IRBIL, Iraq — Kurdish authorities have removed hundreds of families, cleaned up their trash and have begun development in an ancient citadel, which they say is the site of the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world.
Their plans — to establish a cultural centerpiece in northern Iraq that will attract tourists and archaeologists from around the globe — extend well beyond the fortress itself.
All across this Kurdish regional capital are signs of a citywide makeover in progress. Fancy new hotels and foreign-built office buildings rise above the din of diesel trucks and clatter of men at work.
“Under Saddam [Hussein], the Kurdish people never had a chance to show off their heritage,” said Kanan Mufti, general director of antiquities for the Kurdish region and leader of the citadel project.
“Now we have a potential stage to tell the world. When visitors see all this history, they will really come to respect the Kurdish people. … If I had permission, I would call [the citadel] the eighth wonder of the world.”
Local historians say the Irbil citadel has been the site of human habitation for more than 7,000 years. The Assyrians, Sumerians, Greeks and Ottomans are among the peoples known to have lived in the Irbil region, a fertile plain at the junction of two rivers near the Zagros Mountains.
Some archaeologists dispute that claim, citing a lack of hard evidence. Mr. Mufti counters that probes sunk into the man-made hill have indicated multiple layers of civilizations — supported by written references that date back to the 21st century B.C. — though civil conflict and isolation have so far prevented experts from undertaking a proper excavation.
A study carried out by the Iraqi government many years ago catalogs more than 3,000 archaeological sites in the Kurdish region. Mr. Mufti said fewer than 25 have been unearthed because Saddam opposed digs in the area in order to suppress Kurdish culture.
Exploration in the citadel ended completely in the 1980s, when Saddam waged a scorched-earth campaign against rural Kurds. Masses flocked to the cities to blend in and escape, and many found refuge in the ancient fortress.
Roughly 5,000 people were living inside until the Kurdish government moved to relocate them before a collapsing sewer system could damage the layers of buried artifacts.
More than 800 families were given plots of land about 25 miles east of Irbil and $4,000 for housing expenses. Only one family has been permitted to remain inside in the citadel to preserve the continuity of habitation.
Since the relocation, almost 6,000 cubic yards of trash have been removed, exposing labyrinthine alleys and crumbling homes. Mr. Mufti and his team are in consultations with UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, which is looking into the possibility of renovating parts of the city.
Many in Irbil hope this will lead to coveted status as a U.N. World Heritage Site, but they are aware of the work that must be done to meet the agency’s standards.
Sami al-Koja, an adviser to the citadel’s board of renovation, said he is committed to securing the best foreign expertise to ensure the project is given the care and attention it deserves.
“We are beggars. We want the help and technology, and that’s all there is to it,” Mr. al-Koja half-joked. He said the U.S. military had provided helicopters to take vertical mapping images of the citadel.
He thinks it will take at least five to 10 years before the old town is sufficiently restored to attract tourists and archaeologists. People will also be brought back to live inside the citadel “on a more regulated basis,” he said.
All such dreams depend on the Kurdish region remaining a relatively peaceful island of stability amid the violence of Iraq — something that is far from certain.
Pressure is building over the fate of Kirkuk, an oil-rich, ethnically mixed city less than two hours drive from Irbil that the Kurds want to annex in a referendum this year.
Several recent attacks have targeted the Kurdish majority in Kirkuk, while Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army militia has vowed to resist any Kurdish attempt to take control of the city.
“If the referendum is held later this year over the objections of other communities, the civil war is very likely to spread to Kirkuk and the Kurdish region,” said an April report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
To the north, archrival Turkey has threatened a unilateral military incursion into northern Iraq to oust separatist Kurdistan Workers Party guerrillas known to stage cross-border attacks. Turkey has also pledged to intervene if the Kurds ever move toward independence.