Erbil: The Capital of Iraqi Kurdistan

By: Vandana Hettiaratchi

Erbil Overview

Erbil (Hewlêr, in Kurdish) or Arbela (as it was known in ancient history) is the capital, largest and most populated city, with a population of 879,000 inhabitants (as of 2015), in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Located 350 kilometers north of Baghdad, the capital city of the Republic of Iraq, the city is in transition from a small town to a growing center for trade and commerce in the region. It is situated on the rich fertile plains between two rivers- the Greater Zab and the Lesser Zab.

With records of human settlement dating back to the fifth millennium BC, Erbil is rich in history and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in the world, if not the oldest. The city has been part of the Kingdom of Assyria, Persia and the Ottoman Empire.

Erbil has been an important trade centre from the early days to Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. The city is ethnically diverse, with a large population of Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmens, Arabs and Armenians.

Furthermore, it is religiously diverse, with believers of Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, Christianity, Shabakism and Yazidism, in and around Erbil.

History of Erbil

The first mention of Erbil in literary sources’ comes from the archives of the Kingdom of Ebla (one of the earliest kingdoms of Syria).

Two journeys to Erbil are recorded; one, by a messenger from Ebla in 2300 BC and by Erridupizir (King of Sumer) who captured the city in 2150 BC. From 2050 BC, Erbil was an integral part of Assyria, becoming a relatively important city until the fall of the Empire in 599 BC.

In 547 BC, the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great occupied Assyria an established Arbela as the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Following the Battle of Gaugamela, in which Alexander the Great defeated Darius III of Persia, Arbela was part of Alexander’s Empire.

Subsequently, after the death of the great Greek ruler, the city became part of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire. Under the Sassanids, Christianity was the dominant religion, with Pkidha becoming the first bishop around 104 AD. Arbela became the centre of eastern Christianity until the late Middle Ages.

During the Middle Ages, Erbil served as the seat of a Metropolitan (bishop) of the Assyrian Church of the East. In the 7th century, this changed following the Muslim conquest of Persia. As such, there was an influx of Islam in the city, predominately made up of ethnic Arabs, Kurds and Turkic people.

The Mongols attacked Erbil in the 13th Century, and the last Begtegenid (who governed Arbela from the 7th century) surrendered, claiming that the Kurdish garrison of the city would follow suit. However, they refused and the Mongols returned to Arbela and were able to capture the city after a six-month long siege.

In the Middle Ages, the Umayyads, Seljuks and the Turks ruled Erbil. It was part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years until World War I, when the Ottomans were defeated by the British Empire.

In the 1970s, as the Kurds were the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, the parliament of the Kurdish Autonomous Region was established in Erbil in 1970, after negotiations between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Iraqi government.

However in the mid 1990s, fighting broke out between the two main Kurdish factions; the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In 1996, Erbil was captured by the KDP and PUK established an alternative Kurdish capital in Sulaymaniyah.

War broke out in the region when PUK asked Iran’s help to fight KDP, which was seen as a foreign attack on Iraq’s soil by the latter party. A peace agreement was signed between the two parties but had no real power. However, unlike the rest of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan and it's capital Erbil are considered safe places for travel.


Post-Saddam Hussein in 2003, Erbil experienced a massive economic boom that brought in new and modern houses, hostels, hospitals, roads and shopping centres. However, a wealthy class emerged, seemingly accompanied by an increase in corruption and nepotism.

There is no appreciable middle class, unemployment rates (mainly among youth) is high, and nearly 84% of workers have no social insurance (Kurdistan24, 2016).

Erbil’s main industry is the construction of roads and buildings, propped by foreign oil companies contracted to drill oil in Kurdistan.

In 2014 alone, it was estimated that Erbil and the KRG (Kurdistan Region) signed contracts with 42 oil companies in 17 countries (Hawler Government, 2014), with more favorable terms than the central Iraqi government.

In 2015, the Kurdistan region was hit was an economic crisis. This was due to disputes with the central government, lower oil prices and rapid expansion of the Islamic State in the region neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan.

Nevertheless, in 2018, investment in the region increased reaching $3.67 billion up from $712 million in 2017 (Kurdistan24, 2018).

In addition to oil, Erbil has a small industry based on agriculture. The city cultivates wheat and barley, and was ranked the number one city in Iraq for livestock breeding and the abundance of animal products in it (Erbil Chamber, 2018).

The mountains and plains surrounding the city allow for grapes, pomegranates, pears, figs, apples and walnuts to be grown. Merchants, using the road network, trade these items to surrounding cities and regions (Erbil Chamber, 2018).

Transportation to and from the city is constantly being improved. Erbil International Airport is one of Iraq’s busiest airports with scheduled flights both domestically and internationally. There are international flights to countries, such as Netherlands, Germany, Turkey, Austria and many more.

Another important form of transportation in the city are busses. A new bus terminal opened in 2014, which offers connections to Turkey and Iran. Local taxis are also commonly used.

Erbil has a primary and secondary education system modeled on that of the British system. There are both public and private schools. The city hosts the Salahaddin University and The University of Kurdistan (Hewler) which offers instruction in English.


There are several sites of cultural heritage in Erbil. The most famous is the Erbil Citadel (locally called Qelat) is a UNESCO World Heritage site that covers more than 1.1 million square feet and sits some 100 feet above its immediate surroundings.

Dominating the old city, the citadel has been built upon seven layers of civilization. Approximately 7000 years old, the citadel is one of the oldest continuously occupied human settlements. During the 20th century, the citadel housed three mosques, two schools, two takyas and a synagogue.

Archeological excavations and research has found older architecture buried under present houses. In 2009, a Neo-Assyrian chamber tomb was found at the foot of the citadel mound. Pottery fragments dating from the Neolithic period have also been found.

Other sites of historical and cultural significance is the Kurdish Textile Museum, the Syriac Heritage Museum, Erbil Civilization Museum, which houses the Mound of Qalich Agha in its grounds, and the Minaret Park with the 36m high Mudhafaria Minaret (built in the 12th century).

There are also, numerous bazaars (or market places) - the most famous being the ‘Qaysari Bazaars’- which can be explored.

Football (soccer) is the main sport played in Erbil. The local major football team is Erbil SC which plays its matches at the Franso Hariri Stadium, which is based in the central part of the city.

Erbil SC were the first Kurdish team to make it to the AFC Champions League. Other sports including volleyball and basketball are common and thoroughly enjoyed.


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