Erbil - A city of intriguing contrasts
Written by Karl Allen
Not only does Erbil boast the title of oldest continuously inhabited citadel in the World, its booming economy and attractive investment laws are drawing an ever-growing stream of international businesses and investors.
Following a 2010 visit to Erbil, Lord Jeffrey Archer, author and former member of Parliament, described the Kurdish capital as a ‘boom town’ and warned British investors and entrepreneurs not to miss out on the lucrative opportunities the region offers.
The short drive from the airport to the city centre testifies to this economic boom. Amid the recently constructed glass office buildings, luxury hotels, and shopping malls, a multitude of cranes and scaffolding stretches skywards behind hoardings depicting architects’ impressions of the streamlined edifices under construction.
Drawing closer to the centre, however, the layers of Erbil’s history become apparent like the rings of an oak tree, radiating out from the raised, clay-built citadel – dating back to around 6,000BC – that sits at the city’s heart.
The steep climb up the 30-metre-high mound to the citadel – or Qala’t as it is known locally – is worth the effort, as the shady tangle of narrow mud streets and courtyards above offer an airy respite from the harshness of the sun on the exposed streets below.
Just inside the citadel’s towering walls, the Erbil Textile Museum invites you to look at a collection of hand-woven Kurdish carpets and related artefacts dating back centuries. The museum is also home to a UNESCO skill-preservation scheme to ensure that the region’s ancient carpet-weaving techniques are not lost. The rugs produced by the trainee weavers are sold in the museum shop.
Around the base of the citadel, the bustling Qaysari Bazaar spreads out as far as the eye can see, and offers a glimpse of a way of life that has changed little since the first souk was established here in the 13th century.
Within the labyrinthine covered alleyways of the bazaar, it is particularly worth looking out for sheep’s yoghurt, fresh walnuts (season permitting), and locally produced honey – three of the region’s specialties.
In the thick of the souk sits Khalil’s Chaykhana, a teahouse whose walls are plastered with hundreds of curling photographs of the owner with local celebrities and visiting dignitaries spanning the past 60 years. Khalil is a prime example of the warm Kurdish hospitality that has helped – along with the Kurdistan Region’s breathtaking mountain landscapes and lakes – to attract over a million visitors to this northern Iraqi enclave each year.
Heading away from the throng of the market, the noisy commercial streets of the inner city gradually open out into leafy avenues of villas, gardens, and municipal buildings. Beyond these stretch the crystalline towers and vast marble shopping malls that best characterise the outermost ring in the city’s long history.
It is here in the burgeoning suburbs that some of Erbil’s more recent treasures can be found. On the way to the airport, close to the acres of rose gardens, fountains, and shaded groves of the Sami Abdul Rahman Park, lie two of Erbil’s newest and finest hotels, the Rotana and the Divan.
For a taste of Kurdistan’s culinary culture, a fountain-side table on the rolling lawns of Abu Shahab City nearby is a great starting place. The complex is the fruit of one man’s labours and something of a local success story. Its founder – after whom the restaurant is named – began selling falafels from a cart in the 1970s. Today, the ‘city’ includes four vast restaurants, a roof-top café, a gallery of fast-food outlets, a supermarket, and a mosque.
The cafés, eateries, and laid-back bustle of nearby Ankawa led to this predominantly Christian town, just five kilometres from the centre of Erbil, being dubbed ‘the Baghdad of the North’. Attracting both an influx of wealthy families retreating from the ongoing tensions in the Iraqi capital and providing a base for Erbil’s ever-swelling expat community, the town has multiplied in size in recent years and become home to some of the city’s best cafés and nightspots.
Ankawa’s Barista Cafémakes some of the best coffee in the city, and the Mamounia Sky Bar – sitting atop the Noble Hotel around the corner – offers a great view over the city and a glimpse into the world of informal chic and lounge music that characterises the city’s young elite.
It is possibly this emerging class of high-earning 30-something executives that has recently convinced premium brands such as Chopard, Zegna, Brioni, and Benetton to open outlets in the city. Just like the construction-site hoardings popping up across Erbil, the arrival of the luxury brands signals a spreading conviction that Erbil’s bright future has already begun.
The Kurdistan Region’s fertile mountain soil and hot summer climate have proved ideal for centuries for producing plentiful harvests of pomegranates, figs, and walnuts. Other regional delicacies include wild honey and first-rate sheep, goat, and buffalo milk products.
Fresh ingredients and a rich culinary heritage can be sampled in local dishes such as biriyani – a delicate blend of rice, shredded chicken, and spices; yaprak – vine leaves stuffed with rice, herbs, chicken, or lamb, and garlic; and kubba – small dumplings stuffed with meat and fresh herbs.
Meals are usually served with flat bread and, during the summer months, freshly picked herbs and colourful salads.
Fresh pomegranate juice – usually taken with a pinch or two of salt – is another local delight not to be missed.
The Kurdistan Region boasts 1,307 known archaeological sites. In the Shanidar Cave (above) on the side of the Bradost Mountain – a beautiful three-hour mountain drive from Erbil – nine 60,000-80,000 year-old Neanderthal skeletons were found by a team from Columbia University in 1957. One of the skeletons is still on display at the Smithsonian Institute in the US, along with casts of the others.