Ancient sites and ecstatic traditions: Akre, the city on the hillside

Akre consists of a historic old quarter tucked along the ridges and valleys, with the growing new neighborhoods sprawling out downhill in the flatlands that lead to the Nineveh Plains.
author_image Levi Clancy

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – Akre is a breathtakingly beautiful little historic town and one of the gems of Kurdistan. Located at the edge of the Nineveh Plains, it was traditionally a mixed town of Muslims, Jews, and Christians and was part of a string of similar settlements such as Shush and Gondik nestled against the same mountain range. 

Nowadays, Akre consists of a historic old quarter tucked along the ridges and valleys, with the growing new neighborhoods sprawling out downhill in the flatlands that lead to the Nineveh Plains.

Akre’s modern political history began when the Ottoman Empire urbanized it to serve as the seat of its own eponymous district at the end of the 19th century. 

Since then it has shifted between Mosul and Duhok governorates as the Iraqi government attempted to gerrymander districts with large Kurdish populations into governorates where they would be minorities. A large security fort was established by Saddam Hussein as an administrative center for the genocide, part of a network of identical forts such as those at Nizarke in Duhok city and in Spilik overlooking the Harir plain.

Following the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the district was attached to Duhok and has remained part of Duhok and the KRG ever since.

Akre has endured as a center for population and culture despite being at the nexus between Ottoman control and ungoverned mountains, and more recently between Kurdish autonomy and Iraqi oppression. 

The town is a majestic blend of precipitous mountains, gushing rivers, crashing waterfalls, historic shrines, gargantuan ruins, and a rising urban middle-class. This has led to it becoming a bucolic holiday destination in the summertime, and a remarkable photo opportunity any time. 

Akre today is mostly inhabited by Kurds from the Zebari and Surchi tribes who speak the Badini dialect. Also, it has seen an influx of Kurds from Mosul who moved to Akre to flee the anomie after 2003, and more recently a wave of Kurdish refugees arriving from Syria. 

There is also a Christian minority living in Akre, the descendants of the historic indigenous Nestorian community in Mesopotamia.

Main mosque of Akre.
Main mosque of Akre.

The visual anchor of the old town is the mosque located in the main valley, whose minaret rises to greet the surrounding hills and mountains. Within the mosque is an old tree, and one of the few remaining trees of its size in the entire region, when fuel shortages in the 1990s resulted in mass deforestation for heating.

Vista point in Akre.
Vista point in Akre.

When navigating Akre, there are narrow, winding roads with houses and shops built high on both sides. But at times the myopic, tightly-clustered streets will have openings that give stunning vistas.

Akre’s old town center.
Akre’s old town center.

The old center of town has the large ‘qishla’ or Ottoman security fort on one side, and the ‘qayseri’ or covered bazaar on the other side. It is tucked into the base of Kale, the largest mountain.

Akre’s Ottoman fort.
Akre’s Ottoman fort.

The historic Ottoman fort was used and reused by successive British and Iraqi governments. It's part of a constellation of similar Ottoman forts such as those in Sulaimani, Erbil, and Zakho.

Seen from above, the incongruous scale of the fort against the surrounding buildings is apparent.
Seen from above, the incongruous scale of the fort against the surrounding buildings is apparent.
The abandoned fort has beautiful architectural details such as arched doorways and windows.
The abandoned fort has beautiful architectural details such as arched doorways and windows.
A few ruined sculptural elements and a wash basin remain.
A few ruined sculptural elements and a wash basin remain.
The center of the old town is an Escher-esque labyrinth of roads and alleys draped across the uneven landscape.
The center of the old town is an Escher-esque labyrinth of roads and alleys draped across the uneven landscape.
Old homes in Akre.
Old homes in Akre.
New regulations mandate a highly specific and archaizing aesthetic on buildings.
New regulations mandate a highly specific and archaizing aesthetic on buildings.
The piece was either a door pivot or a fragment of a roof roller.
The piece was either a door pivot or a fragment of a roof roller.

The ancient cultural fabric of Akre is sometimes hidden in plain sight, such as this round piece in a makeshift wall. The piece was either a door pivot or a fragment of a roof roller. Roof rollers were stone pieces shaped like cylindrical logs and rolled across mud roofs to press out moisture. 

