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Erbil Citadel • قه‌ڵای ھەولێر • قلعة أربيل

The citadel in Erbil is the oldest continuously inhabited place in the history of the entire world. It has only recently begun to be excavated, and its war-ravaged homes are being renovated.

Although its defence walls were largely subsumed by houses, you can still see clear buttresses along the perimeter.

The citadel is regarded as the oldest continuously inhabited place on earth.

For much of its time, Erbil was contained within the fortified walls, but in certain eras it expanded enough that there was a substantial lower city. The Neo-Assyrian era (935 - 612 BC), Adiabene era (1st century BC - 3rd century AD), reign of Sultan Muzaffer Ed-Din Kokburi (1190 - 1232), and capital city of the KRG have all seen its significant regrowth. During the Neo-Assyrian era it had a ziggurat and famous temple.

The city name Arbil appears non-Semitic: the initial aris common to many Hurrian place names. Arbil was mentioned in Sumerian holy writings as Arbilum, Orbelum or Urbilum. Later, Assyrians rendered the name as arba'ū ilū (Arba-Illu), which etymology and folk tales from modern Assyrian inhabitants tells us was an Assyrian word meaning four gods. One of these gods was Ishtar, goddess of love and war; another was Assur, god of Assyria; and the other two are unknown. From Arba-Illu, the modern name أربيل Erbil is derived as well as Arbailu, Arabales, Arbira, and Urbi-Lum. The name Urbi-Lum was mentioned by Sumerian king Shulki of the third dynasty (2000 BC).

In Kurdish, Erbil is known as Hawler. The name Hewlêr means "Temple of the Sun" in Kurdish, and is thought derived from the Greek helio (sun). This may have originated from the Kurdish sun-worshipping religions Mithraism, Yazidanism and Zoroastrianism.

Political history

There are four theories for how the citadel originated.

Gradual accumulation

Historical settlement gradually caused the citadel to rise higher and higher, in a phenomena consistent with other archaeological sites.

Assyrian settlement

An Assyrian ziggurat was surrounded by temples that were all destroyed and abandoned, with the heaping ruins becoming a useful tell for defensible habitation.

Artificial mounding

The desirable, fertile location was made habitable with a strong raised mound, though such an event is not recorded at any other Mesopotamian site.

Natural formation

The mound was already naturally present and may have grown additionally with gradual accumulation, though this is unlikely because it is in a flat plain and the shape and slope are very organized and do not undulate.

Prehistory covers time until the first textual records about Erbil circa 2,300 BC.

Surface surveys have turned up evidence of occupation in the Ubaid period, noted for the development of early urban centers. No documents mention Erbil until 2300 BC, but this will likely change with archaeological excavation.

Akkadian and Gutian eras

Arbil is first mentioned in the records of two journeys (c 2300 BC) by a messenger from Ebla to Erbil. The next mention is an inscription (c 2200 BC) recording the capture of Erbil's governor Nirišhuna by the Gutian kind Erridu-Pizir.

Ur III (Neo-Sumerian) era

Around 2100 BC, Erbil resurfaces in the text record in the annual deeds of Sumerian king Shulgi and his successor and son Aram-Sin. Many clay tablets mention that the 45th year of Shulgi's reign was when Shulgi, the strong man, the king of Ur, the king of the four quarters, smashed the heads of Erbium, Simurrum, Lullubum, and Karbar in a single campaign. Erbil must have revolted, as five years later, Shulgi's son Amar-Sin records his second year reigning as the year in which Aram-Sin the king destroyed Urbilum. Neither of these destructions were complete, as tablets from Shulgi, Aram-Sin, and the next king continue to mentioning Erbil as a living city in the following years.

Old Assyrian erac 1716 - c 1600 BC

A joint campaign by the kings of Eshnunna and Assyria, possibly in 1716 BC, results in the defeat and death of Erbil ruler Bunu-Ishtar, who was evidently named after the goddess. The Temple of Ishtar in the Citadel was perhaps already been an important religious center in Mesopotamia, but its importance would become indisputable when the kingdom of Erbil became part of the Old Assyrian empire.

Middle Assyrian era1365 - 1077 BC

Arbil was already a secure part of the Middle Assyrian empire and an important provincial capital during the time of Assyrian king Shalmaneser I (reigned 1273 - 1244 BC), who claimed, "I built the Egašankalamma, the temple of Ishtar the Lady of Arbil, my lady, together with its ziggurat." Because the Temple already existed, he in fact either rebuilt or reconstructed it.

