Kirkuk: A city whose rich culture has been overshadowed by oil, conflict
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – Despite the ongoing crisis and displacements in the city of Kirkuk, it remains a jewel of the Middle East: a biblical city with vast oil reserves, a towering citadel, and a multi-ethnic composition that make it a microcosm of the entire region.
When visiting Kirkuk, be sure to stop and talk to people when you have the opportunity. Everyone in Kirkuk has witnessed two, three, sometimes even five governments.
A mother with children in college may have been born under Prime Minister Abdulkarim Qassim, grown up under Saddam Hussein, been displaced multiple times during the Anfal campaign against Kurds, lived through the United States liberation, seen her city decay into renewed sectarian violence, withstood the onslaught of the Islamic State (IS) and the unrest of sleeper cells, found security under the years of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and today faces the uncertainty of what the Iraqi Army and Shia militias will bring.
Driving in from Erbil, arrivals to Kirkuk are welcomed by a monumental statue showing a woman releasing doves of peace, while a sculpture of the eternal flame of Baba Gurgur is held aloft by figures wearing Kurdish, Turkoman, Christian, and Arab clothes. The flame is a naturally occurring fire near the city that has been burning on its own since biblical times due to fossil fuel seepage.
Nestled along the Khasa Su river, the ancient nucleus of Kirkuk is dominated by the towering citadel. It is surrounded by an expanse of caravanserais and covered bazaars (Qayseri), whose sheer quantity and size are important testimonies to Kirkuk’s historic significance for trade and commerce.
Legend says the citadel was built by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar using Jewish slaves. However, much of the archaeological history remains buried deep within the mound.
All the way into the 20th century, it was a crowded, residential, and easily defended complex. However, the Baath regime flattened every structure except for a few historical sites that were spared as part of a municipal development scheme in 1997-1998.
This destruction was linked to the ethnic cleansing of Turkoman and Kurdish culture, and local lore (rooted in superstitious tropes about Jews) adds the demolitions were part of a Baathi plot to do archaeological excavations to discover gold hidden by Jewish families before their modern exile from Iraq.
The current gate and its wide vehicular road both cut right along what would have been a crowded artery of shops and houses. The expanded road brutishly cuts open surrounding structures, leaving gaping rooms with no walls. They have disintegrated into ruins.
The shrine of Gok Cumbet dates to 1361 and is said to be dedicated to a Seljuk princess who died in Kirkuk on her way to Hajj. ‘Gok Cumbet’ is Turkoman and translates literally as ‘Dome of the Sky,' but it is often translated as ‘Green Dome’ or ‘Blue Dome’ as well. The shrine was harshly and poorly restored by the Baathi regime, in a similar manner to the minaret of the citadel in Erbil, but remains an important historic fixture in Kirkuk.
The shrine of the prophet Daniel (and his companions) dates to biblical times. The site was originally revered by the Jews and was part of a synagogue complex. The Christians then controlled it, but in recent centuries, it has come under Muslim stewardship.
Today, the caretaker is Sheikh Farooq, a Turkoman gentleman whose position has been passed down through his family for over a dozen meticulously recorded generations. His incredible hospitality and friendliness have made him a warm, proud host for pilgrims of all backgrounds — from Christian leaders to American soldiers — as shown in the photo wall in the antechamber to the shrine.
Alongside the Prophet Daniel are buried Ezra, Hunain, and Mesha, and all are attested in the Book of Daniel. The broader complex includes a minaret, a prayer hall, and an Ottoman-era cemetery.
Next to the shrine is a large mosque, which was converted from a church. It contains a tiny shrine dedicated to Mary, and some legends make the stretched-thin claim that the Virgin Mary herself was buried there, but the more broadly accepted local legend is she was a woman named Mary who was descendent of the Prophet Mohammed.
The entrance to Mary’s shrine is barely tall and wide enough to squeeze through. Its subterranean location suggests it could have been built much earlier than expected, while successive structures raised the surrounding floor level.
