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History and Politics: The Erbil Citadel

The Erbil Citadel

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Constructed more than 6,000 years ago, the Erbil Citadel is one the longest sites to have been continuously inhabited in the world. The Citadel, locally called Qelat, is a tell – an artificially constructed mound – rising about the plain at 98 ft. (30m). It features a peculiar fan-line pattern which dates to the late Ottoman phase of the city. The famous continuous tall wall built around the citadel in the 19th century gives it the impression of an impenetrable fortress. It is the historical centre of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. In June 2014, the site was inscribed on the World Heritage List. It is one of Erbil’s main attractions.   


The first traces of settlements at the Erbil Citadel date back to the 5th millennium BC, and perhaps even earlier. It first appeared in the Ebla tablets (historical source) around 2300 BC and became particularly important during the Neo-Assyrian period. In historical records, the citadel is referred to as Arabela, the name for Erbil when it was the Assyrian political and religious centre. During the Sassanids and the Abbasid Caliphate, Erbil was an important centre of Christianity. After the conquest of the fortress by the Mongols in 1258, the importance of Erbil diminished. During the 20th century, the urban structure changed significantly, resulting in the destruction of a number of houses and public buildings. In 2007, the High Commission for the Revitalization of the Erbil Citadel (HCECR) was set up to oversee the reconstruction of the citadel.

The Erbil Citadel is a rare surviving example of a formally fortified settlement which has been repurposed and has grown on top of an ovoid-shaped tell. The original fortifications of the Citadel were replaced by houses and a wall over time. When it was fully occupied, the citadel was divided in three districts or mahallas: from east to west the Serai, the Takya and the Topkhana. The Serai was occupied by notable families; the Takya district was named after the homes of dervishes, which are called takyas; and the Topkhana district housed craftsmen and farmers. While the Citadel previously had a church and a synagogue, the only religious structure that currently survives is the Mulla Afandi Mosque.

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Erbil Citadel is a multi-layered archaeological mound. The physical structure of the Citadel town and its shape is characteristic of the Ottoman period, with defined boundaries that have dictated the urban transformations of Erbil. 

The area on top of the Citadel’s mound measures 430 by 340 metres (1,410 ft × 1,120 ft) and is 102,000 square metres (1,100,000 sq ft) large. Ramps, located on the northern, eastern and southern slopes of the mound, lead up to gates in the outer ring of houses. The southern gate was the oldest and was rebuilt at least once, in 1860, and demolished in 1960. The buildings on top of the tell stretch over a roughly oval area of 430 by 340 metres (1,410 ft × 1,120 ft) occupying 102,000 square metres (1,100,000 sq ft).


The citadel has been inscribed on the World Heritage List since 21 June 2014.

In 2007, the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalization (HCECR) was established, and in 2010, the Citadel was added to Iraq’s tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage inclusion following the allocation of more than $13 million in public funds for the preservation of the site. Since then, UNESCO and various other foreign institutions have collaborated with HCECR to produce an overall preservation and rehabilitation project for the Citadel.

Among HCECR’s achievements is the restoration of various houses, the preparation of a site management plan, and the establishment of buffer zones in the lower town. The Textile Museum was reopened in 2014 after preservation work completed, and the Erbil office of the Institut français du Proche-Orient (Ifpo) is now based in the restored Chalabi House. The first systematic archaeological excavations at the Citadel started in 2013, and in 2014, the Erbil Citadel became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Citadel, now accessible to the public, has become a popular destination for both locals and tourists from other regions of Iraq.

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While the Citadel was being reconstructed, all but one family had to vacate their homes. One family was permitted to stay to avoid breaking the continuity in this site, that had been inhabited since its construction. 



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