The old walled city of Arbil, also known as the Arbil Citadel, is one of the world’s oldest relatively intact walled cities, recent renovations notwithstanding. A fortification has stood on the spot since at least the 3rd millennium BC, and it was an important waystation on the vital trade routes of Northern Mesopotamia throughout much of its history. It has also seen many occupiers, and has been rebuilt many times. While much of the current structure dates from the various Islamic periods or from more recent renovations, it is nevertheless considered one of the great fortifications of antiquity, boasting ancient elements that rival and even surpass its neighbor in Aleppo. It is also by far the most popular tourism site in Kurdistan.
The city of Arbil has been an important anchor at the northern end of the chain of Mesopotamian cities since antiquity. Although not quite so centrally located as Aleppo and standing somewhat to the northeast of the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley, it was nevertheless an important trading center for the tribes of the Caucasus Mountains to the north. Although an important commercial prize for all of the great empires that passed through the area, its slightly less important strategic position meant that many of the Middle East’s ancient wars were more forgiving to Arbil than to many of its neighboring cities in the region.
Arbil rose to greater importance during the Roman era, when it was an important frontier city between the Roman and Sassanid Empires. Although there had been military defenses on the spot since the 1st millennium BC, it was during Roman-Sassanid period that the city’s first major fortifications appeared. During the 4th century AD, as both Roman and Sassanid power in the region declined, Arbil and its fortress became a semi-independent Christian state, one of the first of its kind in the east.
Arbil eventually became one of the most important centers for Christianity in the east, and for a time was effectively the seat of the Assyrian Church. This branch of Christianity, also called the Nestorian Church after its founder Nestorius, represented a great schism in the Church in the 5th century. For many years, the bishops of the Citadel of Arbil were recognized as the leaders of all Christian communities east of the Empire. This made Arbil a strategic target not only militarily and economically, but also religiously.
As Islam exploded out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century, Arbil’s location at the northern end of Mesopotamia made it an important stepping stone for the expansion of the Caliphate both northward and westward. Its fall was a severe blow to Assyrian Christianity. Arbil went on to become a stronghold for the long succession of Islamic empires. It reached new heights once more under the various Turkish empires. Most of the city’s walls as they stand today date from the Ottoman period. Today the Citadel of Arbil is recognized as one of the great architectural treasures of Kurdistan, and is that semi-automonous region’s most popular tourist sites.
The Arbil Citadel is essentially a mini walled city in the heart of modern-day Arbil. It is one of the world’s oldest settled sites, and there are elements of fortifications and other structures on the mound that date back thousands of years. The walls of the citadel as they currently stand bear traces of construction from many periods in history. The layout of the defenses are roughly the same as they were in Roman-Sassanid times, with portions of walls and towers that can be dated from Persian, Islamic, Ayyubid and Ottoman eras, mostly the latter. The entirety of the modern wall, which is a complete circuit, has also been substantially renovated in recent years. Portions of the wall are open to the public and offer spectacular views of the new city below.
The walls of Arbil enclose more than just a fortress, but an entire city filled with some of Northern Iraq’s oldest, most historic and most architecturally impressive buildings. Among these are marketplaces, mosques and palaces which date back hundreds of years. A series of 19th century houses near the wall now houses a museum on the history of the citadel.
The Arbil Citadel stands more or less in the center of modern-day Arbil, approximately two hundred miles north of Baghdad, and can be easily seen from almost any point in the city. No other visitor information was available as of this writing. Web: www.visiterbil.co (official tourism website of Arbil)
Because of its strategic location, the cities of Northern Iraq have been overrun time and again by conquerors who have left little in their wake. However, the ruins of one of antiquity’s greatest cities, Nineveh, are not too far away. Although largely in ruins, the Walls of Nineveh are an amazing site, and thanks to recent efforts, have been partially restored in recent years.