Sulaimania: Saving the dream city of a Kurdish prince

Efforts are under way to salvage what remains of old Sulaimania, once a bastion of diversity and cosmopolitanism.

An old building in Sulaimania [photo/Lara Fatah]
Established in 1784 by a Kurdish prince inspired by cities he'd seen on his travels, historians and preservationists now fear that Sulaimania is under threat from modernisation [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]

Sulaimania, Iraq In 1784, an ambitious Kurdish prince inaugurated the new capital of the Kurdish principality of Baban. It was the city of Sulaimania.

The young Ibrahim Pasha had spent years studying in the vibrant cities of Baghdad and Istanbul. Now, he was back in his hometown of Qalachwalan, then considered a rural backwater. But he had brought with him dreams of building a Kurdish city just like the most sophisticated cities of the Persian and Ottoman empires he had left behind.

Sulaimania in the 1950s [Zheen Archives]Sulaimania in the 1950s [Zheen Archives]

He named the city after his father, Sulaiman Pasha. It was established in the mountainous region described as the land of “Zamwa” in the epic of Gilgamesh. Surrounded by the Azmar, Goyzha and Qaiwan mountains to the northeast, Baranan to the south and the Tasluja Hills to the west, Sulaimania was a natural fortress, buffered from invasion.

It was his 18th century Mesopotamian “Camelot”, intended to reflect those cities – from Alexandria and St Petersburg to Baghdad and Istanbul – that had so impressed him during his travels.

Settlers came from far and wide – Kurdish philosophers, poets and writers from all sides of the Zagros Mountains, exiled royals from western Persia, tradesmen from southeastern Anatolia and forward-thinking entrepreneurs from nearby villages.

Settlers came from far and wide - Kurdish philosophers, poets and writers from all sides of the Zagros Mountains, exiled royals from western Persia...

“Unlike many of the towns and cities in the region, Sulaimania did not develop or grow to become a city – it was built to be a city,” says Ako Ghareb, an artist and historian from Sulaimania.

“Sulaimania was cosmopolitan in culture from its very founding. When Ibrahim Pasha started to build it, it attracted the free thinkers and intellectuals from Erbil, Kirkuk and from Iranian Kurdistan. It also drew Christians, Jews and Armenians, because it was a much more open city.”

If you build it

First, there was a place of worship. Built in 1785, and boasting a vast library, the Mzgawt-e Gawra – big mosque – became a centre for knowledge and social interaction. Everything else was built around it: grand homes, a marketplace and schools.

Among the first noteworthy arrivals in the early 1800s were refugees from the fallen Ardalan empire in northwest Persia. Prominent among them was Mastura Ardalan, the widow of Khasraw Khani Ardalan, who had been the ruler of the principality.

The man who would be king of Kurdistan

Mastura, who died in 1848 and was buried in Sulaimania, was a respected poet and historian, whose account of Kurdish history – recorded in Persian – is still referenced by scholars of Kurdish affairs.
A bust of Mastura Ardalan [Tanya Goudsouzian/Al Jazeera]A bust of Mastura Ardalan [Tanya Goudsouzian/Al Jazeera]

“Mastura Ardalan came to Sulaimania after the Persian empire demolished their principality,” says Ghareb. “There was a typhoid epidemic, from which her husband had died, and many of the courtiers who came with her showed symptoms. So they remained in quarantine for a while, before they were allowed to enter.”

Along with the exiled Ardalans came skilled masons and craftsmen from the fallen principality who founded a quarter in Sulaimania called Dargezen – or, Golden Door in Persian.

By the mid-19th century, the city was enjoying a certain level of autonomy from the Safavid empire under the dynasty of the Baban clan, becoming a hub of Kurdish intellectual and political movement. By the turn of the 20th century, it was dotted with stately homes that incorporated the traditional architecture of the region.

Disappearing city

The majestic mountains which encircle and protect the city are now the names of high-end property developments, built over the past decade.

Today, the city of Sulaimania still stands; it marked its 232nd anniversary on November 14.

