The citadel in the centre of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in Northern Iraq, is reputed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Built of ochre-coloured bricks it rises some 30 metres from the surrounding city and dominates the skyline.
The citadel is in the process of extensive restoration and once completed, the Kurdish authorities intend to encourage families to re-settle in the refurbished houses. It will become not a museum piece frozen in time but once again a living city. Walking between the buildings on a hot early summer day last week, it is easy to imagine that travel journalists will soon be falling over themselves with hyperbole.
Eager to outdo each other, they will rush to describe that profound sense of place that comes with 6000 years of human habitation: how you can feel some deep connection with the forgotten lives of countless generations whose ghosts live on in the narrow streets and shady courtyards. How the buildings, their red walls dulled matt by the sharp midday sun, are imbued with the resilience of an ancient civilization. But to focus excessively on the past – fascinating though it is – is to miss what is perhaps most remarkable about this city.
Despite all this history, it was not Erbil’s extraordinary antiquity that struck me most forcibly last week but the very powerful sense of modern Kurdistan. It is hard to write about this part of the world without resorting to cliché. To say that the Iraqi Kurds find themselves on the threshold of profound and historic change may sound trite. But it is true.
For this part of the world has, since 1991, been on the journey that other parts of the Middle East and North Africa have only just begun: here, we are two decades in to the Kurdish spring. In this time, they have endured persecution, foreign intervention, civil conflict and all the attendant dislocation of living in a very tough part of the world. But more recently, Kurdistan has enjoyed an economic renaissance driven by a coherent political machine that bucks the regional trend.
Erbil feels like a city on the move with all the trappings of a resurgent economy. It has a new international airport, hotels and residential development. It has also positioned itself to attract foreign investment and embrace the private sector. Previously much of this investment came from the smaller, more adventurous ranks of international oil companies. But now the oil majors are turning their attention to Kurdistan and with relations with Turkey improving markedly, this economic transformation is set to gather pace.
The risks are clear. Relations with Baghdad remain delicate. Iran and Syria – both with significant Kurdish populations – are two other unruly neighbours and all transitions are complicated. But what struck me most forcibly over and above all the visible symbols of economic activity is the way in which this remarkable sense of Kurdish destiny has been used to propel the region forward. It is as if there is a kind of pent-up latent energy in Kurdistan that is now being unleashed to create a new version of a very old place. Too much preoccupation with historical identity can, as it has elsewhere, become mawkish and stifling. But channelled correctly, it can be the rocket fuel of progress.
The challenges of the past twenty or so years, however traumatic, have forged a powerful sense of common purpose. If what I glimpsed last week can be created by twenty years of struggle, imagine what they might do when they figure out how to harness the last six millennia.