­va­tion, said he is com­mit­ted to se­cur­ing the best for­eign ex­per­tise to en­sure the project is given the care and at­ten­tion it de­serves.

“We are beg­gars. We want the help and tech­nol­ogy, and that’s all there is to it,” Mr. al-Koja half-joked. He said the U.S. mil­i­tary had pro­vided he­li­copters to take ver­ti­cal map­ping images of the ci­tadel.

He thinks it will take at least five to 10 years be­fore the old town is suf­fi­ciently re­stored to at­tract tourists and ar­chae­ol­o­gists. Peo­ple will also be brought back to live inside the ci­tadel “on a more reg­u­lated ba­sis,” he said.

All such dreams de­pend on the Kur­dish re­gion re­main­ing a rel­a­tively peace­ful is­land of sta­bil­ity amid the vi­o­lence of Iraq — some­thing that is far from cer­tain.

Pres­sure is build­ing over the fate of Kirkuk, an oil-rich, eth­ni­cally mixed city less than two hours drive from Ir­bil that the Kurds want to an­nex in a ref­er­en­dum this year.

Sev­eral re­cent at­tacks have tar­geted the Kur­dish ma­jor­ity in Kirkuk, while Muq­tada al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army mili­tia has vowed to re­sist any Kur­dish at­tempt to take con­trol of the city.

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