But, arguably, very little of the original spirit of its founder survives. Azmar, Goyzha and Baranan – the majestic mountains which encircle and protect the city – are now the names of high-end property developments, built over the past decade.

Overlooking Sera Square near the mosque stands a marble bust of Ibrahim Pasha. A statue of Mastura Ardalan was unveiled during a ceremony in Erbil to mark her 200th birthday in 2005. 

But historians and those who want to preserve the city worry that statues won’t save the spirit of Sulaimania.

The democratic republic of The People’s Teahouse

What remains of Sulaimania’s urban past is threatened by the “modernisation frenzy” that followed the 2003 US-led war in Iraq, they argue, as local developers rushed to build the next big supermarket or mini mall. Now concrete and glass skyscrapers overshadow areas where once stood traditional mudbrick homes, or grand white-stone houses.

The Mzgawt-e Gawra in Sulaimania, Iraq [Zheen Archives] The Mzgawt-e Gawra in Sulaimania, Iraq [Zheen Archives] 

“All of our old buildings are about to be destroyed – some by demolition, others by neglect,” laments Sadiq Saleh, the head of the photography department at the national Zheen Archives.

“It is important to save them. If a proper preservation initiative isn’t started, after a few years there won’t be any old buildings left in our city to save. And I think that it is a big mistake of our government not to take an active part in this.”

Saleh and Ghareb are among those working to safeguard what’s left of Ibrahim Pasha’s city of dreams. It is a mission that has encountered many setbacks.

One challenge, they believe, is to be found in the fact that few of the present-day inhabitants of the city can trace their family’s history in Sulaimania back further than a few decades.

The restored Sofy Karim House in Sulaimania, Iraq [Tanya Goudsouzian/Al Jazeera]The restored Sofy Karim House in Sulaimania, Iraq [Tanya Goudsouzian/Al Jazeera]

“Many came here as refugees from nearby villages during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign against the Kurds. These people don’t know anything about the history of this city, and they aren’t really interested,” says Saleh.

What remains of an old home in the city of Sulaimania, Iraq [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]What remains of an old home in the city of Sulaimania, Iraq [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]

He points out that many officials in the regional government – and even municipal officials – are not originally from the city, which makes it difficult to convince them to allocate funds to preservation campaigns.

“Nowadays, the city has become a big village, run by village mentality,” Saleh says. “In the Middle East, there is a big difference between city people and villagers. What you see today is a blurring of the lines and a village mentality has overrun our city. This means, there is no concern for preserving old homes with history. The city’s history is not their history, so they don’t care.”

“We are only a few families left who are originally from Sulaimania, with living memories of how things once were. Many of the old families have emigrated. They are living in Jordan, Turkey or Europe and so on,” he adds.

An old building in need of maintenance in Sulaimania [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]An old building in need of maintenance in Sulaimania [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]

With battles raging in nearby Kirkuk, and another in Mosul only 100 kilometres away, compounded by waves of internally displaced people, Sulaimania has again become a destination for settlers from far and wide.

But even before the war against ISIL and the sharp decline in oil prices left the economy of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region in tatters, there didn’t seem to be much of an appetite to invest large sums in preservation projects.

“During Saddam Hussein’s days, they tried to demolish these homes to erase Kurdish history. But today it’s apathy and indifference that’s destroying us,” says Ghareb.

During Saddam Hussein's days, they tried to demolish these homes to erase Kurdish history. But today it's apathy and indifference that's destroying us.

Ako Ghareb, Historian

“The KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] has never really cared much about the preservation of heritage sites – it’s always been a battle to get these projects funded.”

Saleh says they have been compelled to turn to private donors to supplement their funding.

Fusion of styles

Exploring the narrow streets of the original neighbourhoods is like strolling through history.

In these quarters, the diverse backgrounds of the early settlers become apparent. Ghareb explains that those who hailed from the plains of Koya and Erbil opted to build their homes out of mudbrick, which was typically used for construction in those areas “because they don’t have stones”.

