Erbil History, Archaeology, Arts and Architecture

The end of the 2020–2021 academic year coincided with the start of the seminar entitled ‘Erbil History, Archaeology, Arts and Architecture’, co-organized by the University of Kurdistan Hawler (Mahmood Khayat and Soorkeu Atrooshi) and Ifpo (Barbara Couturaud and Narmin Ali Amin), on the basis of a signed letter of agreement between Ifpo and UKH. This seminar was the result of many long, rich and mind challenging talks I had the good fortune to have with Dr Mahmood Khayat. As he often says: ‘Archaeology is the grandfather of architecture!’. Somehow, this seminar was the culmination of these conversations, and of the desire to bring both disciplines together. I am deeply grateful and honoured that he agreed to organize this seminar in collaboration with Ifpo, and I would like to extend my thanks to the two other members of the organizing committee, Dr Narmin Ali Muhammad Amin for having brought her expertise and knowledge to the debates we had, and Dr Soorkeu Atroshi for his unstinting support and encouragement in this project. Thanks are extended to Dr Hezja Sindi, UKH Vice President, and Dr Michel Mouton, director of Ifpo, for their welcome speech at the first session, and to the amazing ‘behind the screen’ team at Ifpo Beirut and UKH in Erbil.

The main objective of this project was to shed light on the rich and wonderful history of the city of Erbil, by bringing together the differing perspectives of the work of the many scholars who visited Erbil during the last two decades. These studies resulted in very important and multi-dimensional conclusions regarding Erbil and its surroundings, through various disciplines such as history, archaeology, arts and architecture, based on accumulated knowledge and existing projects of preservation, revitalization, and rehabilitation of cultural heritage. We believe that UKH and Ifpo have a shared vision and a strong sense of responsibility for highlighting the lessons learned from the experiences of previous generations, and it was expected that this online seminar would raise awareness of the state of the current and prior conditions of Erbil’s heritage. Thus, 25 speakers were brought together and gave 20 presentations between November 2020 and May 2021.

The history and archaeology of Erbil and its surroundings were presented by many scholars, mostly Kurdish and European archaeologists currently working on the Erbil plain. Jason Ur (Harvard University), Nader Babaker Mohammad (Erbil Directorate of Antiquity), Khalil Barzinji (Erbil Directorate of Antiquity) and Mohammad Lashkri (General Directorate of Antiquities) presented the general history of settlement on the Erbil plain through the Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey project (EPAS). Indeed, the Erbil plain was intensely occupied, from the earliest Neolithic times until the Islamic period, as is shown in many papers.

Early periods of Antiquity were presented by Luca Peyronel (University of Milan) through the ongoing excavations of the archaeological sites of Helawa and Aliawa. Together, through alternate periods of occupation, they reveal levels covering almost the whole of Antiquity in the Erbil plain, from Prehistory to the Hellenistic period, showing how populations lived on this very fertile plain, and how society has changed, from small local farm compounds to empires.

Ariane Thomas (Louvre Museum) discussed the city of Erbil/Arbela during the Assyrian period through a presentation of the famous stele depicting the goddess Ishtar of Arbela. She was one of the most important deities of the Assyrian pantheon, and had her temple on the citadel of Erbil, which was one of the capitals of the Assyrian empire and one of its most important cities.

Maria Grazia Masetti Rouault (École pratique des Hautes Études) presented the site of Qasr Shemamok, located in the Erbil plain, 25 km south-west of Erbil, during the Late Bronze and Iron Age. This site allows an investigation of ancient levels not reached in the citadel of Erbil. Named Kilizu, the site was one of the capitals of the Assyrian empire, alongside Erbil, showing strong links with Hurrian culture, as part of the heritage of the Kingdom of Mitanni.

Lionel Marti (CNRS France) also gave a paper on the Erbil plain during the Assyrian period, focussing on communication roads and political networks in this part of the ancient Near East, sometimes referred to as the Assyrian triangle. Having long been in obscurity, this area is nowadays the focus of much attention through various archaeological expeditions shedding light on how this territory was structured, and giving a more tangible reality to many historical documents relating to communication routes used by military expeditions and for trade.

