The Enduring City of Ishtar

Unlike most ancient capitals, the city of Erbil boasts 7,000 years of continuous human occupation.

Situated near the northeastern corner of the country, the modern city of Erbil is, with a population of at least 1.3 million people, the fourth largest city in Iraq. It is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. 

But there is another, far more ancient side to the city.

“Erbil is the only place in the world that can give an idea of what it might have been like to walk in the streets 4,000 years ago,” says David Michelmore. David is the Adviser for Conservation and Revitalisation for the High Commission for the Erbil Citadel Revitalisation (HCECR) – and my guide to this fascinating place. We walked through the narrow lanes branching tree-like from the ancient Erbil Citadel’s Main Gate. It was not hard to imagine docile donkeys taking residents about their work or delivering water. The real beauty of this place, however, comes with the late soft afternoon light when the bricks glow golden-brown.

This is truly a special place.

For 7,000 years kings, religious leaders, traders and travelers, not to mention marauding armies, have come to Erbil –in early times, drawn by the Citadel’s political and religious importance, but since the 16th century, by the romance of her history.  By c. 2,200 BC, the Citadel was already recognizably named on a clay tablet when the Gutian King Erridu-Pizir captured its governor ‘at the pass of Urbilum at Mount Murnum’[i].

Since then, the name has changed little: from (Sumerian) Urbilium, (Aramaic) Arbella or Arbail of yore until the confusion today of four names used interchangeably: Erbil, Irbil, Arbel, and Hawlêr in modern Kurdish. From very early times, Erbil was primarily associated with the goddess Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertilitywarlove, and sex.

Erbil is the only known surviving example of a fortified urban city, dating from the first growth of urbanism in human history, that appears to have been continuously occupied from its original foundation until the present. Only Aleppo and Kirkuk compare, but they were designed specifically as military strongholds as were younger fortified citadels at Damascus and Amman. Kirkuk unfortunately was almost completely cleared by the previous regime in 1997-1998.

Snug within linking perimeter walls of Ottoman period houses, the Citadel occupies an 11 ha. tell, a completely artificial mound of up to 32 meters of unexcavated archaeology. Surface finds of Ubaid pottery reveal a date of up to 5,000 years BC, but an 8,000 year continuous sequence would not surprise Michelmore. 

Archibald Hamilton, builder of the ‘Hamilton road’ which completed the route from London to Tehran, visited Erbil in 1927 and wrote: “Damascus is a fledgling compared to Arbil.  Ur of the Chaldees may be old, so also may Babylon, but neither of these have been inhabited continuously for thousands on thousands of years from before the dawn of history to the present day.” [ii]

In prosperous peaceful times, the Citadel over-spilt into the plain below and today, as the capital of the oil-rich autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, the lower town is being developed at breakneck speed.


Modern Erbil looking towards the current Grand Gate. Credit: Hilary Munro


View toward the modern city from the Erbil Citadel wall. Credit: Hilary Munro



The Enduring City

Erbil’s location on a fertile plain, well placed on the axis of the east/west: north/south trade, is not the whole reason for her longevity. Many tells were equally well placed, but they were abandoned at the collapse of the Bronze Age – indeed, Erbil has eight abandoned outlying tells nearby.  But along with Nineveh and Uruk, Erbil became the earthly home of Ishtar, the cruel goddess of love and war and one of the principal deities of the Assyrian Empire.

Erbil was certainly sacked in her long history, but the conquerors built upon the ruins. Ashur and Nineveh were not so fortunate and were so conclusively destroyed that their inhabitants abandoned them and built new cities nearby with new names. 

Perhaps the aura of ‘sacredness’ echoed long after the collapse of the Assyrian empire in 627 BC and continued to attract different faiths:  Jewish as capital of Adiabene in 100 AD and a major Christian centre in Sassanid times (224 – 640 AD).  Although it was never a premier mainstream Islamic center, in the 13th century, Sheikh Safi-ad-Din of Ardabil (1252–1334 AD) inherited the Sufi order from his father-in-law and teacher, Sheikh Zahid Al-Gilani and established the Safavviya Sufi Order in Erbil – intriguingly, 170 years later this Safavid dynasty became the Shahs of Iran.  Two Gilani and Sheikh Safi are buried in the Citadel. Sufism, the mystic arm of Islam, became such a central aspect of the Citadel that the central district was named after the Takiya (Sufi dervish houses) which were built there and are still there today.


The Tell and Its Story 

As a tell, (by definition, buildings successively built upon buildings), the extant visible structures are of course the most recent. In Erbil’s case they are early to late Ottoman (mid-eighteenth century to 1918), based on the dating of glass and ceramics pressed into plasterwork, dendrochronology, inscriptions and brickwork features.