By the end of the second millennium, Erbil formed an integral part of the Assyrian empire and from then until the end of the Neo-Assyrian empire a wealth of information survives in documentary sources -- on the Temple of Ishtar, its priests, oracles, astronomers, scribes, and many aspects of of official, economic, and daily life. Erbil was the gateway to Anatolia and what is now Iran and the location for many diplomatic missions and victory celebrations by Assyrian rulers.

Neo-Assyrian era935 - 612 BC

It is for the Neo-Assyrian era (end of the 10th century - 612 BC) that there is a mass of information about Erbil, thanks to the survival of some 300 clay tablets and other texts. Its Temple of Ishtar ensured the patronage of the Neo-Assyrian kings, and Erbil expanded beyond the citadel to include a substantial lower town. This was a Golden Age for the city.

In 856 BC, Shalmaneser III celebrated in the Temple of Ištar in the Citadel and at her shrine in Milkia following his campaigns against Urartu. Sennacherib (705 - 681 BC) built a water canal to Erbil from Pistora Valley, some 20km away. The head of the canal survives with a cuneiform inscription stating: I, King Sennacherib, dug three rivers from the mountains of Khani Alti above Arba-Illu, the home of goddess Ištar, and straightened their course. Esarhaddon (reigned 680 - 669 BC) covered the walls of the Temple of Ištar with electrum plates, and placed gold and silver statues at its gates. Ashurbanipal (669 - 627 BC) carried out major works on the Temple of Ištar, completing its outer wall, making it shine like the day with copper and gold, and setting standards up at its gates. Erbil was some sort of a cultural capital, if not even a ceremonial or political capital. Ashurbanipal's victory celebrations over defeating Elam in 657 BC culminated in Erbil rather than Nineveh.

Median era612 - 521 BC

When Assyria fell in 612 BC, the Citadel was likely sacked, as a deliberately broken bronze statue from the Temple of Ishtar was found near Lake Urmia (Iran). Arbil seems to have come under Mede control, who may be the ancestors of the Kurds. The Median King Cyaxares settled Sagarthian tribes from the Zagros in Arbela and Kirkuk, probably as a reward for their help in capture of Nineveh. But after revolts of Medes led by Phraortes king of Media (522-521 BC) were put down by Darius I of Persia, the Sagartians of Arbela rebelled against Darius. Darius sent an army led by a Median general named Takhmaspâda, and in the summer of 521 BC defeated Sagartians, led by Tritantaechmes, who claimed to be a descendant of the Great Median King Cyaxares. According to Darius, the rebel of Arbela was the last revolt of Media which he put down. These incidents are carved on the Behistun Inscription around Kermanshah.

Achaemenid era521 - 331 BC

Shitrantakhma, a rebel leader claiming Median royal ancestry, was defeated and impaled at Erbil by Darius the Great in 521 BC. After that, the city was part of the Achaemenid Empire and was wan integral part. It was a staging post on the Royal Road. In 331 BC, Darius III made Erbil his base before his defeat at the Battle of Arbela by Alexander the Great, who captured Darius' treasure and personal weapons at Erbil the day after the battle.

حەنگی ئەربیلا Battle of Arbela331 BC

Darius III made Erbil his base before he confronted Alexander the Great and was defeated at Gaugamela. Because he fled to Erbil (no known by its Aramic name Arbela) after the battle, it is sometimes called the Battle of Arbela. Following Alexander's death in 323 BC, his half-brother Amphimachus briefly became Erbil's governor in 321 BC.

Seleucid erac 310 - 126 BC

Erbil became part of the Greek-speaking Seleucid empire and would remain so for 170 years. After this, it would fall under control of Persian empires (the Parthians and later, the Sassanians) and the vicissitudes of the Romans.

Parthian Rule126 BC - 224 CE

In 141 BC, Mesopotamia was conquered by the Parthians. This begin two eras of Persian control by Parthians and subsequently the Sassanids. However, Erbil was subject to attack as it was in the buffer zone between the Persian heartland to the east and the powerful Roman empire to the west (a similar position as Amida, later called Diyarbakir). Despite expeditions into lands under Persian control, Roman control here could only (tenuously) last a year or two at a time until the Roman and Persian squabbling was ended altogether by the arrival of Arab hegemony in 638 or 642 CE.

