The Sheikh Chooli Minaret is marooned in modern Erbil, a lonely minaret at a tilt, the Erbilian equivalent to the leaning tower of Pisa. There used to be an old mosque here, but nobody can remember it any more, just that it is very old and rather photogenic. I first found it by mistake, not realising this was the minaret I'd been looking for, as I was told it was in a park of some sort. Well, there were flowers and shrubbery around it, but the whole thing was fenced off and guarded by soldiers. I gave up on it.
Then, a week or so later, on returning to Erbil to extend my visa, I found the Minare Park, again by accident. It was a Thursday evening, so families were queueing to get in...I was at a loose end, so decided to have a look. It turned out to be yet another landscaped park with fountains a-plenty, water cascading down illuminated walls, steps and curves and raised platforms, all with a view of...the Sheikh Chooli Minaret!
This time, I got close to the minaret, close enough to get some good photos, and long enough to arouse the curiosity of two guys who were also taking pictures of the minaret. One was a student of tourism at one of Erbil's universities...very optimistic, you might think, studying tourism in Iraq, but I wish him well. He seemed to know a lot about Erbil's history (curse the language barrier!), and genuinely cared for his city...Erbil needs more people like him to make sure old monuments like this don't get swallowed up in Erbil's frantic bid to be the next big Arab city to make it rich.
Back to the park...it's a nice place, well thought out, and a great place to meet people. I had four conversations in this park, was photographed three times, and I was only there about half an hour! There's a cafe with nargile and coffee too. And it is free to enter.
Another new park, this one seemed to draw all the crowds on Fridays, and there was barely room to swing a cat once inside the main gate. I've no idea what this is more popular than the others, as there isn't really anything overly special about it....apart from the tiny weeny art gallery, proudly claiming to be Erbil's first permanent exhibition space, housed in an unlikely building modelled on a cave, complete with fake stalactites. It must be one of the most visited art galleries in the world, as the place was heaving with families, all ignoring the helpful arrows telling you to keep moving in an anti-clockwise direction around the tiny hall...and as for the polite notice asking visitors to refrain from taking photos of the artwork, well, that was meant to be tested. Everyone had mobiles out, snapping away at every portrait and sculpture. One man even had a mobile in each hand. The artists didn't seem too bothered though...they were just happy to have their work on display, even though half the visitors were kids running riot around a concrete stalagmite. Outside, a fake waterfall tumbles down from the roof, reached by a winding staircase, where everyone gathers to admire the views of...well, the park!
Again, us backpackers tend to stand out like sore thumbs in places like this, so I wasn't alone for long. After a prolonged photo session on the roof, I was adopted by two Syrian Kurds who had escaped here from Syria 6 years ago and now raved about their new home. We talked in Arabic, something neither of them did very often although both had been schooled in Arabic, Kurdish being a forbidden language in the Syrian playground. they told me how strange it was to speak a language in the home but never see it written, and how hard it was to adapt to seeing Kurdish written down everywhere in Iraqi Kurdistan. We walked for miles, and ended up eating lahmacun in Souk Iskan (see restaurant tip...)
First stop on a sightseeing tour of Erbil should be the new fountain square in the heart of the bazaar, underneath the citadel. I don't know its official name, or even if it has one, but it seems to be the focal point of the city. Fountains play a huge role in the redevelopment of Erbil...every park worth its salt has one if not a dozen, each one lit up at night like a liquid Christmas tree. But for my money, these ones were the most impressive, probably because of the unique backdrop.
The main fountain isn't all that exciting really, but it draws a lot of attention at night as it is lit up and changes colour every few seconds. Photographers are on hand to take your portrait as the fountain does its best to soak you silly, while onlookers eat ice cream and munch their way through packets of nuts and seeds. On three sides, you have the Qaysari bazaar, the brand new Nishtiman Mall, and a new looking mosque with attractive brick archways, while on the fourth, you have the citadel towering above. New fountains are under construction, and this square will no doubt be a very pleasant place to sit once it is completed.
A lone teahouse operates under the arches until sunset, but after dark, bring your own refreshments. Come on Erbil, pull your finger out...this is prime cafe territory!
Once you've taken 101 photos that will probably never come out, head up the steps to the citadel to watch the action from above.
Just in case you're not all parked out, head further out into the suburbs towards the airport and eventually you'll hit the gigantic Martyr Sami Abdurrahman Park. It was a Friday when I visited, so crowds were beginning to gather, but it really didn't matter, as this park is so big it can absorb huge numbers without feeling too crowded. I have to say I was impressed...well planned sections all neatly plotted on handy maps, with imaginitive childrens' playgrounds, cafes, lakes, raucous all-singing all-dancing gardens, quiet shady lawns, and a little miniature train full of happy flag-waving kids. The main draw was the lake with the large fountain...an endless stream of families queued up to don lifejackets for two fast-paced laps of the lake in a speedboat. It might sound as if I'm exaggerating to call this Erbil's answer to Hyde Park, but really, Hyde Park had better watch out...