The upper city was divided into three mahallas (areas): The Serayi (palaces) on the west side of the landowning feudal aghas; the Topkhana in the east for artisans; and in the center-west, the Takiyas. Until relatively recent times there was only one entrance into the Citadel.

Given its ancient lineage and the natural anticipation of the visitor for an amazing sight, it has to be said that the initial close-up view of the Citadel disappoints. Approximately 90% of the brick buildings are derelict, with some substantially damaged and rearranged by squatter-use in the late 20th century.

Without archaeological excavations, Erbil’s history is necessarily told indirectly by clay tablets, stelae, and writings of past administrators recording major events and travelers passing thjrough. No Herodotus or Josephus traveled there. For the first time, some 300 texts have been collected into a book sponsored by The Kurdistan Ministry of Culture which has transformed knowledge of Erbil.


Map of the Citadel showing the tree-like structure of lanes and roads.  Credit: Karel Pavelka, Czech Technical University in Prague


Citadel building with brickwork. Credit: Hilary Munro


Lovely old lanes in the Citadel. Credit: Hilary Munro


The goddess Ishtar required the personal attention of Assyrian kings in her temples. They asked for victory in battle against the enemies of Assyria, and when victorious, gave outward show of their prowess. Flaying the skins of their (live) defeated enemy kings and hanging the skins over the wall of the Citadel appears to have been a favorite way of doing this! One stele records Ashurdan II (934-912 ): ‘Kundibhalle, king of the land of Katmuhu, I brought to Assyria (and) in the city of Arbail I flayed (him and) draped his skin over the wall.’ 1


Alabaster relief:  Erbil Citadel c. 645 BC with the Ishtar Temple gates rising above the towers of the Citadel, heads on pikes. This relief was on the walls of Ashurbanipal’s Palace, Nineveh, Room S1.iv Credit:  The Louvre, public domain.


These kings would have maintained a palace in the Citadel and gardens in the plains below. “An urban and architectural element of visualization of kingship ideology was the royal garden, the “artificial paradise”. Throughout the periods from the Assyrian kingdom until the early Abbāsid Caliphate, “artificial paradises” were part of programmatic city-building activities in the Near East”.[iii]  Nothing remains today of these gardens or larger open areas, but Dr. Arnulf Hausleiter of the Deutsche Archaeologisches Institut Orient-Abteilung (DAI) explained that gardens were an important part of kingship and would perhaps have been laid out like those on the Neo-Assyrian reliefs and topography found at Nineveh. 

In the succeeding centuries, the Citadel saw various important historical events. The greatest of these was the consequence of the battle of Arbella (at nearby Gaugamela) in 331 BC. Alexander the Great passed through chasing the defeated Darius III after the battle, captured the Persian treasure at the citadel and two years later appointed his brother as governor of Erbil.

After the flowering of Erbil as Capital of the Begteginid dynasty (1167 – 1232 AD), especially under the brother-in-law of the best-known Kurd in history, the legendary Saladdin, Erbil passed under Abbasid rule from Baghdad. 

This was unfortunate. As an important Abbasid city, Erbil attracted the devastating attention of the Mongols in their conquering sweep west.  After the first contact in 1221, the Citadel was besieged twice, held out, and was ransomed. The lower city, being less defensible, fared worse and was destroyed in 1236.  Peace ensued when the Citadel was purchased from the Mongol Ruler by Badr Ed-Din Lu’lu’ of Mosul.  Mongol rule of course presaged a period of prosperity for Erbil as part of the Mongol Empire, benefiting in no small measure from east/west trade in a country that stretched all the way to China.  

These were the glory years but Erbil slipped into decline with the passing of the Abbasid empire.  By 1574, the German physician, botanist and traveler, Dr. Leonhart Rauwolf, described its reduced state: “…arrived into the town of Harpel (Erbil), which was quite large but very pitifully built, and miserably surrounded with walls, so that it might easily be taken without any great strength or loss;”[v]

What was left of its fortified walls were demolished while its defenders were resisting the attack of Nadir Shah of Persia in 1743.  The Ottoman Sultan Mahmoud 1 ordered the defenses repaired, but this apparently was not done and houses were built into the perimeter walls – a quite common occurrence in cities enjoying the peace of the Ottoman Empire, according to Michelmore,[vi]

The modern aspect of Erbil was completed by 1850, except for the Grand Gate. Visiting the city, botanist and physician J.P.Fletcher wrote: “After we had taken a little repose, we sallied forth to visit the upper town.  It has two entrances, one of which faces north-east, while the other is due south.  We ascended by the side of the mound, passed over a drawbridge, and entered a dark narrow gateway, which brought us into the courtyard of the castle.  Around the outer rim of the mound, the backs of the houses, being joined together, formed a species of rampart enclosing the whole of the upper town.’ [vii]


Gate with people, facing south. Credit: Library of Congress


The much-loved Grand Gate was demolished in 1957-8 and replaced in the Babylonian style by the former regime. The challenging plan today is to rebuild the former Gate on its exact foundations using photographs and oral history. Challenging, because “it’s very difficult for people who are not technical to describe architectural details of a building which they last saw over 50 years ago,” says Michelmore. Moreover, the earth bank was dug away to build the new Gate and a road and there is little information about the restricted-access official and military buildings beside it.