Two papers were devoted to the study of more recent periods, more specifically the Sassanian and pre-Islamic periods. The first was given by Narmin Ali Muhammad Amin (University of Salahaddin-Erbil) presenting recent research carried out by archaeologists and philologists on this area. Well-known sites, mentioned in old Syriac sources, are now identified in the Erbil plain, for example Ḥazza. Even though the period is known and spans an important stretch of time, we were reminded that it suffers from a lack of attention and crucially needs to be reinvestigated by specialists.

The second paper on this period was presented by Karel Novacek (Palacky University) and was more centred on the city of Erbil during the so-called post-Assyrian/pre-Islamic periods, and Islamic period. Putting forward the complexity of archaeological research in the dense urban area that is the modern city of Erbil, other ways of investigating the archaeology were presented, namely the study of textual sources and remote sensing approaches.

Surveys in the city of Erbil have also been undertaken, as shown by the paper of Arnulf Hausleiter (German Archaeological Institute), Karwan Amin (Erbil Directorate of Antiquity) and Pshtiwan Ibrahim (Erbil Directorate of Antiquity). While everyone knows that the citadel is the old mound of Erbil, it is easy to forget that the area enclosed in what is now called the 30 Metre Street also represents the extent of the lower town, which was also occupied for millennia, and more intensively during the Neo-Assyrian and Early to Middle Islamic periods.

Aerial view of the citadel of Erbil

Aerial view of the citadel of Erbil and the lower town (after, photograph taken on August 16, 1968)

The presentation by Nader Babaker Mohammed focused on the aqueduct irrigation system in the plain of Erbil, called kareez, and the need to protect this heritage. Modern constructions are now destroying these millennia-old systems, which were in use in the Erbil plain as early as the 2nd millennium BC and lasted until recently, showing an eternal need for fresh water by an ever-increasing population.

Finally, John Macginnis (British Museum), Dara Talaat al Yaqubi (HCECR/High Commission of Revitalization of Erbil Citadel) and Sangar Mohammad Abdullah (HCECR/High Commission of Revitalization of Erbil Citadel) presented the excavations on the citadel of Erbil, through a summary of the diverse occupations of the mound, since the first mention of the city in a cuneiform text dating from the second half of the 3rd millennium, through the Ottoman occupation and still visible today.

Situated between archaeology and architecture, two papers focused on mudbrick architecture. Martin Sauvage (CNRS France) presented the use of earth in buildings during antiquity, through the major steps of earthen construction, since 9000 BC and the first earth buildings, to the 1st millennium BC, and through the social evolution that is also reflected in the building techniques adopted.

In her presentation, Chamsia Sadozai (CRAterre-École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Grenoble) also focused on earthen architecture, but in a more current perspective, showing how earth-built sites decay after abandonment. Highlighting different threats to earthen architecture, both natural and human, she also proposed solutions that could be implemented, while emphasizing the need to protect this traditional architecture.

Of course, the need to protect the Erbil heritage was raised by many talented experts throughout the seminar. Binyad Maruf Khaznadar (University of Salahaddin-Erbil) highlighted how the traditional vernacular architecture of Erbil can be studied through a typology of both elementary form and materials that can be explained through social factors that somehow condition this specific type of architecture.

In the same spirit, Dara Talaat al Yaqubi (HCECR/High Commission of Revitalization of Erbil Citadel) presented a paper showing the state of preservation – and mostly destruction – that the architectural heritage located at the foot of the citadel has suffered. While criticizing some lack of vision on the part of the relevant authorities, as much as a massive urban growth, he also offered some guidelines to protect this heritage in line with international standards and regulations.

Through her paper and photographs of the surroundings of the Erbil Citadel, Soizik Bechetoille (French Ministry of Culture) stressed the need to preserve earthen architecture, collapsing under the effect of climatic pressure and the fact that buildings are now empty and uninhabited. Showing other examples and initiatives throughout the world, she emphasized the importance of ‘finding a job’ for the old buildings, to preserve them better.