“People often sourced their building materials from the areas they came from,” he says, even though the actual builders were from Sanandaj, in western Persia, and Diyarbakir, in eastern Anatolia. “So the city became a fusion of styles.”

The renovated Hotel Farah in the heart of the Sulaimania Bazaar, Iraq [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]The renovated Hotel Farah in the heart of the Sulaimania Bazaar, Iraq [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]

Those who opted to use local material had a choice between Malkandy stone, a yellowish, irregular-shaped hard stone, or Sherkoosh stone, a softer, whiter stone found in the village of Kanbardina. Sherkhoush was the material of choice for the wealthy. The poor opted for mudbrick.

Today, only about 14 of those grand old homes survive in Sulaimania – in some shape or form. These include the home of Karimi Alaka, a Christian Kurdish notable who is said to have saved many lives during World War II, the home of Ali Kamal Beg, who was a member of parliament representing Sulaimania in Baghdad before 1958, and the home of Sofy Karim, a wealthy local trader who dealt in tobacco and leather firearm accessories.

Sofy Karim’s home, built in 1887, was sold to the Sulaimania municipality in 1996 for a nominal sum of $20,000 by Karim’s son on the condition that it be restored and turned into a museum.

A growing identity crisis for Iraqi Kurds

What remains of Sulaimania's urban past has been threatened by the post-2003 war 'modernisation frenzy' as local developers rush to build the next big supermarket or mini mall.

A little also remains of the home of Sulaimania-born artist, historian and politician Mohamed Amin Zaki Bey (1880-1948). His paintings of Baghdad, particularly one of a horse station called “Garia”, are considered among the best, and hang in museums across the Middle East.

Moreover, since 2006, a UNESCO-funded project has been underway to preserve the old Ottoman-era municipal building called “Bardaki Sera” as well as the Hotel Farah, a former resting house at the centre of the bazaar. UNESCO has also funded the Sulaimania Museum to support its archiving work.

But there have also been some losses. Saleh cites the case of the Nouri Ali building which was demolished in the 1980s under the Baath government. The drug store built in the 1930s was at the time the tallest building in Sulaimania.

“They razed it to the ground because it was at the centre of the city and they wanted to widen the street,” recalls Saleh.

“There was also a small market nearby, we used to call it the Kayseri Osman Pasha, but it was destroyed during the Baath regime in the 1980s. It was old, built at the end of 19th century. It was near where the bazaar is today, at the centre of the city. Now in its place there is a new bazaar, new shops.”

The city of Sulaimania in the 1930s [Zheen Archives]The city of Sulaimania in the 1930s [Zheen Archives]


Ghareb is an enthusiastic supporter of restoration projects, provided they are restorations and not renovations.

“What I oppose is when the government demolishes these old homes and builds supermarkets or high-rises in their place,” he says. “I would like to see efforts in place to preserve the character of the old homes which have history and character.”

He laments that people in the Kurdish region at large don’t really understand the difference between restoration and renovation.

“It’s not enough to renovate the building in an ‘old style’ – you have to respect the original design and use the same materials,” he says. “In the Sabunkaran area and Kzzadaak area, some places have been renovated and it pains me to see. It no longer looks like the Sabunkaran of the old days. Even though they have tried to use the same materials, there are aspects that are incorrect and they’ve ruined it.”

Restored buildings in the old city of Sulaimania, Iraq [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]Restored buildings in the old city of Sulaimania, Iraq [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]

Ghareb says that there are 90 sites in the city that he and others are trying to save from demolition or decay.

“The government won’t allocate the funds needed to save these homes from decay, so we are trying to get help from the museum to at least help out,” he says.

“The owners cannot afford to maintain them. Mud roofs, for instance, need yearly maintenance. It’s a special skill, and it costs. Some of the owners have abandoned the homes because they have become uninhabitable, but others are too poor and they still live in it.”

Ghareb says the Sulaimania Museum has been lobbying the government for greater funding for preservation.

