A Portal to the Past: The Restoration of Erbil’s Architectural Heritage


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

“My great-grandfather had a house here,” says the 27-year-old, who is employed by an EU-UNESCO partnership aimed at supporting livelihoods through cultural heritage development in Iraq and Jordan. Created in December 2019, the initiative, whose main objectives are to support sustainable tourism, also works in collaboration with the European fund Madad, itself created in 2014 in response to the Syrian crisis. Today, the initiative employs hundreds of Iraqis and Syrian refugees. At the Citadel alone, the program counts on the participation of 42 Syrian refugees and 205 Iraqis – some from Erbil and others displaced from other parts of the country.

According to UNESCO, “in line with government priorities, the €11 million project will seek to engage Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians, including young people, in their respective communities in the preservation and safeguarding of heritage sites. culture for tourist purposes in the north of the country”. districts of Jordan (Irbid and Mafraq) and Iraq (Erbil and Duhok).

UNESCO’s Head of Culture in Iraq, Junaid Sorosh, notes that “using the power of culture as a driver of sustainable economic development, the project aims to ensure dignified and sustainable livelihoods and create opportunities economic opportunities for Syrian refugees, vulnerable Jordanians and internally displaced Iraqis. in the cultural heritage sector.

The project also offers young Iraqis a unique opportunity to restore their own heritage. As Mofaq takes me to visit the Abdallah Pasha and Salim Qaqa houses, two of the many Ottoman-era houses currently being restored as part of the program, he recalls stories from his childhood that came to life through his architect work.

“My Turkmen great-grandfather sold apples and cherries here, brought from his orchards,” he says. He had heard of the house, but only saw it for the first time while working at the citadel. “It was an amazing experience to see it and imagine the lifestyle of my ancestors.” Although the house has been surveyed, it, like many others, is awaiting restoration funding. It is just one of the citadel’s 330 historic houses – known for their unique mud-mortar brickwork and ornamentation – which make up the most important group of traditional buildings in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Architect Mustafa Mofaq loved restoring historic houses in Erbil Citadel, where his great-grandfather lived. Photo published with kind permission of the author.

Mofaq’s colleague Zainab Adil, 25, adds: “Our job is to protect the soul of this place. Each house has a story about our ancestors. Adil explains that the survey work laid the groundwork for their proposals to restore the Ottoman-era houses on the ancient mound, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the layers of 6,000 years of civilization are built. on top of each other. “Ten years later, we revisited those studies to see which elements were still standing and repairable and which pieces had fallen apart.” Working together as a team of five architects, they painstakingly cataloged the houses of the citadel and presented their proposal to the High Commission for the Revitalization of the Citadel of Erbil (HCECR). To date, Mofaq says, only a third of the houses are salvageable. Restoration work remains urgent as many are on the verge of collapse.

As we walk towards the would be part of the citadel, which once housed wealthy notables, the area is full of possibilities; Restoration work has finally resumed after a two-year pandemic lull. A recently restored villa could become part of a university, the young architects tell me as they unlock a door that opens onto a series of old mud-brick houses with wooden beams covered with awnings to protect them from the rain .

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Architect Zainab Adil says: “Each house has a story about our ancestors.” Photo published with kind permission of the author.

“Many of these restored houses will become centers for NGOs,” Adil tells me as we pass. As we approach the entrance of the Abdallah Pasha al-Naqib diwakhana in the once affluent part of the citadel, she said, “And it will become a guest house for their visitors.”

The unassuming entrance opens into a courtyard to reveal a recently restored wooden roof supported by skillfully carved wooden columns. The result of several months of restoration work, the columns were restored using pieces of wood — mainly spindar (poplar) – nearby collapsed structures. The masonry is also a combination of old, new and recycled materials, a traditional technique here which contributes to the unique pattern found on the exterior walls which appears to move with the path of the sun.