On the same subject, Mahmood Khayat (University of Kurdistan-Hawler) raised awareness of the need to study and protect the traditional and vernacular heritage. In particular, the paper raised questions of how the inhabitants perceive their own city’s heritage, and what kind of symbolic value should be given to the architectural heritage, more specifically through the eyes of intellectuals and professional architects currently living in Erbil.

Old houses on the top of the citadel of Erbil

Old houses on the top of the citadel of Erbil (B. Couturaud 2018)

Some scholars, for example Salahaddin Yasin Baper (University of Salahaddin-Erbil), also raised the importance of the integration of old buildings into the new city. Through the concept of continuity in architectural identity, he showed how commercial buildings in the surroundings of the citadel follow or break the traditions imposed by the brick architecture of the Ottoman settlements of the citadel. Though this continuity is somewhat broken in the modern buildings, the paper also showed the importance of maintaining architectural identity within a city.

On a closely related subject, Hawar Himdad Sectany (University of Salahaddin-Erbil) took the example of the city of Erbil to discuss well-being within an urban context and a given society, and to understand the role of architectural heritage in self-perception and in perception of the environment. The paper explored the relationship between cultural heritage and well-being, with a view to establishing it as a base for future research on cultural heritage.

In a combined perspective between archaeology, history, art and architecture, some papers gave an overview of Erbil through different times and different eyes. Such was the paper of Farah al Hashimi (independent researcher), who browsed through the long and rich history of Erbil and its most famous monuments, looking at the way they have survived through the ages until the present day, while pointing out the importance of a planned urban landscape.

Finally, Richard Wilding (Gulan), presented many photographs of Erbil covering almost a century, pinpointing the changes and the permanence of the Erbil landmarks in the visual landscape of this ever-changing city. Beyond Erbil, the diversity of Kurdistan was also shown and shared, mostly through the Gulan initiative that he has launched in order to promote Kurdish culture.

Through all those papers, many valuable lessons have been learned, on the history of Erbil, of course, since prehistoric times until very recent years, but also on the need to protect this important city and its old buildings, to give an appropriate setting for new ones, and to raise awareness of the archaeological layout of the city centre. The enthusiastic feedback on this seminar has also highlighted the willingness to learn more about Erbil. With great pleasure, UKH and Ifpo will continue to organize this seminar, in order, in a second academic year, to bring more thoughtful and mind-challenging reflections on the life of this city.


ALPI F., BRADOSTY Z., GIRAUD J., MACGINNIS J., MATILLA R. (eds.), 2020, Arbela Antiqua, Presses de l’Ifpo, Beirut.

AL YAQOOBI D., MICHELMORE D., TAWFIQ R. K., 2016, Highlights of Erbil Citadel, History and Architecture, HCECR, Erbil.

KOPANIAS K., MACGINNIS J. (eds), 2016, The Archaeology of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Adjacent Areas, Archaeopress, Oxford.

MACGINNIS J., 2014, A City From the Dawn of History: Erbil in the Cuneiform Sources, Oxbow Books, Oxford.

Pour citer cet article : Barbara Couturaud, "Erbil History, Archaeology, Arts and Architecture", Les carnets de l’Ifpo. La recherche en train de se faire à l’Institut français du Proche-Orient,, le 21 juin 2021. [En  ligne sur]

Barbara CouturaudBarbara Couturaud is an archaeologist, now researcher at IFPO (Institut français du Proche-Orient) and head of the Erbil branch. Her research focuses on Mesopotamian archeology and iconography during the Early Bronze Age (3rd millennium BC). She has studied the corpus of inlays discovered in Mari during her PhD. Since, she has also worked on the figuration of the military elites and feminine garments. She has been working on many archaeological excavations in Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Irak and France. She is now the director of the excavations in Amyan (Kurdistan Regional Government). For more information:

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