In 88 BC, Armenian king Tigran the Great seized upon a power vacuum during Parthian and Seleucid dynastic squabbles and was able to add Erbil to his short-lived empire. But when the Pontic king Mithdridates VI (his brother-in-law) tried to seize Roman territory, Roman general Pompey was sent on a retaliatory mission (66 BC) that reached all the way to Erbil, undoubtedly pressuring Parthian king Phraates III.

Adiabene era1st century CE - 2nd century

There was a substantial number of provincial kingdoms that flourished in the 1st century. In the Parthian era, Erbil was the capital of the client kingdom Adiabene (Hedyab). Adiabene was ruled by local officials who maintained a feudal relationship with he central government and were free to conduct their own day-to-day affairs. It is unknown if any taxes were paid to the central government; if they were, they must have not been oppressive. Adiabene's rulers converted to Judaism and generously supported construction and renovation in Jerusalem, as well as helping feed Jews there during a famine and eventually helping lead the militant revolt against Roman rule in Canaan.

Conflicts between Rome and Parthia2nd and 3rd centuries

After the 1st century, Erbil periodically became involved in wars between Rome and Parthia. In 116 CE, Roman emperor Tajan (reigned 98 - 117 CE) briefly secured Mesopotamia and during that time Erbil was the capital of the new Roman province of Assyria. However, after just two years the Romans had to withdraw to their Euphrates frontier. Nonetheless, a century of Adiabene peace and autonomy was ended and Erbil was in the crosshairs. In 195 CE, Roman emperor Septimus Severus occupied Erbil but was forced to withdraw the following year. In 224 CE, Roman emperor Caracalla invaded and destroyed the royal tombs at Erbil, but was forced to withdraw by Parthian king Artabanus IV, the last Parthian king.

Sassanid era224 CE - 638

When Sassanians took power in the east, Erbil continued being a frontier region between Rome and Persia. Sassanid king Shaper II invaded Roman territories in 354 CE and the Roman emperor Constantius II invaded Adiabene in retaliation. In 354 CE, Constantius II invaded and was given the victory title Adiebenicus Maximus. In 627 CE the Byzantine emperor Heraclitus crossed the territory of Erbil to defeat the Sassanian commander in single combat at the Battle of Nineveh. This was to be the last of the wars between the Romans and Byzantines and the rulers of Persia, as the Arabs conquered Erbil in 638 CE.

Islamic Conquest638 / 642

In 638 or 642 (the date is uncertain), Erbil was conquered by the Muslim army of Urba Ibn Farqad. The succeeding Ommayad and early Abbasid periods saw the Royal Road lose its significance as the main route to the north. As a result, Erbil was eclipsed by Mosul. A notable personality of this period, Abu al-Abbas al-Khidhir who was born in 1085, became the preacher for a madrassa built in the citadel by Abu Manzoor Sarvatkin in 1138.

Zengi Emirate

The capture of the Citadel by Zengi, either in 1126 or 1128, restored its importance.

Begtegin Emirate1167 - 1232

The Begteginid emirate established its capital in Erbil in 1167. After the accession of Sutlan Muzaffer Ed-Din Kokburi as rule in 1190, Erbil enjoyed a 42 year Golden Age, soon to be ended by the Mongols. The town regained its political and economic importance in AD 1167 when it became the capital of the Kurdish Emir Zain al-Din Ali Kuchuk Begtegin. He was the former ruler of Sinjar, Harran, and Tikrit. However, the most famous of this dynasty was Muzaffar al-Din Kokbari, a brother-in-law of Saladin. During his long rule, which spanned from 1190-1232, Erbil thrived and experienced a remarkable growth that extended beyond the confines of the upper citadel city and occupied the southern foothills for the first time.

This lower walled town, which became known as al-Muzaffariya, after the name of its ruler, covered a relatively large area which included houses, suqs, khans, hospitals, mosques, and madrassas (schools). This growth was inevitable because the upper town had reached its limit and that there was by now a general feeling of security. To this day, a beautiful brick minaret remains from the so-called al-Muzaffariya madrassa (or Choli). The madrassa as well as all the historic fabric of Muzaffariya town have totally disappeared and replaced by modern development over the years.

On the death of Kokbari in 1232, Erbil became under the rule of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustansir in Baghdad through an appointed Wali or Governor. Then in 1235 lower Erbil was attacked and ransacked by the Mongols. However, they could not capture the fortified upper town until Baghdad itself and devastated by the Mongols in 1258. It seems that they achieved this difficult military task only when they secured the cooperation of Badr al-Din Lu'lu', the then ruler of Mosul (1222-1259), and was rewarded by being appointed as the ruler of Erbil and the region.

