Erbil is a surprisingly green city. Of course, Kurdistan is a far cry from central Iraq, and it is not hard to see greenery from the airplane or in the distant mountains. Nevertheless, given the general lack of urban planning in the Middle East, it is always a treat to find a city in which attention is given to parks and green spaces. Kela Hewler Park (I'm assuming this means Erbil Citadel Park) is a small green space bordered by what appears to be a public bath or hammam. There is nothing particularly eye-catching or appealing about this park, but given the number of take-aways in the vicinity, it is a good place for a rest and a bite to eat in between hiking up and down to the citadel.
Bakhi Shar is the city park in Erbil, and it is located at the end of the long square the stretches south of the citadel. It has a small clock tower that is reminiscent of similar structures in other Ottoman towns, and it provides the city’s children with a much needed green and safe space in which to play. When I visited Erbil, it was February, cold and rainy, and the park did not appear to be all that welcoming. I imagine, however, that is must be quite a popular destination among the city’s families during the warmer months.
Bata Street is located on the western side of the Bazaar. It contains a large number of shops that sell a variety of goods, but also a quaint little park that is, presumably, intended to beautify the area near some government buildings.
Ainkawa is a suburb of Erbil that is notable for being a bastion of the Syriac revival in northern Iraq. I didn’t actually make it all the way to Ainkawa (I should have taken a taxi instead of trying to walk), but I did get a good view of the way north to Ainkawa. While much of the stretch is dominated by large developments of hotels and restaurants, the section closer to the city’s core has a number of small shops and restaurants, revealing a pleasant and much quieter section of the city.
There’s not much to tell about Sheikh Mahmud Hafid Square, except that it has a great, larger-than-life bust of the Sheikh. Sheikh Mahmud, also known as Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, was a Kurdish leader at the turn of the last century who repeatedly sought to win the independence of Kurdistan from the British Mandate in Iraq during the 1920s. He had a brief reign as the King of Kurdistan, but was ultimately deposed by the British and deported, first to India, and then to southern Iraq. He was eventually permitted to return to his ancestral lands in 1941, but did not engage in separatist activities. He is credited by Kurds in Iraq with having introduced them to the 20th century version of statehood and the international political framework. His monument today stands in a rather grimy intersection north of the citadel, marking the start of the Ainkawa road.
The Nishtiman Centre is much like the shopping malls that appear throughout the Middle East in areas and cities that are what the French call “popular”. It does not have any Western name brand stores, and it is pretty obvious that a fair percentage of the goods on display here are Chinese knock offs that have probably gone through highly irregular import processes. Other goods might be the fruits of a flourishing smuggling trade across the border with Turkey. In any event, the mall is strewn with cardboard boxes of merchandise, all destined for the lower-to-middle class shoppers looking to emulate the dress and fashions of Istanbul and Western Europe. You shouldn’t expect to find many things inside the mall that you might consider to be suitable as souvenirs, but all along the outer rim of the centre there are small shops that sell pins, rings, keychains and items made from semi-precious stones, such as rosaries. There are also a number of stores offering traditional Kurdish clothing, which is a real treat as a souvenir.
Sheikh Allah Street is a lively thoroughfare that has dozens, if not hundreds, of ambulant vendors and small shops selling pretty much anything and everything imaginable (within reason, remembering that this is not exactly Hong Kong). There are innumerable salesmen offering shoppers are sorts of sweets, fruits, candies, drinks, cellphone accoutrements, clothing, shoes, video cassettes and DVDs, books and religious materials, as well as heavier manufactured goods. Many of the stores along the route also offer dry goods and fresh foods, as well as prepared meals and there are a couple of pharmacies as well. It is a good place to get a view into the lives of ordinary Kurds, and to experience the liveliness of this city and its inhabitants.
This is not Erbil’s Grand Mosque, and it appears that I, sadly, missed that particular tourist attraction. This complex appears to be a larger mosque and madrassa, or possibly even a dergâh (dervish compound) although I’m not sure about that latter part. In any event, its architecture was imposing and impressive, and I felt that it should be included in a survey of the city’s sights.
On my way to the big Martyr Sami Abdurrahman Park, someone stopped me to ask directions in Kurdish...now this sort of thing always surprises me, as I really don't look like a local! Once we'd established that I didn't speak Kurdish, conversation switched to Arabic, and it turned out this guy was also a tourist, from Akre, and was asking for directions to a book fair at the Erbil Exhibition Centre, which happened to be next to the park. I'm quite a fan of the written word, and as it was mainly Arabic books on display and I happen to be an Arabic teacher, it seemed like a good opportunity. Inside, representatives from publishing houses across the Arab world, Iran and Turkey displayed their latest editions, and for me it was fascinating. Had I known this was going to be on, I would have brought a bigger backpack, but my luggage was already stuffed, so I could only consider buying one or two books. I ended up with "Speak Farsi Fluently: a Guide for the Arab Traveller" and an Algerian novel, but spent a good hour perusing all the stalls. My favourite was the local publishing house which had plenty of coffee-table books with pictures of Kurdistan. Somehow, I managed to evade the television crew who magically appeared any time I stopped to look at a book...quite an accomplishment as an obvious foreigner at an Arabic book fair!
It's a yearly event apparently, and there are a few English, French and Farsi books on display too, as well as a cafe...so if you're in town in April, give it a look.
Old Erbil is not confined to the walls of the citadel...down in the city below, if you know where to look, you can find rows of old houses with overhanging balconies in typical Erbil style, almost always in a bad state, with walls crumbling, electric wires running in all directions, and piles of rubble where other old houses might once have stood. I've got a feeling in a few years' time, these houses won't exist any longer, as development is quickly changing the face of the city....but who knows, maybe someone will come along and rescue these old neglected houses before they disappear under shopping malls and car parks.
Places to look include the backstreets behind the Hotel Shahan, the market area in front of the Nishtiman Mall, and the area behind the Qaysari Bazaar (look out for a strange sculpture/water feature/prayer hut, and take the road running behind this...it's quite a characterful neighbourhood of old houses, shops and many food stalls).