Erbil Today

Although the lower city is booming, the upper city is much less developed but still inhabited. Wealthy residents began leaving in the 1930’s for modern, more spacious homes in the lower city. The less affluent remained until 1974.  Ironically, the death knell to the Citadel was the introduction of piped water and sewerage.  Sweet and foul water seeped from pipes and began eroding the mound.  Twenty years later refugees came, fleeing internal conflict and squatting in the Citadel, adapting their housing from the extant buildings. They finally left in 2006, leaving 90% of the Ottoman period housing in a perilous state.

These vulnerable houses require care and maintenance.  Without homeowners, the care of 330 fragile homes falls to The High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalization (HCECR), formed in 2007, which has been tasked with preserving its cultural integrity while ensuring its continuity in the 21st century and beyond. Re-population with some 50 families is also planned. It is a Herculean task. “Every single house is a full project, each one is not an ordinary building. You can build a 10-story high-rise building in 6 months, but every single house here needs at least one year to be renovated,” explains Dara al-Yaqubi, Head of HCECR.

Anciently, householder inhabitants of Erbil had to roll their roof with a stone roller to compact the roof sandwich and make it water-tight when encountering rainfall.  One former resident, the Mufti of the Grand Mosque in the Citadel –the 17th in the direct line of Muftis to this Mosque spanning 500 years – explained the process: ‘”in the night we would need to roll the roof.  Every home did this.  In the autumn everyone mixed soil and straw together and laid it on the roof.  After five or six years, half was taken out and renewed.”

Historically in times of peace, the Citadel expanded into the plain below – especially during the Assyrian and Abbasid periods when fortified walls encased the enlarged city.[V111]


Map of Erbil showing extent of the Assyrian and Mediaeval city visible by satellite/aerial imagery and radar: light grey = tells; dark grey = wadis; hatched areas = cemeteries; lines = hollow ways and other linear features; dashed lines = roads  Credit:  Novácek et al, 2008


Kurdistan is again at peace, and the modern town extends and is expanding at breakneck speed, far beyond the Assyrian and medieval walls, with offices and shops being built in the age-old fashion – directly on top of previous dwellings and shops and the archaeological remains below.

Ground penetrating radar (GPR), by the Kurdish-Czech team [viii], ISIAO [ix] and DAI [x], has identified significant mounds in both the upper and lower city. However, invasive excavations will be challenging to achieve either in the busy souk where the biggest mound is or elsewhere in the lower city.  Only one of these interesting mounds, an 8th-7th century BC Neo-Assyrian grave chamber lying beneath a pre-Islamic cemetery in a natural outcrop between two wadis, has been excavated so far by DAI in campaigns from 2009 to the present.  The grave chamber comprises two sarcophagi, one brick compartment, and at least four individuals. Pottery jars with food were usually part of the funerary goods. Nothing has been found that dates prior to the Neo-Assyrian period.


A view into the main chamber of the Neo-Assyrian tomb  Credit: DAI Orient-Abteilung, Irmgard Wagner


Although the twenty-first century has presented many problems to the Erbil Citadel, it still captures the imagination, luring travelers up the steep slopes.  Hundreds of Kurds come everyday to the citadel, even though there is little yet to see or do.  It is the premier tourist site, attracting some 1.7 million foreign tourists a year. Most importantly, it is the symbol of a young nation determined to ensure its continuity into the future.  


Where is Erbil?

Erbil lies in upper Mesopotamia on the fertile plain between the Great and Little Zab, west of the Zagros Mountains, the so-called ‘cradle of civilization’, in the Ubaid, Uruk or Bronze Age period.  The Uruk period (4th Milennium BC) is characterized by large urban centers becoming the focus for settled agricultural development, and the Citadel fits into that pattern.

This area is at the northern edge of a larger region stretching from Egypt through the coastal Mediterranean area and over to Mesopotamia – the ‘fertile crescent’, coined by James Breasted, bounded by the mighty deserts of the Sahara and Arabia but benefitting from the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates and the coastal plain of ancient Phoenicia bounding the Mediterranean.

How to get to there and where to stay

EU, USA, Canada, Japan or Australia passport holders are able to obtain visas on arrival.  Everyone else must have a valid visa before arrival. Tourist visas are valid for ten days but are extendable. ‘Hello Taxi’ (00964 (750) 4170000) can pick up visitors from the airport and do ‘meet and greet’.