The famous historian of Erbil, Abu al-Barakat Ibn al-Mustawfi (1169-1239), who was born in the citadel and became a Minister under Kokbari, was in the citadel when it was besieged by the Mongols. Another notable historian from this period was Shams al-Din bin khalkan who is well known for his 9- volume work entitled "Wafayat al-Aa'yan". He was appointed a Minister but resigned his post after the death of Kokbari.

In 1261, there was an unsuccessful revolt by kokbari's sons to recapture the town. The socio-political environment was remarkably tolerant when a Christian named Taj al-Din Mukhtas was appointed Governor of Erbil. He seems to have encouraged Christians, Jacobites in particular, to settle in the town and build a church for their community. A conjectural map of al-Muzaffariya during the 13th Century, based on contemporary accounts, shows that it was surrounded by a wall pierced by three gates. It enclosed an area of approximately 120 hectares which included Muzaffariya Madrassa west of the citadel.

Ibn Khallikan1200s

Arbil is also the birth place of the famous Muslim historian and writer of 13th century, Ibn Khallikan.

Mongolian era1235

The Mongols destroyed the lower city, but their siege of the Citadel was unsuccessful. By negotiation (not destruction) it was agreed that Erbil would come under Mongolian suzerainty. In the later Mongol period, Erbil was a frontier city and an important stop on the route from southern Iraq and Iran to Central Asia and China. The Christian Catholicos Mar Yaballaha III wintered in the Citadel in 1299 and 1300; originally he was a monk sent west from China by Kublai Khan.

In 1339-1340, coins were minted in Erbil in the name of Jehan Timur, the last Mongol ilkhan, but never again until the Kurdistan Government was Erbil to be a capital of a principality or province. Successive local centers of power were elsewhere, though aghas and other notables continued to make the Citadel their home, safe on its high mound and behind gates which were locked at night. There were raids in 1397.

Qara Qoyunlu (Black Sheep) Turkoman era1411 - 1478

Not much is recorded about the history of Erbil between the 13th Century and the mid 16th Century except that it was under rule of the Black Sheep and White Sheep dynasties. Erbil became a major trading centre on the route between Baghdad and Mosul, a role which it still plays today with important road links to the outside world.

Ag Qoyunlu (White Sheep) Turkoman era1478 - 1508

Power came to the White Sheep Turcomans.

Safavid era, 1508 - 1535

Next came a brief window of Safavid rule.

Ottoman Empire1535 - 1918

In 1534, the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, occupied the town and had its ruler, Izz al-Din Sheer, put to death. He appointed Hussein Beg Dasni as ruler and maintained its administrative following to the Pashalik of Baghdad. Erbil became part of the Ottoman empire in 1535.

Erbil was now in the buffer region between forces to the west (previously Greeks, then Romans, and now Ottomans) and Persians to the east. After a period of intense competition between the Ottoman Turks and the Persian Safavids to control the whole region, Sultan Murad IV finally secured Iraq as an integral part of the Ottoman Empire in 1638.

In 1743, the Citadel was besieged for 60 days and captured by Nader Shah, the ruler of Persia. In 1745, after it had been recovered by the Ottomans, Sultan Mahmud I ordered that the Citadel defenses be surveyed and repaired at the expense of the imperial Treasury. It seems this never happened, as by 1766 it was visited by German traveller Carsten Niebuhr who said the perimeter of the Citadel was an encircling ring of houses (probably originally built against the outside of the walls) and thus the Citadel had already taken its overall present appearance. A single defensive tower survives from this or an earlier era survives, now supporting the balcony of House 6/3. Most of the historic Citadel homes date to the Ottoman period.

During the period of Ottoman rule, until the 19th century it was frequently ruled by local Kurdish princes who enjoyed great autonomy. The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries witnessed severe rivalries between notable local families such as the Baban Emirs who ruled Erbil during this period.

An engraving that accompanied a book entitled "Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan" published in 1820 and authored by Claudius Rich (1787-1821), shows the citadel town clearly dominating the surrounding landscape. It also shows that some urban growth around the southern side of the citadel has firmly taken hold and that Muzaffariya minaret stands alone to the west of the town. During most of the 19th Century, Erbil was under the administrative rule of Baghdad but was then separated and linked with the Sanjaq of Shahrazoor after the proclamation of the Ottoman law of Villayets in 1870.

