Erbil people-watching on a brisque afternoon

The walkways around the plaza by the Erbil citadel are covered with locals enjoying their tea and people-watching on a brisque afternoon @2021 Annie Elle

A few weeks after moving into my new home of Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, I discovered that it was designed in concentric circles, focused around a central point which happens to be an ancient citadel with the grand bazaar (a marketplace) around it. All the Ring Roads, as they’re called colloquially, radiating outwards from the citadel, are named after the number of meters they are from the center – i.e. 30 Meter Road, 100 Meter Road, etc. Arguably the largest tourist attraction in Kurdistan, the citadel was just a few miles from where I was staying so I decided to walk there one weekend.

Citadel of Erbil

After half an hour of cutting through side streets and residential neighborhoods, strolling past small shops and customized printing stores, I finally spotted the back entrance. There are two main entryways to enter the citadel, which is a seemingly perfectly round, walled fortress atop a hilltop. I arrived from behind the fortress, where a long but straight inclined road for cars and pedestrians alike led to a small opening.

The opening opened up into the main road of the citadel, a straight path which divides the fortress into two semi-circles. As I walked down the main strip, information panels with Arabic, Kurdish and English detailed the history of the citadel. The fortress’ mound was accumulated from years of previous settlements piled atop one another, and the structure of the fortress originated from the Ottoman Empire. It was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2014, and I saw on a large map of the citadel that the Kurdish Music Archive, the Handmade Carpets Center, and the Traditional Kurdish Costumes Museum were all housed there.

I kept an eye out for signs pointing towards these attractions as I passed a set of easily recognizable dome tops on the left indicating where the traditional hammams (Turkish bathhouses) were. Next to them, a steady stream of men trickling was the first sign that there was a mosque nearby and then I heard the call to prayer ring out from a nearby minaret, confirming my suspicion.

On both sides of the main road, narrow walkways and dilapidated buildings were around every corner. Bars on the windows of crumbling buildings keep out unwanted visitors, and ramps lead up to doorways long since rusted shut. I could sense the preservation efforts in the cautionary signs and chains to some of the older structures. One sign pointing towards the Erbil Citadel Cultural Center stated that it was only open for specific events, although not far from it, by an open amphitheatre for musical performances, I ran into the Kurdish textile museum.

Erbil Textile Museum

I walked up the stairs, slowing down to look at both sides of the walls which were jam-packed with photos of famous celebrities that have visited, various ambassadors and diplomats from different corners of the world, and members of royal families. A man at the entrance asked me for 1,000 IQD ($0.70 USD) for admission, and I found myself in an open space with a high ceiling and a second story open above me.

Rugs and carpets of all shapes, designs, and sizes hung from the walls, from what could have been a simple floor mat to massive 7-meter-long colorful tapestries. A handful of narrow doors led to smaller rooms with glass cases of various patterns of Kurdish fabric and cloth. The chamber in the corner showcases the process of shearing and weaving wool, complete with a life-size loom and figure with multicolor strands around her. A large case on the wall displayed dozens of skull caps from various tribes and regions of Kurdistan, all in bright colors and a wide range of patterns.

Miniature Kurdish Costumes

Up a narrow flight of stone steps, I found a quiet cafe with windows facing out over the citadel, presenting a high and spectacular view. From the ground floor, I followed an even narrower flight of stairs down to an almost hidden tiny tourist shop with keychains and magnets of small tapestries and the Kurdish flag. The attendant was startled to hear footsteps echoing down as clearly, she didn’t receive many visitors but she still smiled and nodded a welcome.

On the opposite side of the main road, I spotted a small courtyard with a subtle sign reading “Miniature Kurdish Costumes Exhibit”, so I curiously followed the finger and ended up in a small room with glass cases all around me. Inside each case, I bemusedly took note, were dozens of blonde, leggy Barbie dolls dressed in traditional Kurdish clothing posed into various slices of Kurdish life. One case had two women, in intricately hand-crafted colorful dresses with bangles on their wrists and sequins hanging off their headgear, preparing tea for a get-together. Another case had small paper descriptions detailing which decade or village in particular the women represented, with tiny musical instruments or a doll of a baby strapped to her side.

A second room had rows of mannequin heads displaying the colorful jeweled headdresses common amongst Kurdish women. A small basket with some small bills had a handwritten paper sign which read “1,000 IQD donation please” and as I dug out my wallet, I let my mind wander towards how heavy the headdresses must be with all the charms and bells sewn into them.

The Grand Gate in Erbil

At the end of the main road was the Grand Gate, and I stepped through a dark hallway then the arched gateway only to emerge into the bright light with a magnificent 180-degree view over the main plaza below. While the water fountains weren’t on at the time, I found out later in the summer they were primarily functioning and shot streams out high into the air around the pedestrians looping through them on the walkways. The curved platforms were raised above the water and the few benches scattered around the butterfly-shaped walkways were filled with locals taking in the sun.

I carefully headed down the dirt ramp to my right, turning left towards the main marketplace and immediately caught a whiff of roasting walnuts and steamed corn. Small carts on two wheels had sunflower seeds and boiled broad beans ready to be eaten, and I stepped around some face mask hockers sitting on the low curbs nearby. A handful of more tourist-oriented shops covered the stairs with thick red rugs and ouds, a type of guitar popular in the Middle East.

