Amedi: Citadel of Culture

In the bazaar, Nuna is worried.

[story page, with superb photos by George Azar, here – my blog post with backstory here]

Nuna’s shop is small. Just a few meters square, with an open front to the street. Shelves of wood and metal line the rough stone walls, some slumped at an angle, all piled with neatly wound bolts of cloth. Spooled thread rests near at hand as Nuna Issa Nuna, a trim, twinkle-eyed figure in ironed shirt and tweed jacket, sits in his red plastic chair against one wall. A white undershirt shows at his throat. Trimmed white hair shows at his temples, beneath a vividly zigzag-patterned skullcap. A sewing machine before him is threaded and ready to work. As voices drifted around us from the Chaikhana Piramerd, the Tea-House of the Old Men, just across the narrow street, Nuna shifted a pair of oversized tailor’s scissors to one side and dropped his hands into his lap.

“There was a time when all the villages around here, hundreds of them, only had this bazaar,” he told me, before embarking on a long story that went from the time he was a soldier in the Iraqi army in 1949, fighting for Palestine, to the awful day in 1961 when he had to flee the bazaar wearing only the clothes on his back because a mob was on the rampage, setting fires. “I lost all my sewing machines,” he said, with a rueful smile.

Nuna returned after seven years’ enforced absence, and has been back in the bazaar since then—but, he told me without rancor, “the taste of life has gone.” The bazaar is not what it was. A new strip of shops, over near the town entrance, is siphoning business away. Lots of people stay down in the valley now, and don’t even bother to come up to the town at all. What’s next? Nuna isn’t sure.

Amedi is changing.

To Iraqis, Amedi (which is the Kurdish name, stressed on the first syllable; its Arabic equivalent is Al-Amadiya) is as familiar as Mount Rushmore or Niagara Falls might be to Americans. Located in the Kurdistan region in the far north of Iraq, barely 15 kilometers from the border with Turkey, the town draws visitors all summer long—partly for its history, but mainly for its spectacular natural beauty. Amedi is set 1,400 meters above sea level, in a landscape of high mountains and rushing waterfalls. When the rest of Iraq swelters, Amedi remains cool. People come from Baghdad, Basra and further afield, all across the Gulf, to relax, draw breath and picnic beside flowing water.

If you approach, as most visitors do, on the narrow road that clings to the contours of the foothills, passing through sunlit villages of farms and family commerce, past forests and fruit orchards and the now-empty mountain palace of Iraq’s boy king Faisal II (1935–58), you’re unlikely to forget your first glimpse of Amedi. Like a ship, this ancient town of only 4,000 people rides high above the valley atop its own flat-topped crag—a sheer-sided mesa marooned alone, 400 meters above a green floor, its elliptical surface tilted towards the road as if to show off its best aspect to newcomers. At its back to the north, Amedi has the barrier of the Mateen range, cresting 3,200 meters on the Turkish border. In front to the south, across the rumpled, ten-kilometer-wide Sopna Mateen valley, watered by runoff streams, looms the wall of the Gara range, almost as high.

Today it’s Amedi’s setting, and particularly the cluster of mountain resorts nearby—most notably Sulav, a thread of gaudy restaurants and snack outlets which coils between waterfalls at the foot of Amedi’s mesa—that draws admiring visitors.

But before the age of tourism, it was Amedi itself—and the appeal of its stupendous, easily defendable location—that drew attention. The first mention in the historical record comes when an Assyrian army captured the rock in the 9th century BCE. Such an attack implies that the site had already been fortified, but by whom? The Assyrians recorded the name of the place as Amadi or Amedi, which to many historians suggests a link with the Medes, a tribal people from northwestern Iran, even though hard evidence that the Medes were in fact Amedi’s original population is, so far, lacking.

The Medes eventually took—or retook—Amedi, elevating it to become the second city of their empire. The Parthians were next, venturing into these mountains two thousand years ago from their power-base in Iran. A larger city might have retained evidence of the long periods of Median and Parthian rule—but in tiny Amedi, restricted to the area of only one square kilometre on the surface of its mesa, space has always been at a premium, and there has been little quarter given to holding onto remnants of the past for their own sake.

That has implications for our own time: Building for today has always won out over preservation of yesterday. If physical evidence of Amedi’s long history is not to be lost, intervention is becoming imperative.

Amedi is no museum-piece: it is alive with cafés, fashion boutiques and offices, schoolchildren, doctors and mechanics. But signs of the past are everywhere, if you know where to look. At the southwestern edge of Amedi’s mountain, carved into the cliffs that gaze out over the green of the Sopna valley, buttressing the modern houses of the city above, you can still see images of Parthian (or perhaps slightly later—but still pre-Islamic—Sasanian) soldiers, sculpted into niches in the rock. They are double life-size, armed and striding in victory, but also unprotected, exposed to the elements and so heavily eroded.

