Erbil Citadel

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Erbil, Iraq

Erbil Citadel Reviews

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85 reviews
Kelha Hewlere (Erbil Citadel) Jan 15, 2014
Wherever you are in Erbil, you can see the citadel...or so they say, as it is becoming quite tricky nowadays with all the high rise buildings springing up, but it is still partly true. Similar to Aleppo in Syria, Erbil's citadel stands on a raised mound in the centre of the city. Unlike Aleppo's citadel, Erbil's walls are less like a fortress and more like some sort of decorated gingerbread palace. Houses were built into the citadel walls, balconies and roof terraces added, and the result is quite striking. I'm sure the former inhabitants must have enjoyed some fine city views, but now access is severely limited.

To enter, climb the steps between the carpet shops on Qalat Street, and at the top you'll be greeted by Mubarek Bin Ahmed Sharafaddin (Ibn al-Mustawfi), a historian from centuries past. He doesn't say much, as he's made of stone, and anyway, he's far too busy reading a historical tome to be bothered by tourists, or even kids climbing onto his lap. However, one of the Peshmerga soldiers might approach and say hello. The view from here is stunning, over the fountains below, the rooftops of Qaysari bazaar, and on to the affluent suburbs beyond. This is the place to come for sunset, not for the actual sunset really, as that's in a different direction, but to watch the action around the fountains, wait for the call to prayer from all corners of the city to signal the beginning of evening, and the lights to come on one by one.

Once you've taken all your photos of the square, you'll need to pass through security (a couple of Peshmerga, who pat you down and check inside your bags). I had been looking forward to exploring the lanes of old Erbil, something that visitors to the Citadel could do until recently. Up until 2006, the citadel was teeming with life, with refugees from other parts of Iraq flooding to the quarter and living in squalid conditions among the old mansions. Houses were divided up to accommodate several families, walls began to crumble and nobody was too bothered about putting them back up again...Erbil's historical gem was in danger. It got so bad that some of the outer wall on top of the citadel mound began to collapse. So the Kurdistani government and UNESCO stepped in, paid the inhabitants to move to purpose-built housing on the edge of the city, and restoration/rescue efforts began.

The lanes now lie silent, and still except for stray cats and birds and bushes blowing in the wind. I've read reports of tourists before me who have been able to wander around at will, poking around the mansions and mosques, climbing up onto rooftops and balconies in the citadel walls...sadly, but understandably, that has been stopped, and red "do not cross" tape blocks off nearly every lane. One lane seemed to be open, and I'd spotted a local family wander off down there, so I decided to have a look myself...but before I'd got too far, "Mister, Mister! No!"...a Peshmerga guard waving his gun at me and the family...the red tape had blown away, but it was still forbidden. Oh well...I hope they do a good job of restoring the citadel to its former glory...but above all, I hope one day people will return to live here.

Oh, and by the way...I know I said it is the oldest continuously inhabited urban area in the world, and the clever among you might be thinking "but he's just contradicted himself by saying all the inhabitants were moved out"...well, UNESCO already thought about that, and kept one family inside the walls so as not to break the record.

In 2014, restoration work was in full flow, so access was even more limited than on my first visit in 2010. The main gate was under scaffolding and closed, and the only access was through the north gate. The main path was open to visitors, but only as far as the mosque in the centre, and the Kurdish Textile Museum was behind fencing. Hopefully now more of the citadel has been reopened.
Ibn Al-Mustawfi (2010)
Erbil Citadel (2010)
Inside Erbil Citadel (2010)
Tiled minaret inside citadel (2010)
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