Erbil’s ancient minaret tells story of local history

Erbil's main minaret was built in the 12th century and remains an important local landmark. (Photo: Levi Clancy)
Erbil's main minaret was built in the 12th century and remains an important local landmark. (Photo: Levi Clancy)

Local people often refer to Erbil as the city of Qala u Minara (Citadel and Minaret). Both ancient archaeological and historical sites have become two remarkable symbols. Two most famous landmarks in Erbil. 

Built between 1128-1138 AD during the reign of Sultan Muzzafar Kokbari (brother in law of the well-known Kurdish leader Saladin), the minaret signifies an era of growth and stability in the city in the medieval era. 

A local builder named Massoud Murad built the minaret from low burnt bricks, using gypsum-based renders and mortars. Though parts of the structure have collapsed, the minaret has miraculously survived the centuries.

According to the minaret’s director, Nadir Bakir, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s department of tourism and archaeology renovated it in 2007. And now, Bakir says, the landmark is safe from collapsing due to threats such as rainwater and structural fragility.  

The minaret was originally 36 meters high but is now only 22 meters at its highest point. It is composed of a high octagonal base and a tall cylindrical shaft. The base is decorated with two tiers of niches with pointed arches. Much of its mosaic, tiles, and art have been worn away by time.

Before building the minaret, people were living in the city’s citadel. When the city’s population increases, however, Sultan Muzzafar built a mosque, this minaret, two schools, and Qaysari Bazaar. This marked a golden era, as it is known historically, for the Sultan. People enjoyed stability, relative economic growth, and safety.

However, after his reign, and due to attacks from other imperial forces, these structures were destroyed, save the minaret. 

The story of building the minaret goes like this: Sultan Muzzafar pays a visit to Abbasid Caliph Mustansar Billa, who resided in Baghdad. He stops by Daqooq village on his way back, where he sees Tawq Minaret built by the Seljuqs in 1055. It attracts his attention, so he looks for its builder named Mohammed. But he was dead. Then the Sultan finds Massoud Murad, who had previously worked for Mohammed, and he brings him to Erbil and tells him to build a minaret like Tawq. His name, Massoud Murad, is now carved on the minaret’s western door. 

The minaret has two names: Choli and Sultan Muzzafar. It is called Choli minaret because Choli is Kurdish for “uninhabitable.” People did not live there as it was considered too far from the city, so they called it Choli. Its second name was for the person who funded its construction.

What makes this minaret an architectural wonder is its double stairs. You can enter the minaret from two doors: eastern and western. These doors are small. Each gives you access to steps inside the cylindrical shaft that leads you to the top. If a person enters through the eastern door and another through the western door, they do not meet each other until they reach the top. This, Bakir says, for that era’s architecture, was a miracle.

Choli Minaret is located in Minara Park (named after the word “minaret”) on the 30-meter road in Erbil. According to Bakir, it attracts thousands of visitors each month.  

Archeologist, Hassan Mohammed, says the minaret dates back to the period of Atabag when Sultan Muzaffar was ruling. “It is more than 800 years old, which is fascinating.” 

The minaret is not only an ancient site, Mohammed says, but also a symbol of civilization and growth back in the day.