Walking up from the center of the old town, all roads arrive at the footpath to the mountaintop of Kale. At the start of the footpath is a historic old church that is no longer used. Adjacent to the church is a free-standing and seemingly very old stone doorway with inscriptions.

Historic church in Akre.
Historic church in Akre.

After the cataclysmic massacres and displacements led by the Ottoman and Iraqi governments, Christians in Akre found themselves marginalized again during the Anfal and the Kurdish Civil War. Kurdish uprisings led to violence which saw many nearby villages completely vacated by all Christians. 

In Akre itself, the once diverse town saw its Christian population largely reduced by the 21st century. After centuries of ecclesiastical history, though, the stabilized situation in the 21st century has enabled the Christian community in Akre to survive with its own neighborhood in town.

Footpath to the top of Kale mountain.
Footpath to the top of Kale mountain.
Ruined archway marking the entrance to the mountaintop.
Ruined archway marking the entrance to the mountaintop.
Ruins atop Kale.
Ruins atop Kale.

At the top of Kale mountain is a stunning view over Akre and a fascinating complex of ruins carved into the stone. There are various rumors regarding the history of Akre, and many fixate on the ruins. 

It is said that a Kurdish prince founded Akre hundreds or thousands of years ago, and the ruins are all that remain of his massive palace. In fact, however, the ruins and the large church just beneath them are completely consistent with small monastic villages in the region.

Located on mountaintops, these were tiny villages where reclusive monks and a small non-ecclesiastic population lived together. 

Some of these settlements persisted until just decades ago, and a few were reformed by Christian and Orthodox church leadership from their Nestorian origins and continue to operate today, such as the Monastery of Saint Matthew. The steps, cisterns, caves, niches, various buildings, and proximity to a church are examples of highly conserved and consistent elements that characterize these monastic villages.

View from Kale.
View from Kale.
View from Kale.
View from Kale.
View from Kale.
View from Kale.
Ruins on Kale.
Ruins on Kale.
Ruins on Kale.
Ruins on Kale.
The mountains behind Kale are a hinterland separating it from the Kurdish and Christian villages in the Nahla valley.
The mountains behind Kale are a hinterland separating it from the Kurdish and Christian villages in the Nahla valley.
Ruins on Kale.
Ruins on Kale.
Ruins on Kale.
Ruins on Kale.

A narrow trench is carved into the mountaintop, then descends into the valley behind it and up the opposite mountain. It is said to have been an aqueduct, but this folklore defies physics and is completely inconsistent with the aqueduct systems that are horizontal with the mountain to trap water before it washes down and channel it into a cistern. 

Instead, it seems most similar to the trench built at the Monastery of Saint Matthew that connects it to the watchpoint at the end of a nearby ridge. If used this way, the trench at Kale would have allowed the villagers to reach the opposite mountain without being detected. 

Indeed, where the trench begins to descend into the valley, there is what seems to be a well-hidden watchtower with a spiral staircase cut into the rock.

There is a large, decorated cave in the design of a nave with niches on one end and a raised platform on the other end.
There is a large, decorated cave in the design of a nave with niches on one end and a raised platform on the other end.
The windows would have illuminated the religious rites and ceremonies which plausibly took place in the cave.
The windows would have illuminated the religious rites and ceremonies which plausibly took place in the cave.
The entrance to the Eagle Cave.
The entrance to the Eagle Cave.

There is another cave whose entrance seems like an eagle. Its long entrance leads to steps going into various small tunnels which visitors must crawl through. 

Sometimes crowded with bats, and other times totally empty, they are eery and seem cold in the summer and warm in the winter. Local legends say the small chambers along the tunnels were used to house prisoners at one point.

Valley leading to Takiye Sheikh Abdulaziz.
Valley leading to Takiye Sheikh Abdulaziz.

While the old town of Akre grows against Kale’s west side, on the north side is a pristine valley leading to the shrine of Sheikh Abdulaziz. Along the valley are gorgeous, large stone-built ruins looking over a winding stream.

It is said that there was a Jewish mikveh (ritual bath) in the area of the valley and that the area above it (the flat land bisected by the trench coming down from Kale) was a historic gathering place for Jews. However, it is unclear what is fact and what is fiction. The synagogue itself was not in town but instead in a field a few minutes away, and had its own mikveh. 

