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Back from the Brink Volume 59 Number 4, July/August 2006
by David Axe

After years of war and neglect, archaeology in Iraqi Kurdistan is poised for a comeback.

[image] Shaeda Mohammed Ameen, director of the Kirkuk Museum, stands in front of an unexcavated site atop which a U.S. radar post was installed. (David Axe) [LARGER IMAGE]

On the afternoon of December 15, in the city of Erbil in autonomous northern Iraq, thousands of Kurds are celebrating Iraq's first constitutional elections. A decade after winning its bloody fight for self-rule, and three years after the fall of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime, the country's once-oppressed Kurdish minority is growing, prosperous, and increasingly democratic.

The 1991 Gulf War gutted Hussein's army, and patrols by U.S. and British jets flying from Turkey beginning the same year helped the Kurdish militia push Iraqi troops all the way to Kirkuk. The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and deposing of Hussein guaranteed the Kurds' autonomy in the Iraqi portions of pan-national Kurdistan, which stretches from northern Syria, across northern Iraq and southern Turkey, and into western Iran. Throughout Kurdistan, ethnic Kurds have struggled for autonomy or even independence, but only in Iraq have they achieved it--albeit at great cost.

[image] C-SPAN journalist David Burch surveys the partially excavated site of Qainjagha near the Kirkuk Museum. (David Axe) [LARGER IMAGE]

On Erbil's ancient muddy streets and in its narrow alleys, there is singing and dancing. Actors and politicians move through the crowds, shaking hands and chatting up Iraqi and foreign journalists. And nearly 100 feet above the teeming city, the modern citadel sits atop a massive 8,000-year-old tell, a mountain of debris in which are buried the ruins of at least six earlier fortresses. The citadel, explains Stan McGahey, a cultural-heritage tourism specialist from Saint Leo University in Florida, "is the symbol of Erbil, much as the Colosseum is to Rome or the Kremlin is to Moscow." On its walls, some of the fortress's 3,000 inhabitants have unfurled an enormous green, white, and red Kurdish national flag.

Across Iraqi Kurdistan, ancient tells dot the countryside, some topping 50 feet and containing artifacts--and sometimes entire buildings. The Kurds, like the tells, are a product of layering, albeit in an ethnic and linguistic sense. "When a new group came into an area, they built in the same areas as the old [groups]," explains Shaeda Mohammed Ameen, director of the state-sponsored museum in the Kurdish-dominated city of Kirkuk, on Iraqi Kurdistan's unofficial border, 75 miles south of Erbil. Ameen, a tall, thin, and tired-looking man in his 40s, is one of many Iraqi archaeologists and museum directors who, after decades of war--and in the Kurds' cases, oppression--are finding it almost impossible to do their jobs.

Who are the Kurds?

[image] Kurds in Erbil celebrating during election day, December 2005 (David Axe) [LARGER IMAGE]

Historian Merhdad Izady identifies five distinct layers in the Kurdish people's ethno-linguistic heritage. The earliest, that of the Halaf culture, dates back as far as 6000 B.C. and includes an extensive pottery record. Around 5300 B.C., the Ubaidian culture supplanted the Halaf, eventually leaving behind place names like the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The Ubaidians were replaced by Hurrians around 4300 B.C. A Caucasian people, they created a "culturally and ethnically homogenized" Kurdistan that was "identified as such by neighboring cultures and peoples," including the Sumerians.

But it didn't last, Izady writes, for beginning around 2000 B.C., Indo-European, or Aryan, invaders including Armenians and Persians arrived in Kurdistan, mixing into the existing culture and "changing the Hurrian language(s) of the people of Kurdistan, as well as their genetic makeup." The latest layer, beginning in the fifth century, includes Aramaic-speaking Jews and Christians, Arabs, and Ottoman Turks.

The result is that today Iraqi Kurds are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the majority Arab population. Some mixing is occurring, however, and the Iraqi Kurdish dialect includes many Arabic words. And most Iraqi Kurds are Sunni Muslims, albeit of the most moderate sort. A large minority in Kurdistan claims a more strictly Assyrian heritage and practices the Chaldean brand of Christianity. Only a few rural villages have held onto Yazdanism, the most ancient Kurdish religion that was probably inherited from the Hurrians.

The history of the Kurdish people is one of invasions and conquests, some of which had lasting cultural and ethno-linguistic impact and left behind significant archeological evidence. Other invaders' impacts were fleeting, or evidence of them has been lost. And some, while leaving behind notable archaeological sites, failed to greatly change the ethnic and linguistic makeup of their subjects. Nevertheless, modern Kurds claim nearly their entire violent history as the story of their evolution.

Ironically, this history has inspired a strong nationalism that fueled resistance to one of the latest takeovers, that by the Iraqi Arab Ba'ath regime beginning in the late 1960s. Recognizing the role of history and archaeology in Kurdish nationalism, the Ba'aths suppressed both, prohibiting digs, constraining museums, and even destroying some artifacts. And in 1988, Ba'athist President Saddam Hussein ordered his air force to gas the ancient city of Halabja, a bastion of Kurdish nationalism, killing 5,000 people.

David Axe is a freelance writer. He has visited Iraq six times, writing for The Washington Times, Village Voice and others. He can be reached at He thanks Aram Saeed for assistance with this article.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America