The present city of Arbela ... encloses 1000 houses, and there are 500 more at the foot of the hill, which, from the depression of the ground, are not all visible as you approach the place. There is a considerable number of Jews in the town, but no Christians. The bazars, which are below, had a very picturesque appearance from their being covered with branches, which gave gave them an airiness and lightness. Southgate 1840, p 212

The town of Erbil (Arbela) stands on a round, flat-topped, artificial mound 150 feet high. The mud walls extend, to the east, far beyond the area occupied by about 1,100 houses, some mosques and baths. Its bazaars and khans are at the foot of the hill, as well as from 400 to 500 houses, occupied by the lower classes. The fertile plain towards the north-east is covered with villages, and is extensively cultivated. Wood, 1872, p 68

Early 20th century and post-Ottoman demise (1918)

The decade after Ottoman collapse was unstable in Iraq. The security provided by the Citadel was attractive to elite families. However, after Independence in 1932, the lack of services and narrow insanitary alleyways, inaccessible to cars, seemed increasingly old-fashioned and inconvenient. Prominent families led the process of abandoning the Citadel in favor of the lower town, leaving poorer inhabitants and empty mansions behind. The Citadel fell into decay.

It may be safely assumed that the urban form and structure of Erbil citadel did not change to any significant extent since the 18th Century. It was not until the arrival of the British in Erbil in 1918 and, later, the foundation of the State of Iraq in 1921 that some measure of urban modernization started to take place. The Municipality of Erbil was founded in 1885 and the first Mayor was Ahmad Agha Abdul Wahab. In 1913 the first modern vehicular road was opened in the lower town. The first Mutasarrif (Governor) was Ahmad Afandi Othman. Electricity did not reach the town until 1932. The longest serving Mayor for the town was Muhsin Agha Mahmoud Agha who served from 1928 to 1958

Modern vehicular roads started to be cut through the lower town but the citadel town remained totally pedestrian until the 1950s. A new steel tank was erected in 1924 at the middle of the citadel rising over 15 meters above the houses. It was a remarkable eyesore and landmark but it provided purified water to the houses for the first time in the citadel's history. The tank, which obtained its water by pumps and still exists today, provided water to the houses through pipes by gravity. However, it also caused serious problems to the structural stability of all buildings because of water leakage of the pipe network.

A scaled map of the city of Erbil, published by the British Naval Intelligence in 1944, shows the citadel more or less intact as before. It also shows that the lower town had by then grown substantially to the south and east of the citadel and covering an area of about 30 hectares, excluding the large cemetery that lied to the south-east.

The expansion of the modern lower town since the 1930s resulted in the gradual demise of the citadel. Most original inhabitants, especially notable families, began to move down to the lower town and occupy large modern villas with gardens. Thus empty citadel houses began to be occupied by poorer families and rural migrants who could afford little maintenance.


By the 1970s, the government initiated a study for the conservation and development of the citadel but was largely ignored. During the early 1980s, there was an active attempt to restore several houses of outstanding architectural interest and, more significantly, restore all the fallen perimeter walls of the citadel.

The 1990s witnessed further physical deterioration of the citadel and an increased occupation by poor rural migrants. Even several restored houses were abandoned and left to ruin. In 2007, The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) realizing the urgent need to take action took the bold action of evicting all occupants of the citadel and gave them ample compensation. It also decreed the establishment of a "High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalization', or HCECR for short, to be in charge of ensuring that the architectural and historic heritage of the citadel is conserved, enhanced, repopulated, and revitalized.

From 1986, IDPs driven from their villages by the Baathists found refuge in the Citadel. The collapse of the sewage system, though only a few decades old, caused many structural problems and in 2006 the KRG moved the refugees and squatters out so the Citadel could be conserved. A single family remains to retain continuity of occupation.

Religious history




Mesopotamian religions

It was famed by the Assyrians.


There was a Jewish kingdom.


325 - 640 CE

Arbela was an early center of Christianity. By AD 100 there was a bishop headquartered in the city. Most of the early bishops had Jewish names, suggesting that most of the early Christians in this city were converts from Judaism. The queen of the Adiabenians apparently adopted Christianity, and it spread throughout this region, so that the area became a Christian stronghold. It served as the seat of a Metropolitan of the Church of the East. Christian influence grew stronger when Roman emperor Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity in 325 CE. It is known from Butler's Lives of the Saints as the site of the Sassanian Persian martyrdom of almost 350 Christians in the year 345.

