Time to tour Kurdistan: A Photo Essay

By Seth J. Frantzman

Looking for something new this year? This summer? A place where there aren’t legions of tourists, but has the beauty and opportunity to get off the beaten track. Think of Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Regional Government has two airports easily accessible from destinations around the world with flights to Erbil and Sulaimaniyah. The government maintains a nicely re-designed website featuring destinations in four provinces. Rudaw calls Kurdistan a “tourist gem,” and I can’t disagree. Here are some sites to consider.

Erbil citadel

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The Erbil citadel dominates the center of the capital city of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The city is also called Hawler or Hewler by most Kurds and this name appears on many signs directing traffic to the city. The different names are part of the layers of history, the Assyrian, the Kurdish, Arabic and Turkish influences on the landscape. They are most pronounced at the city of Bakhdida, also called Qaraqosh and Hamdaniyeh, reflecting the Assyrian, Turkish, Kurdish and Arab names of the same town in Nineveh near Mosul.

The Citadel is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its inhabitation stretches back thousands of years and Erbil appears for the first time in literary sources around 2300 BCE.  The Citadel sits on a large mound that rises almost 40 meters above the flat city plain around it. Much of the structures that can be seen today date from the 19th century, including a hamam (1775), villas, and other homes and gates. Since 2006 there have been plans to restore and refurbish the structure. This was first carried out after a survey by the University of West Bohemia and Salahaddin University. The government has been supporting the restoration work, but with the economic crises that began in 2014 and the conflict with ISIS, such work has slowed down. Nevertheless at the time I visited in 2015 one could enter the Citadel for a small fee and wander around. There were no other tourists. Before 2014 estimates foresaw millions coming to the KRG, but that never materialized. However the government is hopeful that tourism will be revived in coming years.

View from the Citadel

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From the Citadel one can see the downtown area, the bazaars and shuk around the old city. This is a testament to the old and new. Erbil is a diverse city with many Assyrian Christians, Turkmen and others. It once had a sizable Jewish community. Today the government has invested in infrastructure to control the urban sprawl.  It is worth strolling around this area to buy souvenirs.

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A large mosque in Erbil

Kurdistan’s capital blends both the secular and the religious. It is a more conservative city than Sulimaniyah, but has a very different feel than any city one might have experienced in the neighboring Arab countries, such as the rest of Iraq, Jordan, or Egypt. There are many Persian and Turkish influences in this part of Kurdistan, as well as influences from the Arab world.

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A mall in Erbil

There are a number of extensive shopping centers or malls around Erbil and more being built everyday it seems.  There is a TGI Fridays in Erbil, a KFC, and many of the other things one would expect of an international city. The malls are also booming and becoming more modern everyday, showing the latest movies and incorporating new fashions.

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Driving to north to Dohuk

The drive north from Erbil to Dohuk used to take half a day, Kurds say. That was under the time of Saddam Hussein when an effort was made to keep Kurdistan poor and rural, when thousands of villages were destroyed and people gassed.  Now there is a nice new highway, at least in parts, and the journey takes less than 3 hours. One can hire a taxi for $80 or take a shared ride. Dohuk is also spelled numerous ways, sometimes Duhok, Dahuk, Dihok. It is the capital of its own province or governorate and the city has grown greatly in recent years. It is beautifully situated in a valley between mountains and has a new “American University” up the road.  It is also the entry point for those traveling to Zakho on the Turkish border or to Sinjar and the Tigris river. Because of its proximity to Turkey and the major trade that goes via Turkey, there are Turkish hotels and infrastructure here. It is a good place to stay and has a beautiful mountain where one can have a nargillah and coffee overlooking the city. Like other cities in Kurdistan it is diverse, with Assyrian Christians.

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The Dohuk Dam above the city was built in 1988 and is a beautiful lake and recreation area. It is worth a short trip for a picnic and to take in the mountain air.

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Al-Qosh

A Christian town overlooking the Mosul plain, Al-Qosh is worth visiting because of its unique position and history. In the town are a number of churches and one quirky Christian hime adorned with Jesus and other memorabilia that is worth visiting. It seems it was a guest house years ago. The town is one of many Christian towns in Nineveh plains, such as Bartella, Telskop, Baqofah, Banaya, and Tel Keppe. Many of those were damaged in the war with ISIS, but Al-Qosh was preserved. The town itself is several thousand years old. Supposedly Aramaic is still spoken here.

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Nahum’s tomb

In disrepair but worth visiting in Al-Qosh is the tomb of the Prophet Nahum, a Jewish synagogue and site. Like Jonah and other Biblical figures, the plains of Nineveh have a deep connection to the Bible and to Jews and Christians. According to stories, the tomb was a pilgrimage site for Jews of the region on Shavuot. Over the years attempts have been made to protect and preserve the site and Jewish groups have visited it, but it is unclear if the current state of disrepair will be changed.