For Iraq’s Kurds, it’s not about independence any more

Touted as the next Dubai after the 2003 US-led war, Erbil and Sulaimania were flush with oil money, but those days seem a distant memory. With civil servants going months without pay, and in some cases, those delayed salaries being cut by more than 50 percent, competition for the depleted resources is fierce and funding for restoration and preservation projects isn’t forthcoming.

We are only a few families left who are originally from Sulaimania, with living memories of how things once were. Many of the old families have emigrated. They are living in Jordan, Turkey or Europe and so on.

Sadiq Saleh, Preservationist

Cultural capital

In December 2012, the KRG anointed Sulaimania as the region’s cultural capital.

“Suleimania was always known as a city of intellectuals, reformists and activists,” says Ghareb. “Its people have always gone on the streets to demonstrate and say whatever they have to say this is where they have staged uprisings. From the very beginning, it had that culture.”

Indeed, following World War I, when the Treaty of Sevres assigned Sulaimania to the newly formed state of Iraq, the city was the site of numerous rebellions against the new central government.

Many political movements were founded in the city – the Jamiati Kurdistan in 1922, Jamiati Zardashti in 1926, and the Hezb-e Brayati in 1937.

The intellectuals of Sulaimania also paid special attention to the preservation of the Kurdish language, evident in the number of newspapers, journals and magazines published in the city from the 1920s onwards, such as Zhianawa, Zhian, Zheen, and Ziban – not to mention the poets who defied convention and composed verses in Kurdish.

Sadiq Saleh, preservationist, Zheen Archives [Tanya Goudsouzian/Al Jazeera]Sadiq Saleh, preservationist, Zheen Archives [Tanya Goudsouzian/Al Jazeera]

“Everything was done in Kurdish to preserve the language,” says Saleh. “The most famous Kurdish poets, they are all from Sulaimania because of this emphasis on the language. Elsewhere it was considered backward, and frowned upon to write in Kurdish … The educated people of the region wrote in Persian, Arabic and Turkish, but never in Kurdish.”

Mullah Xidir Ehmed Sawaysi Mikayali , known as “Nali”, was the first significant poet to write his poetry in Kurdish; then Abdul Rehman Begi Saheb-Qiran, known as “Salem”; and Tawfeq Mahmoud Hamza, known as “Piramerd”. In this way, Sulaimania became a nursery for Kurdish culture.

In 1921, when the British took over Iraq, they reportedly burned the books in the mosque’s extensive library. But the shelves were refilled over the years through contributions from exiled Kurdish thinkers and notables. This included the Babans, who had sought refuge in Libya in the 1850s after fighting the Ottomans for Kurdish independence.

Newly built homes attempt to mimic traditional architecture in Sulaimania, Iraq [Tanya Goudsouzian/Al Jazeera]Newly built homes attempt to mimic traditional architecture in Sulaimania, Iraq [Tanya Goudsouzian/Al Jazeera]

Following the First Gulf War, Sulaimania came under the administration of the Iraq Kurdish regional government.

New generation

“Sulaimania has lost its culture, and we used to be very proud of it,” says Ghareb. “Culture is one of the main building blocks of society and that is what the new generation don’t know anything about. That is one of our biggest problems right now.”

Once diverse and cosmopolitan, today’s Sulaimania is struggling to survive economic hardship and demographic changes. But, ultimately, it may be apathy that poses the greatest challenge.

“My own children aren’t interested in any of this and they nag me about it all the time,” says Saleh. “I’m an engineer and I have had opportunities for better paying work. But this is my passion and I believe it is important for the future. If we don’t do this now, the next generation that follows will one day hold us responsible.”

If two centuries ago a young Kurdish prince had returned from his studies abroad with dreams of building a great shining city, many among today’s generation of Kurds would rather stay abroad. The challenge for Saleh, Ghareb and others is to instill their passion for the city in its youth, or else Ibrahim Pasha’s Mesopotamian Camelot may soon become the stuff of myths.

Follow Tanya Goudsouzian on Twitter: @tgoudsouzian

Source: Al Jazeera