At the heart of the city of Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, lies an ancient mound of earth some 25 to 30 meters tall from the surrounding plains. On top of this mound lies one of the oldest town in the world. Known as the Citadel of Erbil, this fortified town, measuring a meager 430 by 340 meters and occupying 102,000 square meters in area has been in continuous occupation since at least the 5th millennium BC, and possibly earlier. The imposing yellow-ochre color structure with a solid perimeter wall is one of the most dramatic visual experiences in the Middle East.
The mound rises at an angle of 45 degrees until it reaches the perimeter wall which consist of the facades of approximately 100 houses that have been built against each other. The houses are contiguous and form a solid wall very similar to fortified citadels of medieval times. Three ramps, located on the northern, eastern and southern slopes of the mound, lead up to gates in the outer ring of houses. Originally, there was only one ramp – the southern slope that led to a huge and arched gateway. The gate led to a small open square which, in turn, led to four main alleyways which branched out in all directions like a tree.
The town is largely occupied by traditional courtyard houses and with few public buildings reached through a labyrinth of narrow alleyways. Before the introduction of modern building techniques, most houses on the citadel were built around a courtyard. A raised arcade overlooking the courtyard, a flat roof and a bent-access entrance to prevent views of the courtyard and the interior of the house were characteristic elements of the houses on the citadel. Although pretty small by itself, the citadel was once divided in three districts or mahallas: the Serai, the Takya and the Topkhana. The Serai was occupied by notable families, the Takya district was named after the homes of dervishes, which are called takyas, and the Topkhana district housed craftsmen and farmers.
During the 1920s there were about 500 houses inside the citadel. The number of inhabitants gradually declined over the 20th century as the city at the foot of the citadel grew and wealthier inhabitants moved to larger, modern houses with gardens. According to a 1995 census, some 1,600 inhabitants were living in 247 houses in the citadel. The Kurdistan Regional Government has recognized the importance of this architectural gem, and is currently working with UNESCO to preserve and restore this ground. In 2007, the citadel was cleared of residents so construction work could take place for a restoration project. One family was allowed to continue living on the citadel to ensure that there would be no break in the 8,000 years of continuous habitation of the site, and the government plans to have 50 families live up here once it is renovated.