The best time to visit is March to May, when Kurds head for the hills to picnic and the country bursts into flower.

There are now international standard hotels in Erbil: The Rotana and Diwan especially, but also The Erbil International Hotel (a more economical option), which have good security and stand off from the road.  Another option is the Noble Hotel, Ainkawa  There are no hotels on the Citadel yet, but they are planned.



The Erbil Citadel Time Line


c. 6000-1500 BC      Neolithic to Middle Bronze Age – Ubaid pottery surface finds


c. 2100       Incorporated into Ur III Empire by Sumerian King Shulgi.


c. 1716       Attacked by Eshnunna and Assyria.  The victory stelae of Assyrian king Shamshi–Adad I survives:  “I crossed the river Zab and made a raid on the land of Qabra. I captured all the fortified cities of the land of Urbel”   Incorporation into Assyria.


688-627       A sacred Assyrian city in the Middle and Neo-Assyrian periods.


705-681       Sennacherib built an underground canal to Erbil.  The cuneiform inscription reads:  “I, King Sennacherib .. dug three rivers from the Hani mountains … Then I dug a canal into the middle of the city of Erbil, the abode of the goddess Ištar, the exalted lady.” [1] 


547       Achaemenid satrapy, with Arbela as the capital, established by Persian emperor Cyrus the Great.


c. 100 AD       The capital of the kingdom of Adiabene (Hedyab).


225 – 640        Under Sassanian Rule.


1167       The capital of Kurdish Emir Zain al-Din Ali Kuchuk Begteginid.


1190-1232       Ruled by Muzaffar al-Din Kokbari, brother-in-law of Saladin. 


1232       Ruled by Abbasid Caliph al-Mustansir in Baghdad.


1237       Resisted attack by the Mongols (but taken over 20 years later).


13th-mid 16th Centuries      Ruled by Black Sheep and White Sheep Turcoman Dynasties.


1535       Taken by the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent.


19th Century      Under the administrative rule of Baghdad.


1885       Erbil Municipality founded.


1 August 2006       Erbil declared the capital of Kurdistan.



[i] MacGinnis, John, 2012.  Erbil in the cuneiform sources: a catalogue and historical assessment, Kurdistan I Regional Government, Ministry of Culture, and Youth (Erbil, forthcoming)


[ii] Hamilton A.M. Road through Kurdistan (p47) first ed. (Plymouth) 1958 


[iii] Novák Mirko.  2002) The Change of Caliphate Ideology in the Light of Early Islamic City Planning  (Alter Orient und Altes Testament 397) pp 386-391 


[iv] HCECR Preliminary report on Studies and Investigations for the Reinstatement of the Grand Gate of Erbil Citadel


[v] Ray, John A collection of curious travels and voyages (1738)  Chapter 9,  part II, Dr. Leonhart Rauwolf’s travels (p164)


[vi] Michelmore, David, The architecture of Erbll Citadel (forthcoming) 


[vii] Fletcher J. P., ‘Notes From Nineveh And Travels In Mesopotamia, Assyria, And Syria’ 1850 p.222


[viii] Nováček, Karel, and Ali Muhammad Amin, Narmin, 2013. ‘A medieval city behind the Assyrian wall: the continuity of the town of Arbil in Northern Mesopotamia’, Iraq, 75 (forthcoming).


[ix] Colliva, L; Colucci, A and Guidi, G.F., 2011.  “Geophysical prospections with GPR RIS/MF System: a Preliminary Archaeological Survey on Erbil Citadel”, in Preservation of Cultural Heritage of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Italian Cooperation Project in Iraqi Kurdistan (2009-2010), C.G. Cereti & R. Giunta (eds) ISIAO (Rome) pp 39-46


[x] Van Ess, Margarethe,  Hausleiter, A., Hussein, H.H., Mohammed, N. B., Excavations in the City of Erbil, 2009-2011: The Neo-Assyrian Tomb, Zeitschrift fuer Orient-Archaeologie vo. 5 (2012).  (forthcoming)


Cover Photo, Top Left: UK Royal Airforce Aerial photograph of Erbil Citadel. Credit:  Published in 1936 (Andrae, Walter, The story of Uruk, Antiquity, vol. 10, no. 38 (June 1936), pp. 133-45


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Hilary Munro

Hilary Munro studied Law and History at Keele University, England.  She has an MBA from The Open University, UK.   Her passion and interest as an amateur archaeologist was greatly fostered by living in Tripoli, Libya (2008 – 2010); Cairo, Egypt (2010 to present); and last year with many visits to Erbil, Kurdistan.  She has written widely on socio-economic, travel and historical subjects in these countries.   She is currently writer and editor of Obelisque Magazine, a lifestyle quarterly glossy in English published in Cairo.  Her website can be found at: