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Max Becherer/Polaris, for The New York TimesOh to be as happy as Mike Wazowski...
In Erbil, Iraq, the Citadel is a layer cake of civilizations that may go back 100 centuries. Now, to begin digging without displacing those on top.
August 23, 2005
Under the Old Neighborhood: In Iraq, an Archaeologist's Paradise
By JAMES GLANZ
ERBIL, Iraq - If a neighborhood is defined as a place where human beings move in and never leave, then the world's oldest could be here at the Citadel, an ancient and teeming city within a city girded by stone walls.
Resting on a layer cake of civilizations that have come and gone for an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 years, the Citadel looms over the apartment blocks of this otherwise rather gray metropolis in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The settlement rivals Jericho and a handful of other famous towns for the title of the oldest continuously inhabited site in the world. The difference is that few people have heard of the Citadel outside Iraq. And political turmoil has prevented a full study of its archaeological treasures.
While there may be confirmed traces of more ancient settlements in Iraq, said McGuire Gibson, a Mesopotamian archaeologist at the University of Chicago, the people have all vanished from those places.
"The thing about Erbil is that it is, in fact, a living town," Dr. Gibson said. "It goes back at least to 5,000 B.C.," he said. "It might go back further."
Among the peoples that have lived in this neighborhood are the Hassuna, Akkadians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Parthians and Abbasids.
In 1964, when Kanaan Rashad Mufti and his prominent family were part of the neighborhood, a floor in his father's house, near the mosque, collapsed during some renovations.
Underneath was a whole series of rooms from some previous civilization, possibly the Abbasids, said Mr. Mufti, who is now director of antiquities in western Kurdistan. There is nothing that Iraqi archaeologists would like more than to begin systematic digs through those layers, said Donny George, director of the Baghdad Museum.
"I have so much in mind," Dr. George said, expressing scientific eagerness "to make such kinds of excavations to see what we might find."
For now, what sets the Citadel visibly apart are the contrasting rituals of an ancient neighborhood that is caught between war and peace. Although the Kurdish north of Iraq has remained comparatively calm, Erbil has had its share of insurgent violence lately, and before that Saddam Hussein's campaigns to uproot and exterminate the Kurds left their mark everywhere here.
The Citadel is no exception. Living in brick hovels amid the ruins of palatial houses are about 1,000 families displaced from Kurdish villages that Mr. Hussein destroyed in an infamous pogrom called Anfal. In a routine that resembles a fire drill, the families scramble to siphon water from sinuous pipes running through the Citadel that function for about 30 minutes, once a day.
But in one of the intact great houses, a Frenchman with impeccably moussed hair has just opened a cultural institute that is displaying paintings of wildly misshapen human and bestial figures in a genre he calls postabstract. The institute, the Center Arthur Rimbaud, plans to sponsor a contest that will send a Kurd to France to study piano.
Right next door is a financially desperate textile museum founded by Lolan Mustefa, a Kurdish native of Erbil who studied anthropology in St. Cloud, Minn., and is trying to preserve the brilliantly colored carpets woven by the old nomadic tribes of the Kurdish mountains. A trickle of tourists has even begun, along with the sense that all this could be the first hint of a Kurdish SoHo or Greenwich Village.
"If they give them the means, it could become a place like Sacre Coeur in Paris," said Suayip Adlig, a Kurdish filmmaker who was long exiled in France, referring to another historical and romantic district on a hill as he toured an old mosque next to an 18th-century bath.
The people who actually live here, not surprisingly, take a more practical stance. Kadim Mustafa - a 39-year-old mother of three, whose brick and concrete shanty includes fragments of the grand home that was here before - stood on a fancy balcony overlooking Erbil and dismissed pretensions like Mr. Adlig's.
"We have a nice place with a view, but not the facilities of life," Mrs. Mustafa said. "As soon as we start having lunch, the electricity will go off."
The direct evidence for what lies beneath Mrs. Mustafa's house is scanty: Assyrian pottery that tumbled out of the side of the Citadel in a renovation of its walls, a dig that Mr. Mufti said he participated in around 1980, an electromagnetic probe that provided intriguing hints about the layered structure.
What seems clear, said John Malcolm Russell of the Massachusetts College of Art, is that with its location in a rain-fed plain near the confluence
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