The Erbil citadel, in the middle of the city where we now live, is the oldest known uninterrupted human settlement. It was continuously inhabited from the Neolithic time period, around 5000 BC, until 2007, when the occupants were moved out of the citadel and given modern homes in other areas of the city, so the citadel could be preserved and turned into a historic site and museum. Personally, I believe it is somewhat ironic to cut short the record of the oldest continuously inhabited settlement by deliberately displacing the people, but, as others have pointed out, it is also possible that many of the residents appreciate the opportunity of integrating into the modernized city.
The settlement began during or immediately after the first agricultural revolution, when man discovered the basics of farming and could therefore settle in one location, relying on regular crops, rather than remaining hunters and gatherers. It was around this time that rice was discovered and cultivated for the first time, wine was first pressed, and the first primitive plow was crafted. Early forms of aesthetical art also date back to the sixth millennium BC, as does copper, and the first early irrigation systems, which began right here in Iraq (ancient Sumer) as well. While multiple other civilizations and settlements began around the same time period, all of them were at times deserted through the centuries, and later re-inhabited. The Erbil Citadel is the only known settlement to have been continuously inhabited from the Neolithic Age to the Modern Era.
Although the dwellings, walls and other structures have been rebuilt numerous times throughout the millennium, the current layout of the citadel and its streets dates back to over 3000 years, to the second millennium BC. Until they were moved a few years ago, the people living in the citadel lived very much like those that first occupied the area millenniums ago, maintaining a simple lifestyle, using the same homes and streets, and staying fairly isolated from the rest of society around them that had continued developing based on modern standards.
The current name of the city, Erbil, was derived from an ancient Assyrian word “Arba-Illu,” meaning “four gods.” The term thus reflects the pagan culture and spirituality that had been adopted by the people when the Citadel was first developed, and explains why the citadel is located in a central, elevated spot. It is believed that a temple to the gods may once have been located in the heart of the Citadel, which in turn, would have been the center of a larger settled area.
The main water canal to the city, which is no longer active, but can still be seen, was made in the seventh century BC by order of the Assyrian King Sennacherib, also mentioned in the Old Testament (2 Kings 18-19) as one of the Assyrian rulers that at times attacked or lay siege to the Hebrew nation. Several centuries later, in the 300s AD, the Citadel became Christian, and later converted to Islam in the seventh century AD. Since the Roman Empire, the Citadel changed hands and authorities numerous times, but the life and systems within the fortress settlement remained largely the same. A modern water tank was added in the 1920s, and some automobiles entered the city in the 1950s. During the second half of the twentieth century, some new houses, styled differently than those of the past were built, but basic layout of the city remained the same. Aside from these changes, most of the city remained as it had been. For millennia, the Citadel only had one gate, facing the south, for reasons of self defense. In the last few centuries, two smaller gates were added on the north and east sides of the fortress settlement.
Although the continuous legacy of this settlement has now been interrupted, the site continues to be of great historical and cultural value. It testifies to the great achievements of human civilization and of the continuity found in man’s basic needs and lifestyle throughout the ages. Today, the Citadel can be viewed from various places from the city, and can be entered at certain times. Renovations are currently being undertaken with the goal of preserving the ancient ruins of the city and turning it into a museum that reflects the history and culture of the Citadel and its heritage throughout so many millenniums, including our own.
“A civilization is a heritage of beliefs, customs, and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries, elements difficult at times to justify by logic, but justifying themselves as paths when they lead somewhere, since they open up for man his inner distance.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery