In the bazaar, Nuna is worried.
Nuna’s shop is small. Just a few square meters, with an open front to the street. Shelves of wood and metal line the rough stone walls, some slumped at an angle, and all piled with neatly wound bolts of cloth. Spooled thread rests near at hand as Nuna Issa Nuna, a trim, twinkle-eyed figure in an ironed shirt and tweed jacket, sits in his red plastic chair against the wall. A white undershirt shows at his throat. Well-groomed white hair shows at his temples, beneath a vividly zigzag-patterned skullcap. A sewing machine before him is threaded and ready to work. As voices drift around us from the Chaikhana Piramerd, or Teahouse of the Old Men, just across the narrow street, Nuna shifts a pair of oversized tailor’s scissors to one side and drops his hands into his lap.
“There was a time when all the villages around here, hundreds of them, only had this bazaar,” he tells me before embarking on a long story. He details his service as a soldier in the Iraqi army in 1949 fighting for Palestine, all the way to the awful day during war in 1961 when he had to flee the bazaar because a mob was on the rampage, setting fires. “I lost all my sewing machines,” he says with a rueful smile.
Nuna returned seven years later and has been back in the bazaar ever since. But he tells me without rancor that “the taste of life has gone.” The bazaar, he says, is not what it was. A new strip of shops near the town’s entrance is siphoning business away. Lots of people stay down in the valley now and don’t bother to come up to the town at all. What’s next? Nuna isn’t sure.
Amedi is changing.
To Iraqis, Amedi (which is the Kurdish name, stressed on the first syllable; its Arabic equivalent is al-Amadiya) is as familiar as Mount Rushmore or Niagara Falls might be to Americans. Located in the Kurdistan region in the far north of Iraq, barely 15 kilometers from the border with Turkey, the town draws visitors all summer long—partly for its history but mainly for its natural beauty. Amedi sits 1,400 meters above sea level in a landscape of high mountains and rushing waterfalls. When the rest of Iraq swelters, Amedi keeps cool. People come from Baghdad, Basra and further afield to draw breath, relax and picnic beside flowing water.
If you approach, as most visitors do, on the narrow road that clings to the contours of the foothills, passing through sunlit villages of farms and family commerce, past forests and fruit orchards and the now-empty mountain palace of Iraq’s boy-king Faisal ii (1935–58), you’re unlikely to forget your first glimpse of Amedi. Like a ship, this town of only 4,000 rides above the valley atop its own flat-topped crag—a sheer-sided mesa marooned 400 meters above a floor of green, its elliptical surface tilted toward the road as if to show off its best aspect to newcomers. At its back to the north, Amedi has the barrier of the Mateen range, which crests at 3,200 meters on the Turkish border. In front to the south, across the rumpled, 10-kilometer-wide Sopna valley, watered by runoff streams, looms the wall of the Gara mountains, almost as high.
Today it’s Amedi’s setting that draws visitors, who tend to pay less attention to the town itself than to the cluster of mountain resorts nearby, particularly Sulav, a thread of gaudy restaurants and snack outlets that coils between waterfalls at the foot of Amedi’s mesa. But before the age of tourism, it was Amedi itself—and the appeal of its stupendous, easily defendable location—that drew attention. The first mention in the historical record comes when an Assyrian army captured the rock in the ninth century bce. That implies the site had already been fortified, but by whom? The Assyrians recorded the name of the place as Amadi or Amedi. To many historians, that suggests a link with the Medes, a confederation of tribes from northwestern Iran, though hard evidence is so far lacking.
The Medes eventually took—or retook—Amedi, and developed it into the second city of their empire. The Parthians were next, venturing into these mountains some 2,000 years ago from their power-base farther east in Iran. A larger city might have retained evidence of the long periods of Median and Parthian rule—but in tiny Amedi, restricted to a single square kilometer on the surface of its mesa, space has always been at a premium, and little quarter has been given to holding onto remnants of the past for their own sake.
This has implications for our own time: Building for today has always won out over the preservation of yesterday. If physical evidence of Amedi’s long history is not to be lost, intervention is becoming imperative.
Amedi is no museum piece: it is alive with cafés, boutiques and offices, animated by flows of schoolchildren and mechanics, shopkeepers and students. But signs of the past are all about if you know where to look. At the southwestern edge of Amedi’s mountain, carved into cliffs that gaze out over the Sopna valley, buttressing modern houses above, you can still see images of Parthian (or perhaps slightly later, but still pre-Islamic, Sasanian) soldiers, sculpted into niches in the rock. They are double life size, armed and striding in victory—but also vulnerable, unprotected from the elements and, as a consequence, heavily eroded.