The park has a darker side...or at least the land the park was built on does, as it used to be a detention centre under Saddam's rule. Hard to imagine now.
Just inside the main gate of the citadel (a peshmerga might stop and search you, although he seems to realise there's little point as there are several other unguarded entrances!), you'll first see a souvenir shop in a restored house. After perusing the dusty shelves of books and maps and coins, turn right and you'll see another restored mansion, this one housing the Kurdish Textile Museum. Now I like carpets and rugs to look at, don't get me wrong, but I found it quite hard to work up enthusiasm about the exhibits on show. There are some lovely examples of traditional Kurdish kilims and saddle bags, carpets and rugs....but overall, I felt this was a missed opportunity. What I really wanted to know was not how many knots an expert weaver can do in an hour, but what was the hhistory of the citadel. It's the oldest continuously inhabited urban area on earth, so surely there must be some interesting stories to tell, and with the lack of any other museums in Erbil, I'm sure a room or two could be cleared of carpets to explain a little bit about that... Maybe I'm asking too much...after all, I wasn't really expecting there to be any museums in Erbil, so maybe I'm being unfair to knock the one that does operate. And anyway, it is free to enter....so I shouldn't complain.
I had been looking forward to exploring the lanes of old Erbil, something that visitors to the Citadel could do until recently. Up until 2006, the citadel was teeming with life, with refugees from other parts of Iraq flooding to the quarter and living in squalid conditions among the old mansions. Houses were divided up to accommodate several families, walls began to crumble and nobody was too bothered about putting them back up again...Erbil's historical gem was in danger. It got so bad that some of the outer wall on top of the citadel mound began to collapse. So the Kurdistani government and UNESCO stepped in, paid the inhabitants to move to purpose-built housing on the edge of the city, and restoration/rescue efforts began. The lanes now lie silent, and still except for stray cats and birds and bushes blowing in the wind. I've read reports of tourists before me who have been able to wander around at will, poking around the mansions and mosques, climbing up onto rooftops and balconies in the citadel walls...sadly, but understandably, that has been stopped, and red "do not cross" tape blocks off nearly every lane. One lane seemed to be open, and I'd spotted a local family wander off down there, so I decided to have a look myself...but before I'd got too far, "Mister, Mister! No!"...a Peshmerga guard waving his gun at me and the family...the red tape had blown away, but it was still forbidden. Oh well...I hope they do a good job of restoring the citadel to its former glory...but above all, I hope one day people will return to live here.
Oh, and by the way...I know I said it is the oldest continuously inhabited urban area in the world, and the clever among you might be thinking "but he's just contradicted himself by saying all the inhabitants were moved out"...well, UNESCO already thought about that, and kept one family inside the walls so as not to break the record...so there!
Wherever you are in Erbil, you can see the citadel...or so they say, as it is becoming quite tricky nowadays with all the high rise buildings springing up, but it is still partly true. Similar to Aleppo in Syria, Erbil's citadel stands on a raised mound in the centre of the city. Unlike Aleppo's citadel, Erbil's walls are less like a fortress and more like some sort of decorated gingerbread palace. Houses were built into the citadel walls, balconies and roof terraces added, and the result is quite striking. I'm sure the former inhabitants must have enjoyed some fine city views, but now access is severely limited. I did see a man standing on one of the balconies admiring the view, but how the hell did he get there? I have no idea, but assume it must have involved hopping over some red tape somewhere along the line.
There's only one road you can wander down inside the citadel, and that;s the main artery from the entrance to the north gate (or, if you evaded the guards and came in through the north gate, from the entrance to the south gate!), passing through a military area, where a volleyball court has been set up in the courtyard of a ruined mansion. Less of a grand entrace, the north gate is more of a back door, looking out over the modern industrial suburbs to the north. To the north east, look out for the huge new mosque, the Jalil Khayat mosque, which I'm told is modelled on the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. From here, it just looks like a huge mosque, one of many identical ones in the Islamic world that pop up in even the tiniest village, funded by Saudi...but no, this one is different. Trust me, it is worth the sweat-inducing walk to get a close-up.
While standing at the north gate, have a look at some of the houses built into the city wall. Access via a path on the very edge of the mound might be allowed, but I wasn't going to argue with a peshmerga with a gun and a language barrier, so I didn't test things....but there is definitely a path...
