The Near and Middle East are full of cities of proven antiquity, such as Byblos, Sidon, Jericho, Susa…

Less well known is the city of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, at the center of which is a fortified mound that claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world: the Erbil Citadel.

In November 2018 NASA released an image taken by Landsat 8 showing the small citadel surrounded by the modern city in what appears to resemble a wheel and which the editor, Kasha Patel, uses to point out the coincidence that, by all evidence, there were already people living in Erbil at the time humans invented the wheel.

Image taken by NASA’s Landsat 8 on November 20, 2018. / photo Lauren Dauphin – NASA

For at least 6,000 years there has always been someone living on this 32-meter high mound that has been formed by the accumulation of remains, debris and mud from one settlement after another, and which today covers an area of 10 hectares.

In the 19th century it was surrounded by high walls, giving it the appearance of an impressive fortress crisscrossed by narrow labyrinthine alleys of uninhabited houses.

In 2017, as the New York Times assured, only one family was living in the citadel, precisely to maintain the title of continuously occupied, after the rest of the inhabitants (840 families) were moved (with financial compensation) ten years earlier in order to undertake a major restoration project.

Detail of the walls / photo Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg) on Wikimedia Commons

Even so, the mosque is still open and in use, as well as several museums such as the antiquities museum, which open their doors to tourists every day.

The government’s goal, once the restoration work and archaeological excavations are completed, is to rehouse 50 families in the citadel. However, a decade after the start of the plan, things remain the same.

The first time the Erbil citadel appears in historical sources we find it in the tablets of Ebla (Syria), around 2300 BC.

The Citadel in 2007 / photo Jim Gordon on Wikimedia Commons

However, evidence of occupation has been found dating back, as we said at the beginning, to the 5th millennium B.C. Numerous fragments of Neolithic and Chalcolithic pottery have been found on the slopes of the mound.

In the 2nd millennium BC Erbil was part of the Assyrian Empire, serving as a base for military campaigns to the east.

Its importance came to rival that of Babylon and Assur. Later controlled by the Medes and the Achaemenids, the battle of Gaugamela took place very close to it in 331 BC.

Detail of the facade wall in 2016 / photo Hardscarf on Wikimedia Commons

From the 1st century A.D. it was an important Christian center (see our article on the Assyrian People) even after the Muslim conquest, until the 9th century when the episcopal see was transferred to Mosul. In the 13th century it fell to the Mongols, then came under Ottoman rule in the 16th century.

The wall surrounding the citadel mound, although at first glance it may seem so, is not a defensive wall. It is not even a fortification. It is formed by the facades of more than 100 houses built one next to the other, which had to be reinforced with buttresses to prevent their collapse, because they were built too close to the slope of the mound.

Since 2014, the citadel has been part of the World Heritage, although the slow progress of the restoration work is endangering its membership on the UNESCO list.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 7, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Una sola familia permanece en la ciudadela de Erbil, el asentamiento habitado sin interrupción más antiguo del mundo


NASA Earth Observatory / UNESCO / Geolounge / New York Times / Spatial configuraron of Erbil Citadel / Wikipedia.

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