This once grand building was previously one of the largest and most impressive in the citadel. As can be seen in archive photos, it had two floors with a U-shaped arcade of semicircular arches supported by masonry columns. The east wing had a single reception hall with a carved Mosul alabaster door, rich ceiling ornament, and intricately carved niches adorned with molded plaster heads in the shape of scallop shells. The south wing comprises two rooms, including a reception hall unique in the citadel for its elaborate niches at the back. It was in this sumptuous setting that Abdulla Pasha himself, perched on a stone bench, received visitors. In 2010, an end wall niche from the earlier Ottoman period was discovered behind a late Ottoman brick facade. Beneath it all, ancient ruins tell stories of past civilizations.

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The restoration of the main room of Abdallah Pasha’s house reveals decorative blue stenciled patterns and a ceiling in shimmering colors. Photo published with kind permission of the author.

“To preserve the unique architectural features of the main room,” says Mofaq, “the priority was to first restore the ceiling to protect what lay below.” The stone carvings are known as “goat hair” in Kurdish for their fine lines, he tells me. They are flanked by decorative patterns in blue stencil, typical of many of the Ottoman-era houses in the citadel. The wooden ceiling is embellished by recently restored decorative octagonal shapes, so shiny that at first glance they could be mistaken for stained glass. The architects tell me they are hoping for more funding so that the whole complex can be repaired.

Then we pass the sparkling new visitors and interpretation centers, two restored villas from the Ottoman era, built by a construction team made up of locals, displaced people and refugees. Here, an intrepid team of cleaners, mostly displaced Iraqi women and Syrian refugees, are trained and employed under the Madad program in the art of heritage cleaning. “We can’t use heavy detergents on traditional wood and masonry,” a Syrian Kurdish woman who fled her homeland five years ago tells me. “We have to treat them very carefully.

Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author
An elite team of Syrian and Iraqi cleaners maintain spotless historic buildings. Photo published with kind permission of the author.

A few hundred meters, just after the takiya – named after the dervishes who once lived there – Salim Qaqa’s house is being restored by workers employed by Madad, including displaced Syrians as well as locals. A young worker, Ibrahim Hachim, a 23-year-old Kurd from Erbil, says he learned many new techniques during the three years he was employed here.

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

Hachim explains the many practical benefits of using traditional mud brick masonry, which insulates better than concrete, keeping heat in during the winter and cooling interiors in the summer.

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

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Ibrahim Hachim, employed by the Madad programme, says the traditional stone masonry typical of the houses in the citadel is “part of our culture”. Photo published with kind permission of the author.

“I learned a lot working here,” he explains, including how to work with wooden ceilings and beams, which in modern skyscrapers are concrete and iron.

“Working on these heritage homes (side by side with Syrian refugees) is a step-by-step process,” he says, “unlike working on skyscrapers. We need to assess which bits are recoverable. Each house is unique and requires different construction techniques, including the preservation of architectural ornamentation. It is detailed work and much more difficult than simply pouring concrete.

Even though heritage restoration is more difficult than modern construction, Hachim prefers it. “I preserve this heritage for my children — it is part of our culture, our identity. I am happy to work here.

Once work at the citadel is complete, he said, there will be a lot of work in the old city’s “buffer zone”, where hundreds of old Ottoman-era houses need repairs.

Hashim shows us around the Qaqa house. Once through a rusty gate, the house is a revelation. A tree grows in the middle of the courtyard, next to a pile of rubble, flanked by elegant Mosul alabaster archways. Qaqa House is significant not only for its architectural qualities, but also because it is the only house with alabaster features spared from the reconstruction efforts of Saddam Hussein’s citadel in the 1980s. The windows in the facade and of the two main rooms, as well as the colorful painted wall decoration, are excellent examples of post-Ottoman alterations. For now, there are only funds to restore the roof. Beautiful rooms in the house with painted metal ceilings and patterned tile floors will have to wait for their resurrection.

Two wings house rooms that were once connected by a passage backing onto the side of the now walled courtyard. But the whole project is as much about architectural gestalt as it is about restoration work. For now, there remains a portal to the past – a portal lovingly discovered and carefully opened by a whole new generation.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: A Woman’s Journey Through Iraq, former editor of New Internationalist, and has reported from the Middle East on culture, society and politics for two decades . His ongoing book, Between Two Rivers, is a political travelogue to ancient and sacred sites in Iraq. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

Photo by Hadani Ditmars

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