In 1310 the Assyrian population suffered a massacre by the Arabs; but the Kurds had no share in it. Its Aramaic speaking Assyrian population remained significant in size until destruction of the city by the forces of Timurlane in 1397. From its Christian period come many church fathers and well-known authors in Syriac, the classical language off-shoot of Aramaic. The 13th century Syriac writer Gewargis Warda Arbillaya [from Arbil] identifies the Christian population of Arbil and neighboring areas as Assyrians in a prayer dedicated to the Rogation of the Ninevites. In the wake of Timur's raids, when only one Christian village is alleged to have survived, Arbil increasingly became a Muslim-dominated town. As is attested in the region in general, those who converted to Islam became enfolded into the ethnic Muslim culture of the region, whether Turkish, Arab, Persian or Kurdish.


638 / 642 - today

The conquest of Erbil by Muslims in 640 CE was achieved without any serious resistance. The town continued to thrive and prosper but was now contested by the rising power of Mosul which became the metropolitan capital of the northern region of Mesopotamia since the 9th Century AD. Erbil was referred to by Arab geographers as a leading town in the district of Hulwan.


Though not a religious conquest, it represents a shift in administrative control.

Judaism in Erbil

After a stay of a month at Mosul I set out with a caravan for Erbil which the Jews consider to be the Resen mentioned in the Bible. [Genesis 10:12] ... Erbil is divided into two parts; of which the one lying on the mountain is the city, the other, in the vast plain is the seat of trade and industry. One hundred and fifty Jewish families dwell here, whose Nassi is Mailum Mordecai; they are however much oppressed by the fanatic, rude and half civilised sects of Allah. ... They find a feeble compensation in unrestricted freedom of trade, for therein they are perfectly free and unmolested. All are sunk into a state of great ignorance: the Schochet is the chief of the community. The dress, customs and language of the inhabitants of Erbil resemble those of Mosul; the Jews speak Arabic. Benjamin II (1859), p 88 - 90

A short time before my arrival a Jewish girl emptying some dirty water into the street, accidentally besprinkled with it a Mussulman who happened to be passing by. Immediately a crowd assembled before the house, broke open the door, seized the girl, and heaped upon her all kinds of threatening abuse; asking how she, the daughter of an accursed race, dare presume to insult a true believer. The girl defended herself to the best of her ability, but the leader of the uproar cried out to her: "There is only one way for thy escape, embrace our faith, and thou shalt marry one of our people, who is young, handsome, rich, and of a good family." But the girl refused and answered: "I am a Jewess, born so, and as such I will die; never will I deny my God, my people and my faith. If you kill me, God will demand of you my blood, and the Lord will avenge me." After that they seized her, killed her before the eyes of her parents by stabbing her with knives, and then tore her in pieces. The community desired at first to prefer a complaint before the Pacha of Bagdad and afterwards at Constantinople, but they refrained from doing so for fear of other persecutions and go a general massacre. Benjamin II (1859), p 88-89

Rabbi Perachia, a deputy of the Portuguese Jews at Jerusalem, who was commissioned to receive the charitable alms for the poor Jews of Jerusalem, died at Erbil, and was buried with all the honours belonging to his sacred office. The night following the burial the Mussulmans tore the body out of the grave, cut off a hand, and threw the remains into an open ditch, without even a covering. The Jews repaired to the burial ground, and filled up the empty grave: that was all they ventured to do. The Daily occurrence of such oppression has crushed them to such a degree, and the fear of still greater misfortune is so great, that hey submit to anything with a murmur. But at the time of this occurrence several Jews from Bagdad were at Erbil, and informed the European Consuls of the matter; for the Rabbi whose grave had been desecrated was an Austria subject. By this means the deed of infamy came to the ears of the Pacha, who had the delinquents brought before him, and addressed them in the following words: "Do you not know that graves are prisons, in which God preserves his people until the day of judgment? Why do you not respect what belongs to Him?" After that judicial enquiries were instituted, and the grave-desecrators would have received the punishment they deserved, if the Jews of Erbil had not been compelled to beg that mercy might be shown to them, which was accorded. Benjamin II (1859), p 89

Another proof of religious oppression causes especial astonishment, because the intolerance of the Mussulmans does not otherwise cross the threshold of the house of God. The Jews of the lower part of the town had erected a new Synagogue, and wished to convey solemnly into it, according to custom, the manuscripts of the Law. On the road they were attacked by Mussulmans, several of them killed, others wounded, and the new Synagogue pulled down. Since then a second Temple has been built; but at the solemn conveyance of the Pentateuch into it, the same scenes have been repeated. I myself was a witness to the last disturbance. Benjamin II (1859), p 90

Modern city

The Citadel is the historic core of the modern city Erbil.