Akre was once home to a comfortable, albeit subjugated, Jewish population, but no Jews remain following the Iraqi government’s aggressive and near-complete ethnic cleansing of all Jews from throughout Iraq in the 20th century. 

After this top-down effort at eliminating an entire ethno-religious group, the only remaining monument to their presence is a modest synagogue in nearby Shush, and some legends and area names.

Ruins along the route to the takiye.
Ruins along the route to the takiye.

Sheikh Abdulaziz was the son of Sheikh Abdulqadir Gilani, the founder of one of the Middle East’s principal Sufi orders. Sheikh Abdulaziz participated in the conquest of Jerusalem led by Saladin and died in 1205 CE. On Fridays, Sufi dervishes gather at his shrine for a pounding, ecstatic traditional worship that begins at noon.

Dervishes at the plaza of the shrine.
Dervishes at the plaza of the shrine.
Sufis drum the daf and sing religious songs while the dervishes complete an ecstatic, kinetic form of meditation.
Sufis drum the daf and sing religious songs while the dervishes complete an ecstatic, kinetic form of meditation.
View of the cleft in the mountains where the valley is located.
View of the cleft in the mountains where the valley is located.

In the valley on the opposite side of Kale is a string of waterfalls and streams that wind through and between homes and mosques. The quietude of the mostly residential valley is punctuated by the soft sound of the water as it rushes along.

Kani Zerik is a popular swimming spot close to the start of the main stream.
Kani Zerik is a popular swimming spot close to the start of the main stream.
Sipe waterfall is downstream and a popular spot for tourists from all across Iraq to visit in summer.
Sipe waterfall is downstream and a popular spot for tourists from all across Iraq to visit in summer.
Located on a hill across from the valley is an ancient Zoroastrian temple cave, with a spring that flows from an altar.
Located on a hill across from the valley is an ancient Zoroastrian temple cave, with a spring that flows from an altar.

Akre is more than just ancient attractions and natural beauty. It is also a cultural gem and is famous for having the largest Newroz celebration in all of Southern Kurdistan. Thousands of visitors arrive for a single day to march up to the top of Kale with fiery torches, while fireworks blast through the sky and the hillsides respond with percussive echoes.

Newroz in Akre.
Newroz in Akre.
Kurdish boy dressed for Newroz.
Kurdish boy dressed for Newroz.
Revelers gathering to watch the Newroz festivities at night.
Revelers gathering to watch the Newroz festivities at night.
Visitors also flock to the newly re-planted forests as parks for picnics and leisure.
Visitors also flock to the newly re-planted forests as parks for picnics and leisure.
Some newly built roads connect the old town, the leisure parks, and the ‘Sabo’ area of cafes and restaurants.
Some newly built roads connect the old town, the leisure parks, and the ‘Sabo’ area of cafes and restaurants.
Mural depicting the tragedy of being forced to flee during the Anfal.
Mural depicting the tragedy of being forced to flee during the Anfal.
Pet squirrel for sale in the bazaar.
Pet squirrel for sale in the bazaar.
Freshly churned, all-natural ice cream is one of the tasty delights of a visit to Akre. The shop is located next to the Ottoman fort.
Freshly churned, all-natural ice cream is one of the tasty delights of a visit to Akre. The shop is located next to the Ottoman fort.
Mural showing the partridge, known as the ‘kaw’ in Kurdish, which is honoured in Kurdish culture for its place amid the burrows in the mountains just like the Kurds themselves.
Mural showing the partridge, known as the ‘kaw’ in Kurdish, which is honoured in Kurdish culture for its place amid the burrows in the mountains just like the Kurds themselves.
The old fort built by Saddam Hussein now houses refugees from Syrian Kurdistan. It has been filled with murals painted by the children living there.
The old fort built by Saddam Hussein now houses refugees from Syrian Kurdistan. It has been filled with murals painted by the children living there.
The main courtyard of the fort.
The main courtyard of the fort.
Mural showing the Kurdish flag draped over Kale, as is done on Newroz.
Mural showing the Kurdish flag draped over Kale, as is done on Newroz.

Editing by Nadia Riva