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The Monastery of the Virgin Mary

Located near Al-Qosh but without having to drive up to the mountain to the Rabban Hormizd monastery, this one was built in 1858. According to a plaque here it was “created in part to house the large number of monks prior to this they had lived at the Monastery Rabban Hormizd. It also helped the monks care for the sheep and the agricultural needs.” There is an orphanage from the 1950s and a small museum founded in 1974.23266493399_ef15e8466c_o

Saddam era fortress

Throughout this area of Iraq there are numerous forts that date from the Saddam era. Many of them have the same design. They were used to control the are and suppress its people. This included destroying thousands of Kurdish, Assyrian and Yazidi villages, the forced collectivizing of many of the groups and the mass slaughter of people. Saddam not only carried out genocide, but he sought to use the “modern” European ethnic-cleansing methods to destroy the fabric of Iraq and to forcibly “Arabize” the plains below here and the region. It is worth pausing to remember these crimes, and to ask why nothing was done against them in the 1980s? Saddam’s genocide was merely one aspect of the genocide later carried out by ISIS, the same concepts underpin them.

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Lunch in Dohuk

We paused for lunch before continuing our journey. The food in Kurdistan is fresh and tasty and every restaurant we went to seemed to have something wonderful to enjoy.

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Amedi 

Also called Amadiya, the town is situated on a fortress-like hill. It is one of the more famous historical spots in Kurdistan. It has an ancient citadel, beautiful waterfalls nearby, food and mountain climate. About 90km from Dohuk it is worth a trip to stay up in the mountains not far from the Turkish border. In the past, like other towns, it had a Jewish population. Today around 6,000 people live here, including many Assyrian Christians. Historically this was a seat of government and power in this mountain region and there

In the spring and summer the areas around here are a favorite tourist spot for Kurds. There is excellent fish from rivers and walking and outdoor activities.

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The hills around Dereluk

The whole mountainous hill country along this road to Barzan is beautiful and rich with history and culture and Kurdish history. We didn’t have time to explore it, but there is much to do here, surely excellent hiking and places to eat and relax.

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The ancient gate of Amedi

One of the key sites to see in Amedi is the gate of the city that looks over a beautiful valley

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Yazidi villages

On the roads on Nineveh plain close to Shekhan and toward Bashiqa there are a number Yazidi villages and monuments with the canonical temples that mark their religious sites. The Yazidis are an ancient religion of this area, a part of the mosaic of diversity of the Kurdish region and Nineveh. Along with Shabak and Kakei and other groups, they are one of the unique groups living here.

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Lalish Temple

The most sacred site of the Yazidi faith, the Lalish temple and village is nestled in the hills above Shekhan. The area contains temple and flowing water and many mysteries related to the faith. It is worth a visit even if it is a little difficult to find. Many Yazidis perform a pilgrimage here to a site that dates back thousands of years, like so much of the region, containing a rich and old history.

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A landscape of resistance

Kurds were abandoned by the European colonialists who drew up the borders of modern Iraq and Syria and did not provide Kurds the right to self-determination. For most of the 20th century they were forced to live under Arab nationalist regimes in Iraq and Syria, under a Turkish nationalist regime in Turkey and under Persian and Shia domination in Iran. The worst affects were felt in Iraq where Saddam committed acts of genocide.  The landscape is thus festooned with memorials to martyrs and peshmerga fighters who resisted various regimes, including Saddam.

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Mosul Dam

Mosul Dam is considered to be in disrepair, but Italian engineers are now saving it from apparent collapse. We went there and found the water level to be low and it seemed perfectly safe. There is a beautiful lake above the dam and has previously been a nice place for picnics. The waters a clear and pristine and the area is quiet.

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Bathroom differences

The further north from Erbil one goes in Kurdistan the more the toilets become of the squatting variety. But in Erbil one finds the “western” style toilet. Here above we can see the difference.

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The road to Koya

The old road to Koya and Suli passes beautiful landscapes, rivers, lakes and plains. It runs along the foothills between the plains around Erbil and the mountains.

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A nice home-cooked dinner

There is a welcoming and friendly culture and excellent food in Kurdistan

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Nightlife

In Erbil and other cities, a nice night out with lots of tea, nargillah and relaxing is a must. Many people stay up late and there are many cafes and places to go.

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The war is ending

Down by Makhmur, where there was a brief and brutal fight with ISIS in 2014, before the frontlines stabilized, there is evidence of the difficult war that Peshmerga have fought agains the extremists. More than 1,500 Peshmerga were killed in more than 2 years of war. It had a brutal impact on the landscape. It is worth recalling the important role Kurds have had in stopping ISIS and saving many people who fled to the KRG as refugees. Some 2 million refugees still live in the Kurdistan region as the Iraqi army completes the liberation of Mosul.

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Places mentioned in this photo essay

This article looks at places around Erbil and Duhok provinces mostly. There is much else to explore in the Kurdish region, this is a sampling.

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