Townspeople and authorities largely ignore them, and they are also virtually unstudied by historians.

To see them, you must walk out of Amedi through the Mosul Gate, a fortified portal of arched stonework at the top of a steep, twisting, stepped and rocky footpath up from the valley. This is the only one of Amedi’s ancient gates to survive, on the southwestern flank of the mesa facing towards the largest city in the area, Mosul, 90 kilometers away. Carved overhead with wolf-headed serpents, images of the sun and booted warriors, the design of the gateway—its walls an extension of the sheer mountain cliffs—forced invaders to make two steeply ascending ninety-degree turns to enter the city. Impregnability was virtually guaranteed. Though part-destroyed in the 1970s and poorly rebuilt, with blocks inserted higgledy-piggledy and carvings mismatched, the Mosul Gate remains a powerful symbol of the cultural heritage carried by Amedi.

That cultural heritage is growing in importance. The devastating social and cultural upheavals suffered by Iraq during this century and the last have helped spur widespread recognition of the value Iraqis of all backgrounds have long placed on their own history. For Kurds, oppressed harshly under successive Iraqi regimes, cultural heritage has particular poignancy. After widespread campaigning, in 2014 UNESCO inscribed the fortified and restored citadel which rises above the center of Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil, on its World Heritage Site list. That success has helped fuel a concerted global effort to raise the profile of cultural heritage preservation across Iraq, particularly in Iraqi Kurdistan.

One example is the British government-funded Nahrein Network, an academic support body set up in 2017 to foster cooperation between Iraqi and British researchers. It is jointly run by teams at the University of Kurdistan Hewler (Erbil), University College London and Britain’s Ashmolean Museum. Elsewhere, Washington, DC’s Smithsonian Institution has been working since 2015 with the Erbil-based Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage to help build capacity among local heritage experts through workshops and professional courses. The institute’s director, Dr Abdullah Khorsheed Qader, was instrumental in the Erbil Citadel restoration and remains closely involved with heritage issues across the country.

“Cultural heritage preservation is all about awareness and education,” he told me in the institute’s headquarters in downtown Erbil, the day before he was due to fly to Japan to speak at a conference on global concerns for cultural heritage.

“I know that my people need to be aware of what our heritage is. That depends on economic buoyancy, which depends on political stability.”

According to Dr Qader, Amedi is of “incalculable” value. “We had more than 200 citadels in Kurdistan. Most were destroyed. But Amedi kept its history in situ.”

That history comes to us today mainly from Amedi’s ‘golden age’, when for almost 500 years this small mountain-top city was the capital of the Bahdinan Emirate, one of a string of semi-independent principalities that threaded the mountains between Turkey and Iran. Founded in 1376 and ruled by a succession of Kurdish nobles who claimed descent from the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, the emirate persisted right through to 1843.

“Amedi was the center, ruling the whole area. The political and administrative position of the city was very high. This is an important part of our history, both Kurdish and Iraqi,” says Dr Shireen Younus Ismael, a professor in spatial and urban planning at the University of Duhok (Amedi falls within Duhok’s governorate, one of the three provinces of Iraq forming the Kurdistan region).

“In many cities, urban expansion meant that the citadel became part of a bigger city, as in Erbil. But Amedi has kept its original characteristics. It has been used as a fortified citadel for the inhabitants right down to today. This makes it unique. It should be preserved,” she says.

Dr Ismael’s involvement with Amedi extends back more than a decade. From 2006 to 2009 she presented Amedi as a case study in an international program run by Dortmund University in Germany. Her often solo lobbying of the authorities at regional and national level, and her research into Amedi’s cultural significance, led in 2011 to UNESCO’s acceptance of Amedi on Iraq’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites, a preliminary step towards full listing.

What should now follow is a master plan for the city as a whole, pinpointing sites for preservation, areas for development and provision for social and economic growth. As Dr Ismael acknowledges, all the money and resources have up to now been poured into Erbil, but that is changing.

“There is new movement,” she says.

Since 2013 the World Monuments Fund (WMF), a New York-based nonprofit that works to preserve cultural heritage sites around the world, had been running training courses at Dr Qader’s conservation institute in Erbil. Alessandra Peruzzetto, WMF’s Middle East program specialist, takes up the story.

“While we were there we wanted to include local projects. Someone introduced me to [Dr] Shireen [Younus Ismael]. She gave a lecture in Duhok, then we went to Amedi and she took us around. Everything started from there.”

