A Gateway to the Past: Restoring Erbil’s Architectural Heritage

When architect Mustafa Mowaffaq began work on heritage restoration work at the Erbil Citadel last year, it was with a great sense of personal connection.

“My great-grandfather used to have a home here,” explains the 27-year-old, who works in a partnership between the European Union and UNESCO with the aim of supporting livelihoods through the development of cultural heritage in Iraq and Jordan. Founded in December 2019, the initiative, whose main objectives include supporting sustainable tourism, also works alongside the European Madad Fund, which was established in 2014 in response to the Syrian crisis. Today, the initiative employs hundreds of Iraqis and Syrian refugees. In Qalaa alone, the program relies on the participation of 42 Syrian refugees and 205 Iraqis – some from Erbil and some displaced from other parts of the country.

According to UNESCO, “In line with government priorities, the €11 million project will seek to involve Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians, including youth, in their local communities in the conservation and protection of cultural heritage sites for tourism purposes in the north. The regions of Jordan (Irbid and Mafraq) and Iraq ( Erbil and Dohuk).

UNESCO Head of Culture in Iraq, Junaid Soroush, noted that “by using the power of culture as a driver of sustainable economic development, the project aims to ensure decent and sustainable livelihoods and create economic opportunities for Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians and Iraqis in the cultural heritage sector.”

The project also offers Iraqi youth a unique opportunity to restore their heritage. As Muwaffaq takes me on a tour of Abdullah Pasha and Selim El Qaqa’s house, two of several Ottoman-era homes currently being restored under the programme, he recalls stories from his childhood brought back to life through his work as an architect.

“My Turkmen great-grandfather used to sell apples and cherries here, and they come from his orchards,” he says. He had heard of the house, but had only seen it for the first time while working in the castle. “It was a wonderful experience to see and imagine the lifestyle of my grandparents.” Although the house has been surveyed, it, like many others, is awaiting restoration funding. It is only one of 330 historic houses in the citadel – known for its unique terracotta masonry and decoration – that make up the most important group of traditional buildings in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Architect Mustafa Mowaffaq has enjoyed restoring the historic homes of the Erbil Citadel, where his great-grandfather once lived. Image courtesy of the author.

Muwafaq Zainab Adel, a 25-year-old colleague, adds, “Our work is all about protecting the spirit of this place. Every home has a story about our ancestors.” Adel explains that survey work laid the basis for their proposals to restore Ottoman-era homes on the Old Hill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where layers of 6000 years of civilization are built one on top of the other. “Ten years later, we reviewed these studies to see which items are still standing and salvageable and which pieces have fallen apart.” Working together as a team of five architects, they did painstaking cataloging of the homes in the citadel and presented their proposal to the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Rehabilitation (HCECR). So far, Mowaffak says. Only a third of the homes can be saved.Renovation work is still urgent because many are on the verge of collapse.

We are walking towards lemongrass Part of the castle, once home to wealthy notables, the area abounds with possibilities; Restoration work has finally resumed after a two-year pandemic lull. The recently renovated villa may become part of a university, young architects tell me as they open a gate that opens onto a series of old brick houses with wooden beams covered with awnings to protect them from the rain.

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“Every house has a story about our ancestors,” says architect Zainab Adel. Image courtesy of the author.

“Many of these restored homes will become NGO hubs,” Adel tells me as we pass by. As we approach the entrance of Abdullah Pasha Al-Naqib Diwakhana In the wealthy Serail section of the castle, she noted, “This will become a guest house for their visitors.”

The modest entrance opens onto a patio to reveal a recently restored wooden ceiling supported by skillfully carved wooden pillars. The fruit of several months of restoration work, the columns were restored using bits of wood – mainly spindle (poplar) – from nearby collapsed structures. Brickwork is also a mixture of old, new and recycled materials, a traditional technique here that contributes to the unique decoration on the exterior walls that seems to change with the course of the sun.

This grand edifice was once one of the largest and most impressive buildings in the castle. As one can see in archival photos, it was two storeys high with U-shaped porticos of round arches supported on masonry columns. The eastern wing had a single reception room with a carved doorway of conductive alabaster, rich ceiling decoration, and intricately carved niches decorated with molded stucco heads in the form of scallops. The south wing consists of two rooms – including a reception room unique to the castle for its elaborately finished walled niches. In this grandiose setting, Abdullah Pasha himself, sitting on a stone bench, was receiving visitors. In 2010, a former niche of the last wall of the Ottoman period was discovered behind a facade of late Ottoman brickwork. Beneath it all, ancient ruins tell stories of past civilizations.