It seems only fitting that one of the oldest monuments in the world should be almost surrounded by one of the oldest markets in the world. The Qaysari Bazaar has been here for centuries, millennia perhaps, nobody really knows for sure...although it really doesn't look that old any more. At first glance, I wasn't too impressed...after Dohuk's covered bazaar, it seemed tame and small, but I think that was because I was in a bad mood after a terrible night's sleep, and because I'd somehow managed not to get lost and to emerge on the other side of the bazaar within minutes of entering. But I soon discovered that the bazaar is bigger, that it spreads beyond the covered section, spreads for kilometres in fact. And it isn't just two or three major covered alleyways...there are hundreds of smaller alleyways inside, some of the shops so close together you have to brush away bits of cloth and hanging dresses to pass through. Look out for stairs which take you to upper and lower levels...there's no such thing as a dead end in here.
Again, like those in Dohuk and Slemani, this is not a bazaar for tourists...it is a local market for local people, just on an enormous scale. I loved it! Just wish I was braver when it comes to taking amazing market photos...
As I said in a previous tip, the enormous Jalil Khayat mosque doesn't look much from afar, but don't write it off your itinerary or you'll miss out on some incredibly beautiful modern Islamic architecture. Someone said it was modelled on Istanbul's Blue Mosque, but close up it is nothing like it...well, I'll concede it does have blue tiles, but that's as far as the similarities go. It's more Iranian in style, with coloured tiled minarets and domes, and some very phallic-looking appendages. I went on a Friday (not a good idea, unless you're a Muslim wishing to pray) so didn't get to look inside, but the outside alone made up for the long walk out here.
Climb the steps between the carpet shops on Qalat Street, and at the top you'll be greeted by Mubarek Bin Ahmed Sharafaddin (Ibn al-Mustawfi), a historian from centuries past. He doesn't say much, as he's made of stone, and anyway, he's far too busy reading a historical tome to be bothered by tourists, or even kids climbing onto his lap. However, one of the Peshmerga soldiers might approach and say hello. The view from here is stunning, over the fountains below, the rooftops of Qaysari bazaar, and on to the affluent suburbs beyond. This is the place to come for sunset, not for the actual sunset really, as that's in a different direction, but to watch the action around the fountains, wait for the call to prayer from all corners of the city to signal the beginning of evening, and the lights to come on one by one. It's a magical sight, and once I can work out how to edit videos, I might add a very shaky one I took with my camera (that was a discovery I made by mistake in Erbil...the video setting!).
Sitting admiring the view, you won't be alone for long. I was approached by several groups of young Kurds, some wanting to practice their English, others wanting to take my photo, but most just simply wanting to know where I was from and why I had come to their city.
From the roof of the museum, one building stands out among the ruins...that of an old white mosque, which is one of the few currently usable buildings inside the citadel. It is worth a closer look, as the colours of the tiled minaret can't be seen from afar.
Erbil and Iraqi Kurdistan has managed to escape the violence and chaos that has killed thousands in Arab-controlled Iraq, just a few dozen kilometres away, but that's not to say things have been peaceful all the time. In 2004, a suicide bomb attack killed around 100 people, including the former Kurdish prime minister Sami Abdurrahman. In the centre of the park named after him lies a monument to the dead, with a rather poignant inscription on a rock saying "Freedom is not Free".
Arbil is a very, very old city. There is an interesting castle, which was build in 11th century. Now, because there is almost no tourism, there is also nothing for tourists(as far as I know, the very interesting museum is only in kurdish language...)
But that will cahnge now, because the Saddam Regime has been removed.
we took a taxi from the hotel to citycenter and just infront of us was a series of fountains and in the back the Citadel.which is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world.
it was 9 am and it was very hot. I noticed that the streets and the wter in the fountain was very clean , you cant see any trash thrown on the ground, wish i could say the same to the other places i have been to,( not naming any ;D )we took alook at the shops seeling traditional shoes and carpets with lovely pivtures , mostly if I am not mistaken the image of Immamu Ali.took the stairs up to the Citadel , at the Entrance there is a big statue of Mubarak Ben Ahmaed Sharafidine greeting us ito the Citadel. on the right as we entered we saw an antique shop , took some fotos the poeple agian and again were very friendly. A police man told us politely that there were ares thaat we were not allowed to go in, but escorted us to take some fotos. on our way to the other end of the Citadel we passed by the High Commisssion for Erbil Revitalization and were given a free map and a brouchure.at the other end on saw a view of the city. but the front entrace had a better view one could see the fountains and the souk , i have some fotos for you to see.