Through Peruzzetto, WMF’s London office adopted the idea of a plan to draw funding for heritage conservation in Amedi, bringing in Dr Ismael as coordinator and consultant. “Shireen’s vision for Amedi became WMF’s vision,” says Peruzzetto. In Iraq and also Syria, the conservation spotlight invariably falls on the larger cities, with less attention given to “peripheral towns and rural places.” In Dr Ismael, WMF saw an opportunity to correct that imbalance.

In 2016 WMF nominated Amedi to its prioritized global Watch List. Two years later the British government’s Cultural Protection Fund awarded WMF £100,000 ($129,000) to develop the process of documenting Amedi’s heritage that had been begun by Dr Ismael. Further educational grants have followed from the European Union. One of the core tasks now is to strengthen local conservation capacity, currently fragmented among government and non-government agencies at levels from municipal to national. To that end, Dr Ismael has helped lead workshops in Amedi in 2018 and 2019 attended by local students and government staff.

“We, as the Kurdistan region, have been excluded from these activities for a long time,” Dr Ismael says, whose 2014 PhD was the first doctoral degree in conservation ever accredited in Kurdistan. “We have no sites registered as a historic quarter or historic city. The lists deal with heritage as individual sites. But as professional conservationists we look at each site in context, developing different strategies to manage the site in its surroundings.”

A key challenge is to marry Amedi’s conservation needs with the needs of its population.

“The people need space, comfortable houses, infrastructure—but they also need work. They can use the potential the city has to create job opportunities,” Dr Ismael says.

On a chilly morning in fall, the approach to Amedi winds from the rain-damp restaurants and souvenir displays of Sulav across a saddle to the city’s eastern cliff. Here, the stepped footpath of old has been swept away by almost a century of successively ambitious access schemes, culminating in an immaculately engineered and illuminated highway ramp, unveiled in 2016. Cars and pedestrians now enter Amedi at a roundabout junction, and follow the city’s only road, a 20th-century innovation that traces a 1.8-kilometer oval around the mesa’s circumference—broad and well-kept.

The sense of civic responsibility is palpable. “Amedi is a city, but what does that mean? To be a city is in your mind. You need education, trade—and you must have culture,” says Sayyid Ibrahim, a store owner.

But improving access has resulted in the loss of the Zibar Gate, the Mosul Gate’s cross-town twin (Zibar is a village east of Amedi): Photographs from 1933 show an arched entrance-way of stone being demolished by a gang of workers before the first road was laid. You can stand today where the Zibar Gate once stood, on an exposed shoulder of the mountain, the remnants of the old sloping road at your feet. Behind you, what was once the main artery into the city is now an alleyway between houses, though the lost geography is still discernible: The road from the Zibar Gate led directly to the mosque—whose stone minaret is in plain sight a few meters ahead—and from there continued as the bazaar street, which cuts a diagonal path across town directly to the Mosul Gate.

The minaret itself is one of Amedi’s most prominent landmarks—31 meters high and built around 450 years ago during the Bahdinan Emirate—while beside the Zibar Gate, their stonework bonded together, once stood the political and administrative center of the city. Known as Emirate House, this two-storey gubernatorial palace fell into ruin as Amedi’s power waned in the 19th century. In the 1950s a school was built over the ruins, and more remnants were swept away in the 1970s—both political acts of erasure by the Baghdad government. All that survives, wedged between modern walls, is an arch of stone that served as the palace gate, carved overhead with an eagle and two snakes (or, some say, two dragons).

“You see the same creatures on gates in Baghdad, in Sinjar [west of Mosul], in Aleppo [in Syria],” says Dr Qader. “The Kurds were connected. Amedi wasn’t remote, it was all the same culture.”

But buildings are only part of Amedi’s story. At least as important is the city’s intangible heritage—and, specifically, its reputation for coexistence. Here, as in other cities across Kurdistan, people of different religions lived, worked, played and prayed side by side.

Today, Muslims are in a majority, but around a third of the district’s population is Christian: Amedi’s thirty or so Christian families still live and worship in what’s known as the Christian quarter on the west side of town. For Halbin Ismael, librarian at the Amedi campus of Duhok University, this is a source of pride.

“You can’t tell whether a family is Christian or Muslim. Last month there was a Christian funeral, and three-quarters of the mourners were Muslim,” she told me.

Nearby, and behind the mosque’s towering minaret, extends a cluster of alleyways that long formed Amedi’s Jewish quarter. Jews have lived in Kurdistan perhaps since the time of Nebuchadnezzar, 2,600 years ago. For centuries Amedi was a leading center of Jewish population. In the 12th and 13th centuries the community supported two synagogues: Half-hidden today amongst the fig- and pomegranate-shaded lanes behind the mosque, and almost swamped by undergrowth, it’s still possible to visit the Hazana tomb, dedicated to a part-forgotten Jewish holy man of antiquity. Kamiran Islam, in his seventies, lives in a house directly across from the tomb.

