Erbil Citadel (Kurdistan)

During a discussion with my friends in the morning on some history, the reference of Erbil Citadel came into our discussion. I was recollecting my trips to Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Erbil is situated around 350 km north of Baghdad, the capital city of the Republic of Iraq. I have been there at the citadel a few years ago.

Settled more than 6,000 years ago, Erbil Citadel is thought to be one of the longest continuously inhabited sites in the world. The Citadel, which rises some 30 meters above the plain, is surrounded by a lower town that developed in the modern city of Erbil. The Erbil Citadel, locally called Qelat, is a tell or occupied mound, and the historical city centre of Erbil.  Over the millennia, the Erbil Citadel has taken shape, each generation building new structures on top of those of the previous generation.  In archaeology, a tell is an artificial mound formed from the accumulated remains of mud-bricks and other refuse of generations of people living on the same site for hundreds or thousands of years.

View of the Erbil Citadel

The earliest evidence for occupation of the citadel mound dates to the 5th millennium BCE, and possibly earlier. It appears for the first time in historical sources in the Ebla tablets around 2,300 BCE, and gained particular importance during the Neo-Assyrian period.  Early on, houses and structures on the Erbil Citadel were constructed with mud bricks, which crumbled and collapsed easily in the sun and rain. The rebuilding of these mud brick structures on top of one another, over thousands of years, has resulted in the citadel rising over 100 feet from the ground level.

The citadel area was decorated with lights on the occasion of the New Year

The site of the citadel may have been occupied as early as the Neolithic period, as pottery fragments possibly dating to that period have been found on the slopes of the mound. Many religions, ethnicities, empires and people have inhabited Erbil since the earliest evidence of settlement, dating back to 5000 BCE. The Erbil Citadel passed through Sumerian, Assyrian, Sassanid, Mongol, Christian and Ottoman hands.

The city was first largely under Sumerian domination from circa 3000 BCE, until the rise of the Akkadian Empire (2335–2154 BCE) which united all of the Akkadian Semites and Sumerians of Mesopotamia under one rule. Alexander the Great defeated the Persian king Darius III on the plains surrounding Erbil in 331 BCE, in one of the most famous battles of antiquity. 

When it was fully occupied, the citadel was divided in three districts or mahallas: from east to west the Serai, the Takya and the Topkhana. The Serai was occupied by noble families; the Takya district was named after the homes of dervishes, which are called takyas; and the Topkhana district housed craftsmen and farmers. According to the Kurdistan Region’s census in 1995, the Erbil Citadel was home to 1,631 people, inhabiting 247 homes. 

The Earth Observatory of NASA has observed the citadel from space. As the world’s earliest known civilization developed in Mesopotamia…as Genghis Khan worked to create the largest contiguous land empire in history…as the Ottomans occupied European and Asian lands for nearly 600 years…each empire had one thing in common. They all set up camp on a small plot of land in what is now the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq: the Erbil Citadel.

This image of Erbil Citadel and its surroundings was acquired on November 20, 2018, by the Operational Land Imager on the Landsat 8 satellite. From above, Erbil Citadel appears at the center of what looks like a wagon wheel. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

The Citadel is possibly the oldest continuously occupied human settlement on Earth, dating back at least 6,000 years. Its extensive history is embedded in its own ground. It sits on an oval-shaped mound that stands about 32 meters (100 feet) high, built up from dirt, debris, and collapsed mud houses from previous human settlements. This ancient town within the heart of Erbil was added to the World Heritage List in 2014. It covers just over 10 hectares (24 acres).

As per the citation of UNESCO, Erbil Citadel is an imposing example of a multilayered archaeological mound still physically emerging from the surrounding landscape. The physical structure of the Citadel town is characterized by the permanence of the Ottoman period urban form and street pattern on top of the mound. Its shape with definite boundaries has in part dictated the transformations of the urban fabric which still exhibits the typical Ottoman period traditional articulation in functional districts and comprises some fine examples of residential buildings dating back to the 19th – 20th centuries, and, to a lesser degree, to the 18th century.

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