To see them, you must walk out of Amedi through the Mosul Gate, a fortified portal of arched stonework at the top of the steep, twisting footpath down to the valley. This is the only one of Amedi’s ancient gates to survive, on the southwestern flank of the mesa facing toward the largest city in the area, Mosul, 90 kilometers away. Carved overhead with wolf-headed serpents, images of the sun and booted warriors, the gateway—its walls an extension of the sheer mountain cliffs—forced invaders to make two steeply ascending, 90-degree turns to enter the city. Impregnability was virtually guaranteed.
Though partly destroyed in the 1970s and poorly rebuilt with blocks inserted higgledy-piggledy and carvings mismatched, the Mosul Gate symbolizes a cultural heritage that is growing in importance. The devastating social and cultural upheavals suffered by Iraq during this century and the last have helped spur widespread recognition of the value Iraqis of all backgrounds have long placed on their own heritage. In 2014 unesco inscribed the fortified and restored citadel of Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil, on its World Heritage Site list. That added fuel to multinational efforts to raise the profile of cultural heritage preservation across Iraq—particularly in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Amedi is no museum piece: cafés, boutiques, groceries and offices crowd the main streets.
One example is the British government-funded Nahrein Network, an academic support body set up in 2017 to foster cooperation between Iraqi and British researchers. It is jointly run by teams at the University of Kurdistan Hewlêr in Erbil, University College London and Britain’s Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Similarly, Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution has been working since 2015 with the Erbil-based Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage to develop workshops and professional courses for local heritage experts. The institute’s director, Abdullah Khorsheed Qader, Ph.D., was instrumental in the restoration of the Erbil Citadel, and he remains closely involved with heritage issues across the country.
“Cultural heritage preservation is all about awareness and education,” he tells me in the institute’s headquarters in downtown Erbil, a day before he is due to fly to Japan to speak at a conference on global concerns for cultural heritage.
“I know that my people need to be aware of what our heritage is. That depends on economic buoyancy, which depends on political stability.”
Amedi, according to Dr. Qader, is of “incalculable” value. “We had more than 200 citadels in Kurdistan. Most were destroyed, but Amedi kept its history in situ.”
That history comes to us today mainly from Amedi’s “golden age,” when for nearly 500 years this small mountaintop city was capital of the Bahdinan Emirate, one of a string of semi-independent principalities that threaded the mountains between Anatolia and Iran. Founded in 1376 and ruled by a succession of Kurdish nobles who claimed descent from the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, the emirate persisted right through to 1843.
“We, as the Kurdistan region, have been excluded from these [cultural conservation] activities for a long time.”
—Shireen Younus Ismael, Ph.D.
“Amedi was the center ruling the whole area. The political and administrative position of the city was very high. This is an important part of our history, both Kurdish and Iraqi,” says Shireen Younus Ismael, Ph.D., a professor of spatial and urban planning at the University of Duhok.
“In many cities, urban expansion meant that the citadel became part of a bigger city, as in Erbil. But Amedi has kept its original characteristics. It has been used as a fortified citadel for the inhabitants right down to today. This makes it unique. It should be preserved,” she says.
Dr. Ismael’s involvement with Amedi extends back more than a decade. From 2006 to 2009, she presented Amedi as a case study in an international program run by Dortmund University, in Germany. Her often solo lobbying of authorities at regional and national levels, and her research into Amedi’s cultural significance, led in 2011 to unesco’s acceptance of Amedi on Iraq’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites, a preliminary step toward full listing.
Since 2013 the World Monuments Fund (wmf), a New York-based nonprofit that works to preserve cultural heritage sites, has run training courses at the conservation institute in Erbil. Alessandra Peruzzetto, the wmf’s Middle East program specialist, credits her organization’s involvement to Dr. Ismael. “She gave a lecture in Duhok. Then we went to Amedi, and she took us around. Everything started from there.”
Through Peruzzetto, the wmf’s London office brought in Dr. Ismael as coordinator and consultant. “Shireen’s vision for Amedi became the wmf’s vision,” says Peruzzetto.
In 2016 the wmf nominated Amedi to its World Monuments Watch list, and last year the British government’s Cultural Protection Fund awarded the wmf £100,000 ($127,000) to support its ongoing documentation of Amedi’s heritage. The European Union has also awarded educational grants.