“I remember very well, every Friday night the Jews came to pray here. I was a little boy. They asked us to light candles and gave us a coin or two,” he told me.

Virtually all of Kurdistan’s Jews left en masse to Israel in the early 1950s. Controversy persists as to whether they left voluntarily or were forced out, though in Amedi people freely acknowledge that their departure tore a hole in the social fabric that has never been repaired. Amedi’s Jewish quarter today may be populated by Muslim and Christian families, but it retains its name and identity, and many townspeople offer a positive communal memory of intermingling.

“[Amedi’s social mix] is lovely, it’s one of the points that attracted me to study the city,” says Dr Ismael. “But if no action is taken, Amedi will lose its value and significance, because the changes are so fast. Heritage is non-renewable: When you’ve lost it, it’s gone.”

Those changes are social—economic stagnation and lack of opportunity are driving younger generations away—but also physical. Heritage properties do survive, but walking today in the town there is plenty of evidence of new building, some of it unregulated. New residential neighborhoods have been established beside Sulav at the foot of Amedi’s hill to cope with overspill, but as Wan Ibrahim, a postgraduate architect whose family can list seven generations of residence in Amedi, points out, many houses are vacation properties occupied only in summer, with absent owners. According to Dr Ismael’s statistics, of every ten visitors to the area, nine stay in or near Sulav and never venture up the hill to engage with Amedi’s long history at first hand. Dominating the hillside above Sulav is construction work for a $1.3m hotel that will tip the scales yet further.

There’s a sense of urgency to try and turn Amedi’s fortunes around before it’s too late. Alessandra Peruzzetto of WMF talks of a strong desire among the municipal and regional authorities, as well as the townspeople, to take action. Ismail Mustafa Rasheed, governor of Amedi district, talked to me of “strategies of movement” already under way to address conservation. Dr Ismael and her colleagues are working with WMF to identify specific clusters of surviving heritage houses and parts of the bazaar, focusing on analysis of materials, designs and typologies of windows, doors and archways, and bringing in local architects to sketch possible reconstructions.

There are proposals to continue excavation work at the Qubahan School, a part-ruined complex below Amedi’s cliffs in the valley that was, for several centuries during the Bahdinan Emirate era, one of Kurdistan’s leading scientific universities, linked with the great Al Azhar University in Cairo and attracting students from around the Muslim world.

Efforts are under way to identify local artisans in crafts, terracotta and—an Amedi speciality—the sesame-seed paste tahini who could contribute to a reshaping of the town’s economy towards new markets.

For Najat Shaban Abdulla, elected in 2018 as member of the Kurdistan parliament for Amedi, the trend of vacationing in Sulav while ignoring Amedi is a “disaster”.

“Cultural heritage is part of the economy now. All the focus is on Amedi. I ran on a platform of reducing unemployment. Linking that with heritage conservation can create jobs for Amedi,” she says.

Asking around in town produces mixed opinions. Khalid Khayat, a bank executive, welcomes the new energy. “Protecting our heritage is very important. But we need new buildings, new hotels and restaurants.”

Halbin Ismael, the university librarian, is “very sad” that Amedi has lost its visual appeal to modern buildings, but says: “We don’t want Amedi to become a museum—we grew up there, it’s our city, how can we leave it?”

Yet college lecturer Halkawt Rajab Basso, the fourth generation of his family to live in Amedi, says he is ready to leave to make space for the city’s surviving architectural heritage to be restored.

But he may not have to.

Part of Peruzzetto’s brief at WMF is to brainstorm new approaches for Amedi. One possibility draws on experience from the Jordanian capital Amman, where older semi-abandoned urban townhouses were slowly restored piecemeal as new generations realized the appeal of living in heritage properties. WMF is opening conversations with developers in Amedi to discuss implementation of traditional building techniques, in an effort to enhance existing heritage and encourage adaptive reuse of buildings.

Another idea transplants the concept of an albergo diffuso, or ‘scattered hotel’, from Italy, where abandoned mountain villages have been transformed into vacation hubs, with individual properties restored for lodging or tourist services.

But Peruzzetto is determined to keep gentrification at bay.

“The idea is to try and generate a sustainable income in Amedi that is not disruptive of the heritage and existing ambience of the town,” she says. “Tourism is not the first objective. Protection is the first objective.”

Standing at sunset on the edge of Amedi’s cliffs, with sawtooth mountains looming behind and mist clinging in the ravines all around, among the hundred generations who’ve stood on the same spot, the idea of protecting Amedi at this crucial turning-point seems the least we can do.


The writer thanks Laween Mhamad, Miran Dizayee and Birgit Ammann for their help in preparation of this article.