ERBIL, IRAQ – The men setting up a boom to hold lights for a stage below a giant plastic poster reading “#unite- 4heritage” could have been in Hollywood.
But the majestic backdrop they had chosen – the looming tan brick wall of an ancient city – wasn’t a movie fabrication. It was Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
Kurdistan has a reputation as being a mountainous area, but Erbil is perched at the top of a great plain that spreads out to the West towards Mosul and to the south in the direction of Baghdad, 360 km. away. Erbil itself is laid out in giant concentric circles. At the center of the circles is the giant mound or tell where the city’s foundations stretch back some 7,000 years, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements in the world.
Today it is the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the autonomous region in northern Iraq run by Kurds. It functions basically as the capital of a semi-independent country.
When you fly into Erbil any semblance that you are in Iraq vanishes.
The pilot on our Royal Jordanian flight didn’t mention the name Iraq. Border security is handled by the airports own security who are well trained and professional. Israeli stamps in a foreign passport are not a problem. The new airport, built by a Turkish firm, dates back to 2010 and has the wide high arched ceilings reminiscent of so many similar designs. It it easy to get to this bustling city of almost 800,000 by flying via Amman or Istanbul.
Yes, Islamic State is around 40 km. from the city, but as one local put it, “they might as well be on the other side of the world, between Erbil and Islamic State is a wall of Peshmerga soldiers willing to die to keep them out.”
When Islamic State had rampaged through the region in August of 2014, capturing Mosul and other areas and sending millions of refugees fleeing towards Kurdistan, the US administration had launched air strikes to slow them down. There is no chance the capital of Kurdistan will fall to the Islamists. But that doesn’t mean security is not an issue here. Soldiers are a common site and on the roads outside of the capital army checkpoints are common.
Foreign tourists are asked to show their passports and are waved through quickly. Local people tend to be welcoming and are highly supportive of the West’s efforts to fight their common enemy; but there is a distinctive lack of English proficiency, which means you’ll have to get used to communicating with your hands or learn some Kurdish.
The trip into town passes next to the neighborhood of Ankawa.
With some new rising high towers and many low lying buildings, this slightly more affluent area is popular with Christian residents and some expats. There are some nice bars here, like T-Bar that offers Philly cheesesteaks and a variety of cocktails all of them with crude names like “sex with the bartender.”
But even this more liberal area with nightlife is bisected by poverty and half-built concrete homes.
Tuborg and Efes seem to be the beers offered at the local stores emblazoned with their logos. On our first night we happened upon an Indian restaurant that had spicy and wonderful dishes with light cream sauce and lentils. Prices range from $6-$14 an entrée, and it is reminder that Erbil is not cheap and there are a paucity of ATM s.
Stock up on Iraqi dinars and bring US dollars, or you’ll find yourself in a bind.
The feeling that Erbil is half-built is a remnant of the days when Kurdistan was trying to sell itself as “The Other Iraq,” which was actually the branding campaign the regional government briefly embarked on. Highways were planned and built. Numerous new malls were constructed. Pizza Hut, Hardy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Quiznos and TGI Fridays came. A Starbucks was planned. And then there was Islamic State, which put a lot of this on hold.
It’s 38 degrees centigrade outside in June, so walking long distances is not a possibility. We strolled down by the old city. There is an area that resembles a large shuk, men with carts sell bottled water from troughs that include giant blocks of ice. The blocks of ice are themselves sold by a man with a small wagon. It is one of the many odd sights here. Shwarma stands sell the traditional Middle Eastern fare in a distinctly Kurdish-style bread pastry that is doughy and oval-shaped.
Men with large bricks of money give you the going exchange rate of 1,334 Iraqi dinars to the dollar. So it makes sense why they need a small bookcase full of money. On another street dozens of military-supply stores sell everything soldiers need to combat Islamic State. There is a constant dissonance here; you see large beautiful manicured parks, alongside the constant reminder this is a nation at war. Perhaps that is why many Kurds feel they have a commonality with Israel.
“We’re like Israel, we’ve been fighting since even before 1948,” one local told us.
The real crown is the beautiful Erbil Citadel and old city on a mound overlooking the urban area.
The citadel encloses an area of 10 hectares. Up until recently it was an inhabited warren of alleys that included rich and poor alike. Now all but one family has been moved out for the Citadel Rehabilitation project that began in 2010 in cooperation with UNESCO. Visitors can walk up the ramp and wander around, but to see the beautiful sites requires stopping in at the caravan near the mosque and asking for a guide. Our cheerful female guide laughed when asked when the project would be completed.
“Thirty years from now, maybe.”
A beautiful preserved Turkish bath is on display, as are the old villas of the elites of the early 20th century.
A well-appointed, and air-conditioned, museum devoted to carpets is worth a visit. It is part of a manor once belonging to Hashim Debagh, a wealthy merchant. The high ceilings evoke the grandeur of the 19th century and showcases traditional Kurdish textiles.
Getting around Erbil is easy, taxis cost a few dollars for a drive across town and they are plentiful.
To travel further, go to one of the pick up points, called “garages” for major destinations such as Duhok or Solaimaneyah. Shared taxes are $20 and a private taxi around $80 for several hours of driving.
A two-and-a-half hour ride over the rolling hills takes one to picturesque Duhok, which is closer to the Syrian and Turkish borders.
This city is the gateway to the north. Situated in valley, its broad avenues are well planned and parks and greenery are plentiful.
A short tide to Duhok Dam is a must see. Bring a snack and enjoy a picnic near the natural springs and cascading waterfalls while overlooking the mountain lake created by the dam. One could be in Switzerland if not for the Arabic writing on the signs.
An hour’s drive south takes one to Alqush an ancient Christian village. There are two monasteries, and the ancient Jewish synagogue of Nabi Nahum – named after the biblical prophet that some believe lived in the area – which are a reminder of the Jewish presence here. A half hour to the east is the holy site of Lalish, the spiritual heartland of the Yazidi faith.
The Yazidis suffered terrible persecution and mass murder under Islamic State, but here in the quiet sanctuary you can remove your shoes and wander among the temples and sites. A local guide named Luqman Mahmood provides tours in English, to explain the complex ancient religion.
There are many other sites to see in the mountains of Kurdistan north of Duhok. An hour drive can take one to Amedi, an ancient town build atop a plateau that is a wellknown tourist destination. On the way back to Erbil the historically Assyrian-Christian town of Shaqlawa has ample tourist infrastructure, including a “Swedish tourist village.” It is a reminder that not is all what it seems in this part of the world. Yes, your passport says you traveled to “Iraq,” but you are worlds away from the tragedies engulfing this region.