Photo credit: Samir Salih
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”
A long evolution preceded the writing of my PhD thesis on Architecture and Urban Design which focused to reveal the hidden face of the Iraqi Kurdistan city Erbil, and explore the change and persistence of its historic centre. My ideas arose from two separate sources: an early interest in theology, history and archaeology; and a passion for architecture, urban design, and the way cities evolve and change. Together, they led me to focus on Erbil, despite Baghdad being the city where I was born. I was even led away from Amedi, the birth place of my mother, or even the city I have worked in - Duhok.
My mixed ethnicity; half Arab and half Kurdish; my childhood and early adult life in Baghdad and my work in Kurdistan affected me profoundly, as did the mysterious history of Erbil. It challenged my approach when I came to study the city, forcing me to abandon the conventional notion of what such an examination should be, insisting instead that I delve deep into its past, to identify its roots and its essence.
As with other Iraqi cities, each city in Iraqi Kurdistan has a story to tell about its specific history, nature and characteristic buildings. At the same time, however, they are also unified by a common Kurdish culture that reflects both unity and the variety. I consider myself lucky because my dual ethnicity opened up opportunities for me to visit different cities and know different cultures in this region.
My interest in Erbil, which developed from my first three visits, was, to some degree, fostered by my father Dr Wissam Al-Hashimi (1942-2005), a prominent geologist, and petroleum expert, with an interest in different areas of Iraq, including Erbil, with its ancient citadel hill. This nurtured my curiosity, which grew when I first visited Erbil in the summer of 2003, following the war in Iraq.
My mother and I travelled from Baghdad to Erbil to see my sister who, when married, lived there. My first impression was of a ‘Sleeping City’. The streets appeared unusually quiet, uninteresting and monotonous. There were a few new buildings and some pre-and post-1980 government buildings set near a dull-brown citadel located on a hill in the city centre; they reflected the standardised Iraqi identity. At that time, I saw no noticeable signs of anything that would attract visitors to the city other than the citadel, an iconic landmark in the centre of Erbil. In that period, the situation in Arab Iraqi cities was worsening and progress in construction, in both the Kurdistan Region and the rest of Iraq, was very slow. In 2005, the political situation deteriorated, culminating with my father’s kidnap and murder by terrorists in Baghdad.
From 2004 to 2007 I lived outside Iraq, but on a second visit to Erbil in 2006 I noticed some changes in building styles and way of life. Deciding to return to work in Iraq, I chose to stay in the Kurdistan Region, my mother’s birthplace, which was when I made my third visit. I worked in Duhok (a beautiful city surrounded by mountains) and visited my sister in Erbil from time to time. While being there, I could visually monitor the changes. On each trip, I saw new buildings, new additions and changes in lifestyle that indirectly affected the image of the old city. On one occasion, I passed its bazar and I found it interesting. It was different from other bazars/suqs in Kurdistan; reminding me of the Baghdad traditional suqs and other cities in the region. Its covered paths and intervening alleyways left me even more curious about Erbil and its old urban patterns. The area and its citadel reflect a long history spanning millennia and give it significant importance, despite the neglect.
I lived in Iraq, Kurdistan for almost three years, and noted both its powerful history and the suppression endured by its people, which impacted greatly on the development of the life style and their urban environment. The British political officer, Sir William Rupert Hay (1893-1962), who served in Kurdistan-Iraq in 1919 and 1920, highlighted in his book ‘Two Years in Kurdistan’ the oppression that Kurds faced and the ignorance of the wider world about them. Hay (1921, p. 35) states that:
"Even though the Kurds are one of the most virile races in existence, that they occupy a very large portion of the Middle East, and that they are of the same Aryan stock as ourselves, the public at home know practically nothing about them, and there must be many who before the war had never even heard their name."
This was my story with Erbil, historically known as Arbela or Arbail.
[Abridged from an original post on PUK Media, written by Dr. Farah Al-Hashimi].
Dr. Farah Al-Hashimi will be in the London Lab on 6th July to talk about her experiences of, and expertise in, the cultural and architectural history of Iraq, and how it has suffered from cultural stereotyping through the western media: Iraqi Culture Behind the Media Stereotype. Click through for more details and to book a ticket.
DR. FARAH AL-HASHIMI, a qualified architect from Iraq, is also an artist, researcher, and poet with over ten years of experience in the teaching and practice of architecture. She holds a PhD in architecture and urban design from the UK and was 2015 winner of the Young Women Architects Rising Star Award judged by Angela Brady OBE. She was founder and managing partner of architecture bureau Horizon in Iraqi Kurdistan. She experienced three wars in Iraq and her father was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Baghdad.