It recently was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- a great victory -- but it also was listed as one of the hundred most endangered sites in the world by the World Monument Fund (WMF). Today it consists of a perimeter wall with two main gates, within which are some 250 buildings. Most are courtyard houses from the early 19th century, making the citadel a precious gateway into Ottoman-era domestic and urban life. However, some structures may be much older -- it is not yet known -- and within its deep soils are thousands of years of civilisations.

The area around the citadel is still the busiest place in town.

As you approach the citadel up Kirkuk Road, you find an impenetrable throng of traffic and pedestrians and of course the tall presence of the citadel itself. Take a walk atop the citadel, open daily until dusk.


Today, there are 330 historic houses, the earliest of which date to the mid 18th century.

At the early 20th century there were about 500 traditional courtyard homes. Of those, thirty were palatial houses, mostly situated along the perimeter wall, but with some deeper in as well. There were approximately 120 medium houses, and there were about 350 poor houses for poor families.

The earliest houses date to the mid-18th century, at which time the settlement took its present form. The perimeter fortification wall was replaced and subsumed by houses. The citadel also gained its two most notable buildings at this time. The hamam was established in 1775, and the Grand Mosque, otherwise totally renovated in 1959, to this day retains its minber (1719) and minaret (1848).

The largest and most impressive houses date to the last three decades of Ottoman rule, c 1880 - 1918. Many new houses were built and many old ones modernized in the 1920s, but very few were built after 1930 when the citadel ceased being a fashionable place to live.

No house has a single phase. They evolved from earlier homes they replaced or rebuilt. Also, every homes shares walls with another. One side may have been reconstructed in a different era than the other.

The typical Citadel house had a courtyard and two rooms.

Many of the houses are much the same, whether small, medium, or large. They were made out of mud brick (seldom stone) and had open courtyards. Homes were optimized for narrow plots. The general floorplan was a courtyard with an entrance and toilet at one end and two rooms at the other. These rooms shared one long wall in common, but had their own doorway onto the courtyard. Some homes were two stories high, one room built above the other. Early Ottoman houses often had a narrow storeroom to one side, not prevalent in later construction. Sometimes, wealthier homes had three or more rooms, or a central wan (an open room without a front wall) dividing the two rooms.

The Late Ottoman era brought great variety, from the poorest one-room homes with no courtyard to large mansions with a spacious courtyard. A number of wealthy families also had their own diwaxana, a special house for entertaining guests. Some survive, such as those of Ali Pasha Dogramachi, Abdulla Agha, and Yakoub Agha. Other notable mansions include those of the Chalabi family, such as Sheikh Jamil Afandi and Muhammed Karim Agha.

All of houses are distinguished by the exposed, often decorative, brickwork of the external walls. Most walls are set in mud mortar. A distinctive feature of external brick walls which becomes more frequent over time is the use of a course of new bricks separated by one or more courses of reused old bricks. This resulted in a distinctive banded effect.

All the roofs are flat, normally with a parapet wrapping around the edges. Timber joists were used for roofing, and brick vaults were used for semi-basements. Inner walls were plastered in "juss" and had built-in niches and shelves. The plaster was often decorated with impressed patterns that were painted colorfully. Ceilings were often paneled with wooden planks painted brightly and with floral decorations. Simpler houses or individual rooms left the ceiling exposed, just tree trunks and matting.

Sometimes, upper stories project outwards on corbeled bricks or jetties. Garderobes are a special feature of the Citadel houses, usually a rectangular projection from the wall where the stairs go to the upper floor, or if at the top of stairs going to the roof they will interrupt the parapet.