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Restoration of the main room of Abdullah Pasha’s house reveals blue-carved decorative ornaments and a glossy painted ceiling. Image courtesy of the author.

Mowaffak explains, “To preserve the unique architectural features of the main room, the priority was to restore the ceiling first to protect what was underneath.” He told me that the stone carvings are known in Kurdish as “goat hair” for their fine lines. It is enclosed in a decorative blue patterned motif, typical of many of the castle’s Ottoman-era homes. The wooden ceiling is decorated with recently restored octagonal decorative motifs, so glossy that at first glance they could be thought of as stained glass. The architects tell me they hope to get more funding so the entire complex can be repaired.

Next, we pass the gleaming new Visitor Centers and Interpretive Centers, two restored Ottoman-era villas, built by a construction crew of locals, displaced people, and refugees. Here an intrepid team of cleaners, mostly displaced Iraqi and Syrian refugee women, are trained and employed under the Madad Fine Art program for heritage cleaning. “We can’t use heavy detergents on traditional wood and construction work, we have to handle it very carefully,” a Syrian Kurdish woman who fled her homeland five years ago told me.

Image courtesy of the author
A team of Syrian and Iraqi cleaners maintain the historic buildings in good condition. Image courtesy of the author.

A few hundred meters away, after hospice The area — named after the dervishes who once lived there — Salim al-Qaa’s home is being restored by workers hired by Madad, including displaced Syrians as well as local residents. Young worker Ibrahim Hashem, a 23-year-old Kurdish man from Erbil, says he learned many new techniques during the three years he worked here.

“Before coming here, I mainly worked on the new high-rise buildings in the city, using concrete as the primary building material,” he says. “I’ve always preferred to work with traditional construction, so when I heard about this opportunity, I took it.”

Hashem explains the many practical advantages of using traditional adobe bricks, which insulate better than concrete, retain heat during winter and cool the interior in summer.

He also says that he prefers it aesthetically because it “is part of our culture. My father and grandfather used to work with stone and brick, not concrete.”

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Ibrahim Hashem, a Madad employee, says the traditional stone masonry typical of castle houses is “part of our culture”. Image courtesy of the author.

“I learned a lot from working here,” he explains, including how to work with wooden ceilings and beams, which in modern high-rises are made of concrete and iron.

He says, “Working on these heritage homes (along with the Syrian refugees) is a gradual process, as opposed to working on tall buildings. We have to evaluate the bits that can be salvaged. Each home is unique and requires different building techniques, including preservation. Architectural decoration. It is meticulously detailed work which is much more difficult than simply pouring concrete.”

Although heritage restoration is more difficult than modern construction, Hashem prefers it. “I am preserving this heritage for my children – it is part of our culture and our identity. I am happy to work here.”

Once the castle is finished, he says, there will be a lot of work in the old city’s “buffer zone”, where hundreds of old Ottoman-era homes need repair.

Hashem takes us on a tour of the Qaqaa house. Once he passed a rusty gate, the house became a revelation. A tree grows in the center of the courtyard, next to a pile of rubble, surrounded by elegant arches of conductive alabaster. The Qaqaa House is important not only for its architectural features, but also because it is the only house with alabaster elements spared from Saddam Hussein’s harsh reconstruction efforts on the fort during the 1980s. The windows on the facade and in the two main rooms, as well as the colorful decoration of the walls, are excellent examples of post-Ottoman alterations. At the moment, there is funding only for the restoration of the roof. The elegant rooms of the house with painted metal ceilings and patterned tile floors must wait to be resurrected.

The two wings contain rooms that were formerly connected by a corridor built on the side of the courtyard, which is now enclosed by a wall. But the entire project is architectural gestalt like restoration work. For now, it remains a portal into the past – one that has been lovingly revealed and opened by a whole new generation.

Hadani Dittmar is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: A Woman’s Journey Through Iraq, a former editor of the New Internationalist, and has been reporting from the Middle East on culture, society, and politics for two decades. Her book in progress, Between Two Rivers, is a political account of the ancient and sacred sites in Iraq. The opinions expressed in this piece are their own.

Hadani Dittmar’s photo

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