Rolling hills. Green valleys. One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. And a high-ranking football team. With a little something for everyone, this sounds like the perfect destination. But there’s one problem. It’s in Iraq.
Erbil is in northern Iraq. It’s the capital of the Kurdistan Region, an autonomous part of a country that’s about the size of Maine. The Zagros Mountains are to the east, and the Great Zab river runs from Turkey. Erbil’s wealth, unsurprisingly, comes from oil. And it’s considered safe and stable compared to the southern regions of the country. But, again, it’s in Iraq.
That isn’t stopping businesses, though. Construction is booming. Expats call the city home. The airport has a new terminal; taxi drivers picking up there now speak English. Empire World—with its luxury apartments, hotels, and shopping—will look like a small-scale Dubai when complete. The city was even named the 2014 Arab Tourism Capital.
Currently Iraq’s fourth-largest city, Erbil was first settled around 6000 BC. It’s been ruled by everyone from the Assyrians and the Babylonians to the Persians and the Ottoman Turks. Regardless of who claimed the land, the Erbil Citadel has always been the heart of the city. The mound in the center of Erbil sits 30 meters high, and layers upon layers of civilization have been built on it. Enter the gates to walk around the golden walls, the mudbrick homes, the mosques, the hammam, and even old graves. Visit the Kurdish Textile Museum to see carpets and clothing. And browse the antiques surrounding the museum.
Outside of the citadel’s walls, wander through Qaysari Bazaar’s narrow, maze-like paths, to buy honey, cheese, or bootleg video games. Sip a sweet tea while you stroll. Stop for a lunch of kebabs and eggplant in tomato sauce at Tajryan Restaurant near the bazaar. See the Mudhafaria Minaret, the remains of a 12th-century grand mosque, that has hazarbaf motifs and Kufic calligraphy. Relax in Erbil Park. The city’s largest park, across from the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament, was built over one of Saddam Hussein’s former military bases. The peaceful space now has a lake and a rose garden. Nearby, the Jalil Khayat Mosque, which was inspired by Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, welcomes even non-Muslims when it isn’t prayer time. And Erbil SC plays in Franso Hariri Stadium.
So what do you think? Are you considering jumping on an airplane bound for Erbil? Are you ready for your friends to look at you like you have three heads when you announce you’re traveling to Iraq? Maybe not. At least, not yet. But sooner rather than later, this will no longer be a crazy idea.