Iraqi Kurds modestly claim that the ancient citadel of Erbil is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, having spent some eight thousand years baking in the desert sun. Full of winding streets and yellowish brick houses, standing on a mound of thousands of years of rubble and remains, it looms above the centre of the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, which locals call not Erbil but Hewler. In contrast to the citadel it surrounds, Hewler is a city not only of winding streets, but also of good roads, jam-packed with shining white four-by-fours, with western-style steel-and-glass erections shooting up around its outskirts. It is the economic capital of the greater region of Kurdistan, which stretches beyond Iraq to Turkey, Syria and Iran. Kurds have experienced centuries of discrimination and violence in all four countries, but in Iraq the US invasion finally put an end to the suffering, enshrining Kurdish autonomy in the new constitution. Now, George W Bush is a local hero and America pours investment dollars into Kurdistan, the shining light of post-conflict Iraq, keen to paint a success story out of the war.
The River Khabur meanders along the Turkish-Iraqi border on its way to the Tigris, and an impatient taxi driver drove me over it as I entered Kurdistan from Turkey. I was greeted by the only Iraqi flag I would see there; next to it, the first of many Kurdish flags flapped high above in the breeze. I had previously been in remote Hakkari province, a fiercely proud Kurdish region of Turkey, where the lustre and power of Istanbul really felt one thousand miles away, with roads falling to pieces beyond the state highway. Just over the border in the bustling city of Dohuk, I found life moving at a faster pace; the pavements thronged confidently with pedestrians, black burqas also among the mix, colourful juice stands vying for attention, so that I as a Westerner was not of too much interest. As elsewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan, Dohuk is an old city which looks new – the destruction brought by Saddam means that little physical history remains.
Dohuk was my base for a visit to one of Kurdistan’s most ancient and remarkable sights: the Yazidi temple complex at Lalish. Yazidism is one of the worlds’ oldest religions, apparently emerging from Ancient Near Eastern traditions comparable to Judaism and Islam – with monotheistic beliefs and a version of the Adam and Eve story – and possibly pre-dating both. Travel even to such a renowned sight was challenging, as there is not yet any tourist infrastructure in Iraq: I hitched the final leg of the journey with a local, who was amused to help out in my curious endeavours.
Lalish is Yazidism’s holiest site, containing tombs sheltering Yazidi saints. The tombs are topped by highly distinctive grooved cones: the base of each cone represents the sun, thirty vertical grooves represent the lunar month, and two spheres atop represent the sun and moon once more. Two snake motifs mark the intricately carved stone door to the tombs, next to which I found a priest sitting on carpets folded up on the ground, all wizened beard and black turban – ready to take my entrance fee. Inside the tomb, colourful fabrics left by worshippers draped the walls like drying towels, while nearby hundreds of metal pots had once held oil for a sacred flame.
Lalish is a beautiful and tranquil place, sheltered by a narrow tree-filled valley, with streams running all around and even passing through the tombs. With few return transport options, I was moderately stranded, and quickly invited for chai by locals visiting the temple. As always in Kurdistan, scalding cups of syrupy tea emerged from a hidden room while I sat outside and made friendly but halting conversation. Local Yazidis have a great fondness for Lalish, coming to spend long hot summer days there, so that within time I was befriended by two brothers my own age, guided around the tombs for a second time, and eventually invited for lunch at the shrine. Ten men shared a carcass of blubbery mutton, while the severe priest, now fully robed in black, made a reappearance to enjoy the prize portion – yet he did not look as if he was truly enjoying his food as he dug into the sheep’s scrawny head.
From Lalish I set my compass for Hewler, eager to see Kurdistan’s mountain landscapes during my journey. I rode with a lovable old Arab man in salwar kameez, who had taken pity on me as I waited at a checkpoint, where the police stopped each passing car to ask for a lift on my behalf. My driver steered his battered old estate through the tree-specked hills with dedication – winning numerous games of chicken with lorries – but was apparently illiterate, and so relied on me to read the roadsigns.
A shared taxi took me the last stretch of the way to Hewler, and the part of the city in which I made my home was the new version: that of foreign investment, skyscrapers, and commercial possibilities. I was kindly being hosted by two entrepreneurial American brothers who were selling imported medical supplies. Friendly but dull expat gathering parties featuring beer – a rare commodity – gave me a glimpse of what investment in a distant country feels like on the ground, when family is far away and any enterprise is a wager on an unpredictable economy. Where I saw a liberated culture they saw opportunity – ‘why else would anyone come to this sandbox?’
While I disagreed with this sentiment, the meteorological comment was accurate. As I gravitated towards the mass of Hewler’s ancient citadel, I cowered away from leaving the shade of the office buildings opposite for a plunge into 50°C sunlight. After I eventually did climb the ramp to its gate, I was greeted once more by a guard of the nationalist Peshmerga guard, Iraqi Kurdistan’s modern muscle taking care of its ancient might. Recently the citadel has been emptied for restoration (one family remaining to keep the streak of constant inhabitation) but when I visited work had yet to start, so there was little footfall. Other than two lonely handicraft shops, the only source of life was the Mullah Effendi Mosque. I was greeted by its effervescent custodian, Mullah Mohammed, who left me time to look around the simple prayer hall with its requisite mass-produced prayer rugs, before pouring forth a stream of questions about me and my background. He was particularly excited to hear that I was Jewish – something that I felt safe enough to admit freely throughout Kurdistan, where a large Aramaic-speaking Jewish community lived for hundreds of years before emigrating en masse, mainly to Israel.
The long haired Mullah invited me for chai, and told me about himself and the Sufism to which he adheres. He is a khalifa, the successor to his father, who himself led the same mosque some 50 years ago. He talked excitedly about life in Kurdistan, and communicated the confidence that the region now feels. Our tea and biscuits and mutual photo-shoot were only cut short when the time came to turn on the loudspeaker and sing the call to prayer. As a handful of worshippers emerged from the abandoned building nearby, I started to take my leave. It was as we said goodbye that Mullah Mohammed returned once more to the subject of my own religion. He had never before met a Jew, he told me, but had heard of them from his father, who had spoken of them with great fondness. He became emotional as he spoke: meeting me had stirred up nostalgia for an idealised time before Kurdistan’s recent devastation, when Muslims, Christian, and Jews lived together tolerably for hundreds of years. The memory reminded him of his father, whose mantle he had now inherited by leading daily prayers in the same old building – even though I as an Ashkenazi Jew was so different the Kurdish Jews of yesteryear.
There is also a contrast to historic precedent in how Kurdish culture exists within today’s Iraq: they are not the state’s bullied victim, but its star pupil. The ideas of Kurdish nationalism are being realised for the first time, and the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq is a success of security, economy, and national pride. Hewler’s venerable fortress continues to stand firm, and Iraqi Kurds are forging ahead into a future that is no longer so uncertain.
Tim Motz is a traveller, classical pianist, writer, tree-hugger, and civil servant. He spends as much of the summer as possible travelling overland to funny places, with a particular love of Central Asia and its Persian cultures.