The ruins of a Chaldean Catholic cathedral are present on the citadel, behind the shrine of Daniel. It was originally a center of worship for the Christians in Kirkuk but was left empty when the congregation relocated to another church elsewhere in the city. Later, a burst pipe caused the church to collapse.
Today, the church remains as a breathtaking testament to the Christian community’s legacies in the region. Each visit reveals new architectural details among the collapsed grand marble columns. It is possible to get lost and disoriented in the dizzying labyrinth of rooms and corridors. There are gorgeous reliefs carved in Mosul marble, sometimes ruined on the ground, sometimes still in their original places over doors and windows, and occasionally peeking through behind crumbled plaster that had temporarily concealed them some time in a more recent century.
Descending into the bazaar surrounding the citadel, it quickly becomes apparent that Kirkuk continues to be a city brimming with the lifeblood of commerce. Countless shoppers bustle through busy roads whose contours were defined by the caravan routes connecting Kirkuk to Mosul, Baghdad, Erbil, and Basra. The busy roads lead to cramped, tiny alleys that serve as capillaries to even more bazaars and caravanserais.
There are Kurdish, Turkoman, and Arab areas of the bazaar. Walking through, there are shifts in flags, languages, and clothes — but mixture, multilingualism, and coexistence are the rule of a successful business.
A Turkoman tailor kindly helped with directions, but asked me to wait a moment while he welcomed an Arab family into his shop and helped a mother and daughter pick out the right fabrics which would be normal in their styles. He knew similarly which fabrics were preferred by families of other backgrounds as well. Meanwhile, Turkoman, Kurdish, Arab, and Christian families bustled outside, a mix of locals and IDPs.
As fortunes grew, it was typical for a clan to build a place for caravans to rest and do business. Caravanserais were constructed in or two levels, with small rooms for people to rest and sell their goods around a central courtyard for animals.
Nowadays, these caravanserais (khan) are mostly converted into shops. Some are more densely hidden under layers of clutter and made dark by newly built roofs, while others remain faithful to their original form.
Sometimes it is possible to still see the water troughs where thirsty horses, donkeys, mules, and camels would have quenched their thirst after arriving directly from the hot and dusty roads.
Kirkuk Khan is said to have been used mostly by Jewish visitors, though similar legends are attached to so many places that they must largely be overblown or flatly untrue because Jews had become nothing more than a small minority in recent centuries.
Sometimes the caravanserais are used to park vehicles, or what used to be little shops are now rented out to warehouse goods for the surrounding bazaar.
The Bayaz Khan (White Caravanserai) was built in the 1930s to 1940s with two floors. The first floor had about 35 rooms and the second had about fifteen rooms.
The caravanserai included a stable for animals, and a shops area for vegetables that came in from the north (deeper into the Kurdish heartland). It is said that most who came here were Jewish.
Directly across the entrance to the citadel is the site of the ancient Ottoman-era Tash Kopru bridge (Turkoman for ‘Stone Bridge’) that crossed the Khasa Su river. The original bridge washed away recently, and a simple concrete replacement stands in its place, but the details of the bridge’s folkloric gate serve as a reminder of the original.
Down the road from the citadel is the Red Church, which gets its name from the famously red soil of the mound on which it is built. The legend is that the earth was stained red from Christians massacred on the site.
Today, the Christian community has a newer church, and the large cathedral stands empty. However, the cemetery surrounding it continues to be actively used.
The cemetery itself reflects the history of the Christian community. Older grave markers carved in Mosul marble suggest the power of a well-connected and economically strong Christian fabric that stretched across the Middle East.
However, more recent graves — many with small photos — begin to include epitaphs of people killed in wars, and of police officers killed by militants.
The city expands far beyond the citadel and bazaar, with historical and cultural sites plentifully representing important eras of Kirkuk’s history and modern development.
Editing by G.H. Renaud