Along the edges of the plaza, I sauntered past parallel rows of plastic seats stationed arm-to-arm with local men sipping black tea with cardamom and smoking hookah (at 11am!), casually people-watching and kicking away some stray pigeons. Shoe shiners squatted around small wooden tables and hard brushes, checking out all the potential clients passing by. I paused to take in some men in colorful clothing holding elaborately curved metallic containers on their back. A woman saw me staring, confused, and explained that they were traditional Syrian juice sellers with tamarind inside the containers. I pulled out a 500 IQD bill for them, and downed the small paper cup of sweet brownish juice in one gulp, taking care not to accidentally photobomb any of the many family pictures being taken in the area.

Grand Bazaar of Erbil

At the edge of the fountains and the restaurants, I finally reached the sprawling Grand Bazaar, a massive open-air stretch of wares heading south into the city with aisles of endless goods. A thin cloth covering overhead kept the brutal heat off my shoulders, as well as all the fresh produce and slabs of meat. As a confusing mix of smells attacked my nostrils, clunky metal wheelbarrows with stacks of electric plugs and old cell phones nearly ran over my toes. I dodged out of the way just in time, and nearly toppled another table piled high with sticky sweets and desserts covered in various nuts and toppings.

Electric fans, donkey milk bars of soap, and elegant filmy head wraps and scarves called my attention everywhere my eyes dared to wander. Old Valentine’s Day balloons lazily drifted around shop entrances and broken TVs stacked together waited to be repaired. Finally, through the stuffy air came a refreshing breeze as I emerged out into the back streets of what I learned is affectionately dubbed the Bike market. Children’s bicycles, sturdier mountain bikes and motorcycles of all brands and manufacturers covered both sides of the street, many on the street itself making it difficult for drivers to navigate through. Hordes of young men negotiated and discussed the merits of this moped, that scooter, or those Harley-Davidsons.

Soon, I crossed into the cell phone street where thousands of second-hand phones mixed with brand new Huawei models, Samsungs and iPhone knock-offs. Entire walls of nearby buildings were plastered in Arabic numbers advertising the available SIM card phone numbers someone could purchase. As soon as I ducked into a narrow alleyway, the rapid chatter of buyers bargaining was replaced by an unexpected new noise – chirping and quacking.

I followed the sounds, turning away from the honking cars in traffic and roars of buses chugging down the road. Small clumps of curious pedestrians crowded around huge cages with a variety of brightly colored birds, large and small, exotic and domestic. Multi-colored parakeets fill small cages and talking parrots perched on swinging bars. Several rows of hens and crowing roosters made it hard to walk through throngs of parents buying a pet for their children. A mother, covered head to toe in a full-length black cloak, swung two enormous turkeys upside down by their feet as she floated by. I took in the guinea fowls and speckled pigeons clucking around their cages just before coming up on a ring of men, arms crossed, mumbling under their breath as they watched two black fighting cocks in a metal ring.

A flash of bright yellow caught my eye, and I found myself next to a cardboard box of peeping chicks small enough to fit two into one palm of my hand. The seller was unceremoniously chucking them from one box to another plastic container, as three excited children called their parents over to play with them and drop some bird feed into the box.

Animal Market

Tearing myself away, I came across a few puppies and kittens pawing timidly at their visitors from small kennels stacked on one another. I wasn’t surprised that they were far less popular than birds; it’s a common Islamic notion that dogs are impure, and the act of buying a cat is also uncommon since, even though they’re considered clean and pure creatures, they should be given or received as gifts. As a friend once explained to me, keeping birds as pets, however, safe in fenced-in spaces or cages and feeding them serves as an act of protecting God’s creatures, and so, birds become a prestigious symbol of status.

Just beyond a row of glass bowls of goldfish, larger cages revealed enormous guinea pigs lying lazily on top of one another, quietly chewing at the straw on the bottom of their cages. Dozens of tinier bunnies were crammed into one cage, but larger-than-life rabbits had entire cages for themselves. I blinked in surprise at the next creature, as a young lynx, calmly stretched out, yawned calmly, indifferent towards its fawning fans. Diagonal from the feline, nervously climbing up one side then jumping to another, a lone squirrel watched its watchers, unsure of its surroundings and twitching its tail non-stop. I laughed to myself as a group of teenage boys oohed and aahed in front of it, as brown squirrels were far from exotic for a California native such as myself.

The show-stealers were at the end of the street, though. Skinny, brown monkeys, caged in pairs and huddled over, were no taller than one and a half feet. Their eyes followed anything shiny, and they reached out towards the camera on my phone, then turned to scoop up the nuts that young children were flicking into the silver water bowl. One held up his paw, waiting patiently for a child to throw in a sunflower seed, and as it gently swayed, I felt like he was saying bye to me as I slowly headed out of the market, leaving behind the cacophony of meows, gobbles and squeaks.

Written by: Annie Elle

 Annie Elle picture Annie is originally from Los Angeles although she’s worked and lived abroad for the last 10 years. Currently living in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, she’s traveled to over 100 countries and enjoys playing ultimate frisbee and volleyball when she can.


Follow Annie on: Instagram:

For more ITKT travel stories about Iraq

For more ITKT travel stories about Asia