Dating the houses

Early-Ottoman houses (c 1750 - c 1880)

The earliest houses had no windows for light. They only had small, high windows for ventilation. Rooms were dark inside, but the vast exterior walls displayed ornamental brickwork. They had vast surfaces for patterns made by recessed bricks or pierced brickwork. The favored patterns were opposed triangles of chevrons. Walls often have curved corners. Other features of early houses were triangular-headed niches high in the wall opposite the entrance door, and two tiers of rectangular-headed niches in the lateral walls. Many have arched niches in the corners of the room next to the door and double gypsum shelves for displaying brassware, etc. Early-Ottoman houses have parapets with niches,

Late-Ottoman houses (c 1880 - 1918)

Houses built after 1880 have arched niches in the walls and windows to light the rooms. To protect the windows from the elements there was a patio with two columns (generally timber). This specific patio layout is known as a a tarma and common in Iraq. Because an exterior wall was protected, there was exterior plastering for the first time. Late-Ottoman houses have parapets with alternating recessing brickwork.

The grander mansions had increasingly frescoed interiors and indoor plaster decorations, and windows with iron grilles. The ironwork either featured S-scrolls arranged into hearts; or a grid with knobs at the intersections. Timber columns might be decorated at the top with a traditional, repeating chevron motif. The very wealthiest homes did not have a traditional tarma, but instead a vast portico with Mosul alabaster columns.

Post-Ottoman houses (1918 - c 1960)

Post-Ottoman houses have a functional design with large, tall windows as well as smaller, horizontal ventilation windows. Some of them are roofed with jack-arches supported by iron I-beams, a tradition which continued. During the 1930s, new houses and other buildings started to be built within the citadel, as well as the lower town, in a new and distinctive style marking a major departure from the tradition. This new style also involved an important structural change in roofing techniques that employed steel I-section joists (RSJs) for jack-arching in bricks and "juss" mortar. This new method allowed for much larger spans, strength, and caused the discarding of pure brick vaults and arches in buildings. Other changes involved the employment of large external windows with glass imported from abroad, new paving tiles, doors, and plaster decorations. However, the internal courtyard continued to be used until it was totally discarded in the 1950s. Porticos began to use iron posts. Window grilles are plain and set within the timber windows. Internally, niches are arched (with the arches segmented from the rectangular body by a horizontal shelf). Parapets can have panels of diagonal bricks, a marker of this era. Street and courtyard doors can be set within deep chamfered reveals.

Modern houses (c 1960 - 1986)

Very few houses were built during this time. Those that were have long, low windows. Indoor, the walls have vertical rectangular niches.

Squatter shacks (1986 - 2006)

Built by IDPs and squatters, these buildings are mostly built from reused old bricks, and are of poor quality. Mud bricks were sometimes used, as well as concrete blocks. Sometimes they were like mollusks on rocks: just three walls built, the fourth being the sturdy exterior of one of the historic houses. All herring-bone brickwork dates to this period. Additionally, Within the revitalization process, such impermanent buildings are to be replaced with structures designed according to guidelines in the master plan.

Identifying markers


Early Ottoman

Late Ottoman







Of note, herringbone brickwork is exclusive to the squatter shacks.

Haji Waisi Agha House

House 1/2 is located on the perimeter. Originally it only contained two rooms, with a large reception room which is unusually aligned with the façade, with a decorative end ache and two low stone partitions separating the entrance from the sitting area. There is a smaller room at right angles, raised over a vaulted semi-basement, which is structurally part of House 1/3. This room has an impressive interior, with a highly decorated niche at the end of the room and scallop-shell headed niches in the lateral walls beneath a moulded plaster frieze. A third room was added in the courtyard in the post-Ottoman period, blocking two of the windows of the main reception room. There is a portico extending across the width of the courtyard. The late-Ottoman structure in the courtyard was probably a kitchen. HCECR, p 54

Noor Aldin Rasheed Agha Waisi Agha House
Ali Waisi Agha House

Info on the hamam.
General history of antiquity.

Benjamin II, 1859
Google Books

Neusner, 1964
The Conversion of Adiabene to Judaism: A New Perspective. Jacob Neusner. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Mar., 1964), pp. 60-66.

There were two takias, Sufi meeting places for practicing religious recitals. There were two takias on the citadel, the oldest belonging to Sheikh Sharif and followed the Qadiriya Tariqa with activities every Monday and Friday. The other belonged to Haj Mulla Khidhir al-Telafari and also followed the Qadiriya Tariqa. Neither exists anymore, but they are visible with domed roofs in early 20th century photographs.

Google Books

Southgate, Horatio. 1840. Narrative of a Tour Through Armenia, Kurdistan, Persia and Mesopotamia

Wood, 1872
Richard Wood. Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons. Google Books"