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People & Places

EXCLUSIVE: Rudaw gets inside look at Erbil Citadel restoration

By Kurt Nagl and Simav Mazher 6/9/2015
The Erbil Citadel was added as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. Photo: Farzin Hassan
The Erbil Citadel was added as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. Photo: Farzin Hassan
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — As the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Iraq not on the danger list, the Erbil Citadel’s renovation and maintenance has become increasingly important. Yet the country’s economic woes, compounded by the Islamic State crisis, has left the Kurdistan region grappling for stability as the preservation of its heritage has been put on hold.

Rudaw sat down recently with Dara Al-Yaqubi, head of the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalization—the group in charge of preserving the citadel’s 6,000 years of history.

Yaqubi discussed the future of the citadel and the potentially ruinous effects a lack of funding and neglect could have on the gem of Erbil.

Rudaw was given an exclusive tour of the citadel and access to restricted areas.

Please follow the tour below to see the current shape of the citadel and read about what will become of it in the future.

Dara Al-Yaqubi, head of the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalization. Photo: Farzin Hassan

In 2007, the thousands of squatters living in the citadel, many of whom were refugees, were evacuated by the Kurdistan Regional Government and provided accommodations elsewhere, said Yaqubi.

“For the last 40 years the citadel has been neglected,” he said. “Walls were crumbling and houses were falling. It was unsafe and unsanitary.”

Considered one of the oldest inhabited areas in the world (a single family still lives there and watches the gate), the citadel was home to 6,000 residents at its height. Out of the 500 total houses, Yaqubi said, only 200 are still standing.

The houses inside the Erbil Citadel were built based on the society classes at that time. Houses belonging to rich families were built with two floors and a basement. Photo: Farzin Hassan

The KRG and UNESCO began working to devise a master plan for the site’s redevelopment and maintenance. It took two years of planning before the project even started.

To date, the KRG has committed around $30 million to the project, Yaqubi said, while UNESCO has provided guidance and resources for implementing the master plan.

The first phase of the project, which included a $1.5 million expenditure to finalize the master plan, has been completed, according to UNESCO data. Phase two, with a budget of nearly $13 million, started in 2010.

The houses that belonged to the normal people were built with only one floor and with a very simple architecture. Photo: Farzin Hassan

In addition, a “buffer zone” has been created around the citadel to protect the ancient city from the expansion of the modern city.

“Our involvement in the management of the citadel’s revitalization has been very successful,” said May Shaer, senior project adviser of the UNESCO Iraq office. “This is a flagship project for us.”

Since phase two started, UNESCO and Yaqubi’s commission have worked to conserve and restore the 14 buildings in the citadel considered the most damaged and vulnerable.

Only a limited number of laborers work at the citadel today due to crippling budget cuts that have slowed the restoration project considerably. Photo: Farzin Hassan

Yaqubi said the repair of buildings can be simple or very complex, and can range widely in cost.

“It could be $100,000 for an easy fix,” he said. “Some are more than $2 million.”

Renovating the citadel, Yaqubi said, is a meticulous process before any work even begins. He and his team must conduct careful research of historical photos and ancient architectural characteristics in order to rebuild structures as accurately as possible.

“The redevelopment of the front gate,” Yaqubi said for example, “took more than a year of scientific research.”

This is the ceiling of the Citadel Bath, the largest and oldest in Erbil. Photo: Farzin Hassan

Dr. Zedan Rasheed Bradosti, a Kurdish archaeologist, said he thinks the citadel's restoration has been effective so far, but from a scientific perspective, there have been many mistakes, such as using cement instead of mud or rebar instead of wood. 

In 2014, the Erbil Citadel was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Although it was an important step toward protecting the site, the revitalization commission faced steep budget cuts that same year.

The project shrank from 14 teams totaling more than 100 laborers to two teams and only a handful of workers, Yaqubi said. 

What started as a 15-year plan to revitalize the citadel has turned into 25 years, Yaqubi said, adding that “conservation is continuous.”

Houses owned by royalty often were adorned with beautiful paintings on the walls of each room. Many had lavish waterfalls in the backyard. Photo: Farzin Hassan

Still, progress has been made and those at the forefront of the project see a flourishing future for the city’s ancient center.

“Within 15 years, people will be walking through here to see the rehabilitated citadel,” Yaqubi said. “In the near future, 500 people total might be living there.”

Hotels, dormitories, cafes and exhibitions will draw people back in to the citadel and reestablish it as the heart of Erbil, he said.

One of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world, as well as the only one of four World Heritage sites in Iraq not on the danger list, renovation of the Erbil Citadel is crucial for preserving heritage.

Yaqubi points to an old adage when explaining the significance and urgency of his work: “Work for your life as if you’re living forever. Work for your gut as if you’re dying tomorrow.”

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