Friday, 03 April 2009, 10:11 GMT
Erbil Citadel as a world heritage site?

File Photo

The Kurdish Globe

David MichelmorePrincipal, Consultancy for Conservation and Development

Erbil Citadel is an ancient city sitting on top of a very large archaeological mound. Thousands of such mounds survive in the Middle East, but what makes Erbil Citadel unique is that it has remained an inhabited city throughout its history. It provides an unparalleled testimony to an ancient urban form that goes back to very first period when human beings first started to practice agriculture and live in towns. The height of the mound - 32 metres - represents the continuous reconstruction of houses one top of the remains of older ones, through eight millennia. When restored, the Citadel will therefore provide a unique chance to experience, in the 21st century, what it must have been like to walk in a town five thousand years ago.

Because of its unique character, it is proposed that the Citadel should be inscribed as a World Heritage Site.

"Inscription" on the UNESCO World Heritage List means that a site has been recognised by the international community as "Outstanding Universal Value for All Humanity". This brings not only considerable prestige, but also tangible economic benefits from the world-wide publicity which is engendered - not only in terms of tourism promotion, but also in factors such as the attraction and development of new businesses in a prestige heritage site.

Is the Citadel of Erbil World Heritage Site something that is likely to become a reality in the near future? The process of "nomination" takes 18 months - from a practical point of view, if the Iraqi central government supports the nomination, inscription could therefore become a reality within a few years. With the evidence pointing to Erbil Citadel as having been a settlement with a continuous history of 8,000 years, it is unique - one of the factors on which "Universal Value" is judged. In addition, the archaeological mound is unusually large and impressive and a number of the surviving houses have high architectural value. A judgement in favour of its "Outstanding Universal Value" therefore seems assured.

However, World Heritage Sites have to meet certain tests of "Authenticity", including authenticity of design, materials and setting.

Within the perimeter wall of the Citadel itself, there are certain problems of authenticity - many historic houses fell into decay when the prominent families left the Citadel after the 1950s and others were demolished during the Saddam Hussein regime and subsequently replaced by squatter shacks. To what extent should the missing houses be reconstructed, and indeed is there enough information to make this possible? These problems are being addressed by the Conservation and Rehabilitation Master Plan, currently being prepared under the terms of a UNESCO contract by the Consultancy for Conservation and Development, on behalf of the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalisation (HCECR). When the plan is finished during the first half of 2009, it will provide a blueprint for the HCECR, under the leadership of Shereen Sherzade, its Head, to start the regeneration process. Problems of authenticity within the Citadel itself are therefore being addressed.

What of "Authenticity of Setting"? Here there are major problems and the ones which could destroy any hopes of World Heritage inscription. The location of the Citadel as a very large archaeological mound dominating the plain, with a backdrop of distant mountains, is an essential part of its World Heritage values. How can what remains of this be preserved, when the Citadel is now the centre and planning focal point of the rapidly expanding modern regional capital? The erection of towers or other tall buildings in the immediate vicinity of the Citadel will destroy the integrity of its setting, as they will hide views of the Citadel from outside and will be visible from the interior.

The problem is not one of halting development - World Heritage status does not preclude development. Indeed, the inhabitants of a World Heritage site should expect to benefit from the increased economic opportunities which World Heritage status usually bestows - but it means that development must be carefully planned. The KRG authorities will have to decide priorities - is it important that Erbil becomes a World Heritage Site and receives the world-wide recognition that will follow?

If this the decision is "Yes", then a "tall buildings policy" will need to be developed to define areas where new towers can be built which will not damage the setting of the Citadel and conservation policies to protect the old town outside the Citadel mound and its environment will also need to be developed and enforced, including the halting of demolition of old buildings.

There are other more minor and more easily solved issues. The HCECR is justly concerned that remaining key views are being compromised by improvements, changes and developments. Some of these have changes been planned to improve the environment, but have not taken into consideration that the Citadel is the end-stop of the view. For example, Zagros Road has recently been improved with elegantly designed street lights and a scheme for planting trees and palm trees, without considering that both will conceal one of the best preserved long vistas of the Citadel. There is also a general problem with recently installed road signs, where large signs have been placed over the road instead of on the side and block key views of the Citadel in a number of significant places. Preserving the surviving long views and developing "viewing parks" for the Citadel will contribute towards protecting its authenticity of setting and therefore serve as a positive step in preparing for its nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage List. One such key view is from Minaret Park and it is essential that the visual link between the minaret and the Citadel is preserved.

The Citadel is on the cusp of being able to be nominated to the World Heritage List, because of the need to protect its setting. If effective action is not taken soon to protect the setting, then all chances of World Heritage inscription will be lost.