Attempts are being made to promote Erbil as a major tourist attraction and Kurdish cultural centre.

Erbil (known in Kurdish as Hewler, seat of the Gods) and today the home of one million people is one of the fastest growing cities in Iraq and the Middle East. The seat of government and power in Kurdistan, it is modernising and developing as a regional capital. The city has transformed itself and sets an example to the rest of Iraq with its cleanliness and modernity.

New apartments, new shopping centres, stores and hotels continue to spring up. Ein Kawa, a Christian suburb of the city, is the place for restaurants, entertainment and an amusement park. Among the recent additions is a mosque: a replica of the blue mosque in Istanbul.

As always, there is a price to pay. The cost of living is very high – rents, fuel supplies and so on, and there are ever-increasing traffic jams. Not everyone is keen to preserve Kurdish heritage, which is threatened by the new wave of modernisation. The amazing covered market selling everything from fabrics and jewellery to cheese made from sheep’s milk was described as ‘full of rubbish’ by Nizar Hana, who is convinced stall-holders should move into his giant mall. The freedom of movement in the city is, at first, a tonic after the wearying security restrictions which prevail in the rest of Iraq. But travellers have to decide for themselves whether the attraction of a large, modern city is what they are looking for in Kurdistan.

Since the 1970s, the city has been the home of the Kurdish parliament. The first parliament of the Kurdish Autonomous Region was set up by Saddam and housed in an impressive building. It was, however, under the control of the central government. After the uprising at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurds held elections and set up a parliament, which functioned until 1996, when fighting broke out between the KDP and the PUK.

The PUK set up an alternative government in Suleimaniyah. The parliament reconvened again in Erbil after a peace agreement was signed in 1997. The KRG was officially recognised in the 2005 constitution and the KDP and PUK set up a unitary government in May 2006. Since the overthrow of Saddam there has been little violence in Erbil.

Attempts are being made to promote Erbil as a major tourist attraction and Kurdish cultural centre. The ancient citadel, recognised as an historic site by UNESCO, is being renovated and, for the first time in its history, is uninhabited. Three large houses from the 19th century have been turned into museums, with displays from the Sumerian to the Abbasid period, handicrafts and an art gallery.

What to see and do

The citadel of Erbil

Known as Qelay Hewler in Kurdish, the citadel is located in the centre of the city. It is a round construction, which dominates the old city, and has been built upon many layers of civilisation. These layers are the historical settlements built in ancient times. The total area of the citadel is 102,000m2 and the tell has a height of 26m from ground level. The first village was established here around the 6th millennium BCE and has been continually inhabited since its founding. The citadel has seen the reign of many historic civilisations, including Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian.

Erbil Citadel © serkan senturk, Shutterstock

Other ancient powers, including the Achaemenian Persian, Greek, Iranian Parthian, Seljuks and Sassanians, also dominated the citadel before being finally conquered by the Ottoman Turk Muslims. The Citadel of Erbil consists of three main quarters: Topkhana, Saray and Taki. Sitting at the main entrance to the citadel is an imposing statue of Mubarak Ahmad Ibn al Mustawfi (1167–1239), a former minister and historian from Erbil who rose to fame chronicling the history of this ancient city.

From here there is an impressive view over Shar Garden Square and the roof tops of the covered bazaar below. Until 2006, the interior of the citadel contained more than 600 houses and the area was abuzz with daily life. Today, with restoration work by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in co-operation with UNESCO going on, an eerie silence reigns.

The main gate overlooking the town, which was rebuilt by Saddam Hussein, is now being removed and a fresh gate is being built, more in keeping with the original one. The walls of the citadel are slowly being repaired and the houses are also being reconstructed. This work is scheduled to last for many years. Because of this ongoing rehabilitation, the citadel with its internal alley ways and dwellings is currently out of bounds to visitors, but it is not difficult to imagine its former glory and a way of life that had changed little across the millennia.

Jalil Khayat Mosque in Erbil © fpolat69, Shutterstock

Kurdish Textile Museum

Located just inside the gate of the citadel, this museum of Kurdish weaving offers the visitor a glimpse of the beauty and intricacy of this handicraft art, as well as insight into the cultural heritage of the Kurdish people themselves. It includes numerous woven arts from both settled and nomadic tribes in the area.

Here the art of Kurdish weaving is such an integral part of life that it reflects the Kurds’ social situations, unique cultural influences and their very lifestyle. This craft has a rich tradition, peculiar to the Kurdish people and, therefore, plays an extremely important role in ethnological research. Weaving is widely used by the Kurdish tribes to provide for their daily needs, so it includes all kinds of goods, clothing and hats. This ingenuity has resulted in self-sustained communities that are not dependent on imported goods for their economic survival. 

Erbil Museum of Civilisation

The Museum of Civilisation (1km south of the citadel; free) houses a small but interesting collection. Of particular note is the pottery from Erbil and the surrounding regions. The Mound of Qalich Agha lies within the grounds of the museum. An excavation in 1996 found tools from the Halaf, the Sumerian Ubaid and Uruk periods.

The Qayssarria Bazaars

While touring Erbil you should visit the colourful bazaars. The main bazaar is a covered market and is located in the city centre to the south of the citadel. You enter the bazaar through a number of alleys surrounding it, and walk through the maze of narrow paths between the shops. Many of the alleys contain similar products: clothing, shoes, jewellery, cloth. In the northeast corner of the bazaar you will find a north–south alley selling a variety of honey and dairy products like yoghurt and cheeses. This bazaar, with its maze of intricate little booths and shops, is now surrounded by a newly constructed wall and fresh pavements.

