“It hurts me a lot when I see a wall of the citadel has fallen down or a house has been ruined,” said Safeen Hussein, 26, as he sat with his friend on top of Erbil Citadel and looked out over the city.
Hussein said he often hears that the government will renovate and repair the Citadel, but what he actually sees is the citadel falling into worse shape with every passing day.
The estimated 8,000 year-old Citadel located in the center of Erbil, which claims to be the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world, has attracted thousands of visitors since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
There are over 500 residential buildings inside the Citadel, most of which are built round courtyards and made of brick and short-span timber with mud roofing.
Many buildings have opulent interior decoration with painted ornaments, coloured glass windows, carved doors, arcades supported by timber and marble columns all common.
But the roofs and walls of many buildings are in seriously poor condition and in need of immediate attention. Erosion has almost completely removed roofs in some place and entire blocks of walls have fallen due to negligence and the harsh weather.
According to the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalisation (HCECR) 40 percent of the buildings are in real danger, 40 percent are ruins and 20 percent are in a state described as ‘average’.
At the end of 2007, the Kurdistan Region Government decided to renovate the citadel and asked its inhabitants (several hundred families) to leave the area and accept compensation. One family was asked to remain in the citadel, though, so that life and inhabitation there could continue.
After the evacuation, the Kurdistan government established the HCECR and UNESCO decided to supervise the renovation and work to place Erbil's Citadel in the World Heritage List.
For the first year of its existence, however, the HCECR completely failed to carry out its duties and the government was forced to change the commission’s head and some staff three months ago.
“For almost one year, nothing was done for the citadel,” said Dara Yaquobi, the new head of the commission.
Yaquobi, an architect who worked on the citadel in the 1980s added, “Now we and UNESCO are back to work.”
The citadel’s renovation is divided into three phases. First the houses are to be meticulously documented and a master plan drawn-up. 10 houses in the worst shape will be renovated immediately.
According to Yaqoubi, UNESCO, working with a British architectural practice, has already completed 85 percent of the masterplan and has declared the tender for renovating the ten critically damaged houses. The renovation should begin in April.
The second phase of the project is to re-build the citadel’s infrastructure, including the building of water pipelines and electricity, telephone and internet cables and to renevate the majority of the remaining houses. Yaquobi said that the Kurdistan Region Government allocated US$12.9 million to implement the second phase.
Finally, the citadel’s so-called ‘buffer zone’ will be refurbished. The neighborhoods and shops around the citadel are also very old and their condition is very similar to that of the citadel itself.
“I believe in ten years, the citadel will be in a good shape,” said Yaqoubi.While sitting in his office inside the citadel, Yaqoubi said he hoped for greater involvement from UNESCO. Currently, he feels he does not see their staff enough.
“Their time is very limited. I cannot see them very easily. When they come to the citadel, they are extremely cautious and protected by security forces. There is no need for such procedures because Kurdistan is safe.”
Last week, it was announced in a press conference inside the citadel that UNESCO has decided provisionally to put Erbil Citadel on the World Heritage List.
According to the government's plan, once the citadel is renovated, 50 families will move in to live in there. Khalis Younis Mustafa, who owns an antique museum inside the citadel, is concerned, however.
“The people who will live in the citadel, must be educated people in order to take care of the citadel, not destroy it,” he said.
“The government must make the citadel a very lively place. The people who will in the citadel must at least speak English or Arabic because everyday a lot of tourists visit the citadel and they want ask people questions about the history of the citadel,” he continued.
While locals have legitimate concerns about the citadel’s future residents, the priority for the moment is to renovate the area and return it to a livable state, so that it can return to its rightful place at the centre of Erbil city’s proud social and cultural life.
(Photo by Qassim Khider Hamad/ Niqash.org)