“We, as the Kurdistan region, have been excluded from these [cultural conservation] activities for a long time,” says Dr. Ismael, whose 2014 doctorate was the first such advanced degree in conservation ever accredited in Kurdistan. “We have no sites registered as a historic quarter or historic city. The lists deal with heritage as individual sites. But as professional conservationists, we look at each site in context, developing different strategies to manage the site in its surroundings.”
In Amedi that often comes down to a challenge faced around the world: how to marry conservation needs with the needs of the inhabitants.
“People need space, comfortable houses, infrastructure—but they also need work. They can use the potential the city has to create job opportunities,” Dr. Ismael says.
On a chilly morning in fall, the approach to Amedi winds from the rain-damp restaurants and souvenir displays of Sulav across a saddle to the base of the city’s eastern cliff. Here the stepped footpath of old has been swept away by almost a century of successively ambitious access schemes, culminating in an immaculately engineered and illuminated highway ramp opened in 2016. Cars and pedestrians now enter Amedi at a roundabout and follow the city’s only road, a 20th-century innovation that traces a broad, well-kept 1.8-kilometer oval around the mesa’s circumference.
The sense of civic responsibility is palpable. “Amedi is a city, but what does that mean? To be a city is in your mind. You need education, trade—and you must have culture,” says Sayyid Ibrahim, a store owner.
“Cultural heritage preservation is all about awareness and education.”
—Abdullah Khorsheed Qader, Ph.D.
But improving access has resulted in loss, notably that of the Zibar Gate, the cross-town twin to the Mosul Gate. (Zibar is a village east of Amedi.) Photographs from 1933 show an arched entryway of stone being demolished by a work crew before the first road was laid. You can stand today where the Zibar Gate once stood, on an exposed shoulder of the mountain, the remnants of the older, steeply sloping road at your feet. Behind you, what was once the main artery into the city is now an alleyway between houses, though the old geography is still discernible: The road from the Zibar Gate led straight to the mosque—whose stone minaret is in plain sight a few meters ahead—and from there continued as the bazaar street, which cuts diagonally across town to the Mosul Gate.
The minaret itself is one of Amedi’s most prominent landmarks, 31 meters high and built around 450 years ago during the Bahdinan Emirate. Beside the Zibar Gate, and once bonded to it by stonework, stood the former political and administrative center of the city known as Emirate House. A two-story gubernatorial palace, it fell into ruin as Amedi’s power waned in the 19th century. In the 1950s a school was built over the ruins, and more remnants were swept away in the 1970s—both political acts of cultural erasure by the Baghdad government of the time. All that survives, wedged between modern walls, is a single arch of stone, the old palace gate, carved overhead with an eagle and two snakes (or, some say, two dragons).
“You see the same creatures on gates in Baghdad, in Sinjar [west of Mosul], in Aleppo [in Syria],” says Dr. Qader. “The Kurds were connected. Amedi wasn’t remote. It was all the same culture.”
But buildings are only part of Amedi’s story. At least as important is the city’s intangible heritage—and, specifically, its reputation for coexistence. Here, as in other cities across Kurdistan, people of different religions lived, worked, played and prayed side by side.
Today, Muslims are in a majority, but around a third of the district’s population identifies as Christian: Amedi’s 30-odd Christian families still live and worship in what is known as the Christian quarter on the west side of town. For Shavin Ismael, librarian at the Amedi campus of the University of Duhok, this is a source of pride.
“You can’t tell whether a family is Christian or Muslim. Last month there was a Christian funeral, and three quarters of the mourners were Muslim,” she tells me.
Nearby, and behind the mosque’s towering minaret, extends a cluster of alleyways that long formed Amedi’s Jewish quarter. Jews have lived in Kurdistan perhaps since the time of Nebuchadnezzar, 2,600 years ago, and for centuries Amedi was a leading center of Jewish population. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the community supported two synagogues. Among the fig- and pomegranate-shaded lanes behind the mosque, it’s still possible to visit the tomb of Hazana, dedicated to a part-forgotten Jewish holy man of antiquity and now almost swamped by undergrowth. Kamiran Islam, in his 70s, lives in a house directly across from the tomb.
“Protecting our heritage is very important. But we need new buildings, new hotels and restaurants.”
—Khalid Khalil Ahmad
“I remember very well every Friday night the Jews came to pray here. I was a little boy. They asked us to light candles and gave us a coin or two,” he tells me.