Shar Garden Square

Shar Garden Square is a recently constructed public square and esplanade just below the citadel, complete with fountains, brick arcades and a clock tower modelled on London’s Big Ben. A favourite haunt of Erbilites with its nargile cafés and tea shops, the square attracts locals of all ages and during the summer months is alive with tourists from the southern provinces. Part of Erbil’s urban redevelopment plan, the square offers a great view of the citadel and its many fountains cool the arid air, offering a refreshing respite from the bustling bazaar.

Minaret Park and the Muzzafariya Minaret

A short walk or taxi ride south from the citadel, this is without a doubt the most architectural of Erbil’s green spaces. Minaret Park offers up an eclectic fare of circular terraces, Etruscan columns and cascading fountains. Lit up like an urban wonderland on summer evenings, the park is a popular destination for the city’s youth and young families taking in the cool evening air. Well-planted walkways and shaded groves provide a romantic backdrop for promenading couples and a raised-terrace café offers nargiles and welcome refreshments.

Minaret Park in Erbil © Al Orfali, Shutterstock

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the park is the 36m high Muzzafariya Minaret, dating back to the reign of King Muzzafar al Din Abu Saeed al Kawkaboori (brother-in-law to the crusader-battling Saladin) in the late 12th/early 13th century. The ornate brick minaret has an octagonal base decorated with two tiers of niches, which are separated from the main shaft by a small balcony, which is also decorated. It is all that now remains of the city’s medieval growth beyond the confines of the citadel.

On the other side of the street, and connected to the Minaret Park via a cable car, is the Shanidar Park and Art Gallery, Erbil’s oldest permanent exhibition space. Although much of the artwork on display in the gallery’s regularly rotating exhibitions doesn’t stray too far from what you might expect from a provincial art space showcasing mainly student works, there are occasional treasures to be discovered.

A visit to the gallery can also provide an opportunity to meet local artists who, language-permitting, will be delighted to talk about their work and experiences. Don’t be surprised to find queues after sunset in the summer months when locals turn out in hoards to take in the cool evening air and do a little people-watching of their own. The park has a labyrinth of stone paths winding between the planted areas around a small central lake. There is an ample selection of garden terrace cafés offering welcome refreshments. At the heart of the park is an unusual edifice, halfcave and half-fortress, complete with cascading waterfalls and stalactites.

Sami Abdul Rahman Park

The biggest and greenest of Erbil’s parks, Sami Abdul Rahman, is situated at the west side of Erbil on 60 Meter Street, opposite Kurdistan’s Parliament and Council of Ministers buildings.

To the south is the main road between Erbil and Mosul. It is a favourite spot among the residents of Erbil for family picnics and a welcome refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city.

During the summer months, the park stays open long after sunset and this is when it is busiest. It has several wellequipped play areas for children, lakes, cafés, planted walks, boat rides, fountains and a garden restaurant offering a basic but well-prepared selection of local culinary delights.

It is divided into well-mapped sections with leafy walkways, rolling lawns and flower gardens, a small amphitheatre, and a newly opened health club complete with open-air swimming pools, a gym and a sauna.

Formerly a large military complex, the park stretches over hundreds of acres. It takes its name from a former prime minister who was killed in a 2004 suicide bomb attack that claimed around a hundred lives.

A large monument in the park dedicated to the victims of the blast provides a solemn reminder of Iraq’s bloody history and Kurdistan’s struggle for autonomy. A poignant inscription on the monument reads simply: ‘Freedom is not free’.

If you’re curious to know what the citizens of Erbil get up to of an evening, a trip to Sami Abdul Rahman Park is sure to offer you a privileged insight.

Sami Abdul Rahman Park
Sami Abdul Rahman Park © Mostafa Mohammed Hadeed, Shutterstock

Getting there and away

By air

Most flights operating from Europe and the Middle East fly directly to the Erbil International Airport located 7km northeast of the city. The site was originally an airfield and military base for the Baath regime. On 1 July 2003 the construction of the airport, originally planned in 1993, began and on 15 December of the same year the first aircraft landed. Initially, flights were between the Kurdistan region and its neighbouring countries, but from 2005 onwards direct flights from Kurdistan to Europe were started by the now defunct Kurdistan Airlines.

To/from Europe, Austrian Airlines operates a daily flight to/from Vienna. Lufthansa has two services per week to Frankfurt. National flag carrier Iraqi Airways flies once-a-week to Copenhagen, Düssel-dorf and Frankfurt.

There is also an extensive network of flights to destinations in the Middle East. FlyDubai fly daily to Dubai; MEA have four services to Beirut per week; Turkish Airlines fly daily to Istanbul, as well as less frequently to Diyarbakir and Gaziantep. Pegasus also have daily flights to Istanbul, while Qatar Airways operate a few flights per day to Doha. Royal Jordanian fly daily between Amman and Erbil.

Mahan Airlines fly three times per week to Tehran and Cham Wings Airlines three times per week to Damascus. In February 2020, Gulf Air resumed services to Erbil with three weekly direct flights from Bahrain. Iraqi Airways have daily flights to Baghdad and Basra and frequent connections to Dubai, Amman, Istanbul and Ankara. Other national airlines, such as Ur Airline and Fly Baghdad have connections within Iraq.

By road 

Erbil International General Terminal near Family Mall is the main bus station with regular shared taxi departures to Dohuk, Mosul, Shaqlawa as well as buses to Turkey and Iran. From here there are daily services to various destinations in Turkey, including Diyabakir (10–15 hrs) and Istanbul (36–48 hrs) operated by Cizre Nuh Buses, Can Diyabakir Buses or Best Van. Symanto Hamsafar Company offers services both to Turkey and Iran with two departures daily to Tehran (13–16 hrs).

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