Sulaymaniyah is a rapidly developing metropolis of around 700,000 people, but in the mid 20th century, this overwhelmingly Kurdish city and former capital of Iraqi Kurdistan had merely 35,000 inhabitants.
It is the most vibrant and cultural city in the autonomous region and residents here and in the surrounding governorate – more than anywhere else in Kurdistan – opt for traditional clothes, in particular Kurdish baggy trousers fitted at the ankles (called sharwar in Kurdish). Sulaymaniyah University, established in 1968, is a renowned centre for the study of Kurdish language and culture and Kurdish poetry festivals are regularly held here amid much fanfare.
Sulaymaniyah is also an important commercial centre with close economic ties with Iran. The Kurdish Sorani dialect spoken here is the same as across the border in Iranian Kurdistan and many Iraqi Kurds travel to Iran for medical treatment, while Iranian Kurds come here for shopping trips and holidays. Sulaymaniyah’s natural setting amid the surrounding mountains and pleasant weather makes it an attractive holiday destination, especially among Iraqi Arabs escaping the summer heat of southern Iraq.
What to see and do
The second-largest museum in Iraq after the National Museum in Baghdad, this archaeological museum is home to a vast collection of ancient artefacts from around Iraq and the region, many of which are several thousand years old, although many are just copies.
The main reason to visit is the collection of 152 stone blocks from the Paikuli Tower bearing Sassanid inscriptions. Written in Middle Persian and Parthian languages, the inscriptions and the tower were built by Sassanid king Narseh (293–303), son of Shapur I, in honour of the former’s accession to the throne. Since 2006 the inscriptions have been studied by a team of archaeologists led by C G Cereti from the Sapienza University of Rome. The Iddi-sin stela dating to the Old Babylonian period (2003–1595BC) is another true highlight; the 108 lines of cuneiform inscriptions carved into it celebrate the victories of the King of Simmurum, one of the ancient Mesopotamian city states.
Amna Suraka Museum
Notoriously known as the ‘red house’ owing to the red colour of the security buildings used by Saddam Hussein’s regime, this former detention centre, which was in operation from 1979 to 1991, is now preserved as a memorial and museum, showing how its detainees lived. The museum provides information about the genocide campaigns against the Kurds in Iraq. Shattered buildings still standing at the site poignantly reflect the atrocities, as do sketches and pictures scratched on the walls of former cells.
Over the years, thousands of Kurdish activists, students and anyone who Saddam deemed to be reactionary to his regime and policies were detained, tortured and even killed here. In the grounds there is also a small ethnological display showing a typical Kurdish home, a hall of mirrors and a display of taxidermy. Some of the bullet-scarred buildings here also show the last stand of Saddam’s police and troops in the city when it was reclaimed by the Kurds. At the furthest end of the site a former garage for Baath Party members’ vehicles has been converted into a modern gallery and exhibition space.
Located north of Amna Suraka Museum, this sprawling public space had, up until 1991, functioned as a military base of the Baath regime. It is now the largest city park in Sulaymaniyah and a place for a snack or a refreshing drink on a hot summer day.
The area south of Sulaymaniyah, in particular in the Zagros Mountains, is home to numerous archaeological sites of immeasurable importance. Although not necessarily visually spectacular, these offer a unique insight into the history of this region that had for years remained hidden due to Saddam Hussein’s ban on carrying out exploratory work in Kurdistan.
A mere 10km southwest of Sulaymaniyah, on the right bank of the Tanjaro River, lies the vast 7–9ha archaeological site of Kunara. First excavated by the French Mission archéologique du Peramagron in 2012, the site is believed to date to 2200bc and belonged to an unidentified kingdom, possibly Lullubi mountain people, settled here at the time of the Akkadian Empire. Although excavations are ongoing, the work carried out to date has led to the discovery of ancient stone structure foundations as well as cuneiform tablets. Locating the site independently is not easy – best to take a local guide.
Where to stay in Sulaymaniyah
Sulaymaniyah has a good range of accommodation options, though sadly very few decent budget hotels. The city centre, in particular around Mawlawi Street and the bazaar, is awash with one-star hotels – some of dubious standard, others passable for a budget traveller. Do not hesitate to ask for a discount, especially during the low season, and always check out the room before you strike a deal.
Getting to Sulaymaniyah
Sulaymaniyah International Airport is just west of the city near Bakrajo and has regular connections to Doha, Dubai, Istanbul and Tehran with Qatar Airways, FlyDubai, Turkish Airlines and Qeshm Air. Iraqi Airways have regular flights from/to Baghdad and Basra. Iran’s Mahan Air also regularly fly to Tehran.
The journey from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah takes approximately 3 hours and goes past the Dukan Lake. Although expansion works have been completed, the road should be avoided after dark due to heavy commercial traffic. Sulaymaniyah has two main bus/taxi terminals: Garage Halabja for travel to Halabja and the region’s eastern destinations, and Garage Baghdad for Erbil and beyond, including to Kirkuk and to the rest of Iraq.