Virtually all of Kurdistan’s Jews left en masse to Israel in the early 1950s. Controversy persists as to whether they left voluntarily or were forced out, but people in Amedi freely acknowledge that their departure tore a hole in the social fabric that has never been repaired. Many offer a positive communal memory of intermingling.
Amedi’s cultural mix “is lovely. It’s one of the points that attracted me to study the city,” Dr. Shireen Ismael says. But if no action is taken, she adds, “Amedi will lose its value and significance because the changes are so fast. Heritage is nonrenewable. When you’ve lost it, it’s gone.”
Those changes are social, including economic stagnation that has driven younger generations away, and also physical. Heritage properties survive, but new construction abounds, some of it unregulated. New residential neighborhoods have been built beside Sulav to cope with overflow, but as Wan Ibrahim, a postgraduate architect whose family lists seven generations of residence in Amedi, points out, many houses function only as summer-vacation properties, their owners absent most of the year. According to Dr. Ismael’s statistics, of every 10 visitors to the area, nine stay in or near Sulav and never even once venture up the hill to engage firsthand with Amedi’s distinctive history. And dominating the hillside above Sulav, construction of a $1.3-million hotel promises to tip the scales even further.
All this intensifies a sense of urgency. Peruzzetto of the wmf talks of a strengthening desire among municipal and regional authorities as well as townspeople for action. Ismail Mustafa Rasheed, governor of Amedi district, talks of “strategies of movement” already under way to address conservation. Dr. Ismael and her colleagues are working with the wmf to identify specific clusters of surviving heritage houses and parts of the bazaar, analyzing materials, designs and typologies of windows, doors and archways. They are bringing in local architects to sketch possible reconstructions.
“We don’t want Amedi to become a museum. We grew up there. It’s our city. How can we leave it?”
There are proposals to continue excavation at the Qubahan School, a part-ruined complex below Amedi’s cliffs that was, for several centuries during the Bahdinan Emirate era, one of Kurdistan’s leading scientific universities, linked with al-Azhar University in Cairo, and attracting students from around the Muslim world.
There are, similarly, efforts to identify and encourage artisans in crafts, terracotta and the sesame-seed paste tahini, which is an Amedi speciality, in hopes they can help redirect the town’s economy toward new, heritage-oriented markets.
For Najat Shaban Abdulla, elected last year to represent Amedi in the Kurdistan parliament, the trend of vacationing in Sulav while ignoring Amedi is a “disaster.”
“Cultural heritage is part of the economy now. All the focus is on Amedi. I ran on a platform of reducing unemployment. Linking that with heritage conservation can create jobs for Amedi,” she says.
Asking around in town produces mixed opinions. Khalid Khayat, a bank executive, welcomes the new energy. “Protecting our heritage is very important. But we need new buildings, new hotels and restaurants.”
Shavin Ismael, the university librarian, is “very sad” that Amedi has lost its visual appeal to modern buildings, but she adds, “We don’t want Amedi to become a museum. We grew up there. It’s our city. How can we leave it?”
Yet college lecturer Halkawt Rajab Basso, the fourth generation of his family to live in Amedi, says he is ready to leave if that’s what’s needed to make space for restoration of the city’s surviving architectural heritage.
But he may not have to.
Peruzzetto points to the experience of the Jordanian capital, Amman, where older, semiabandoned urban townhouses have been restored gradually as new generations realize the appeal of living or working in a heritage building. The wmf is talking to developers in Amedi about how to encourage traditional building techniques in ways that would both enhance existing heritage and encourage adaptive reuse of buildings.
Another idea transplants the Italian concept of an albergo diffuso, or “scattered hotel,” in which abandoned mountain villages are transformed into vacation hubs that offer individual restored properties for lodging or tourism services.
While tourism could rise with such restorations, that is not the ultimate goal, she says. Nor is gentrification.
“The idea is to try and generate a sustainable income in Amedi that is not disruptive of the heritage and existing ambience of the town,” she says. “Protection is the first objective.”
Standing at sunset on the edge of Amedi’s cliffs, with sawtooth mountains looming behind and mist clinging in the ravines all around, among the hundred generations who’ve stood on the same spot, the idea of protecting Amedi at this crucial turning point seems the least we can do.
The author thanks Laween Mhamad, Miran Dizayee and Birgit Ammann for their help in preparation of this article and offers gratitude in memoriam for the hospitality and conversation of tailor Nuna Issa Nuna (1931–2019).