Discover more from Ideas Beyond Borders
Past Treasures For Future Generations
A new Virtual Reality tour is bringing Erbil’s ancient citadel to the world and protecting it for posterity.
In 1974, archaeologists working at the ancient city of Ebla in Northern Syria made an extraordinary discovery. Sifting through the charred ruins of the Eblaite palace, they uncovered thousands of clay tablets and fragments dating back to 2500 BCE. Written in the Sumerian language, using the ancient cuneiform script, these proved that northern Syria in the Early Bronze Age was not an arid backwater inhabited only by nomadic tribes, as most scholars then believed. It was the capital of Sumer*, the earliest known civilization in southern Mesopotamia, and a thriving economic center with trade links across the region.
This finding wasn’t just significant for Northern Syria. Hidden in these ancient records, preserved by the kiln-like effect of the fire that destroyed the city around 2220 BCE, were glimpses into other ancient worlds, offering deeper insights into some of the region’s earliest societies.
Among these, was the first recorded reference to a city known then as Urbilum, later as Arbela and today as Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. Even in a region as rich in antiquities as ancient Mesopotamia, this made the Erbil citadel unique. While other cities rose and fell, the Erbil citadel remains the only large settlement of ancient Iraq that still flourishes and retains a form of its original name. Much of Erbil now is modern but the citadel towering over its center reminds residents of these historic roots.
To reach it, visitors drive up a steep hill that stands 26 meters above the modern city. This is known as a tell, which forms when successive civilizations have built on top of one another. In Erbil, archaeological debris has been found 36 meters below the surface, tracing the long history of human habitation here back around 6,000 years. But digging straight down to uncover the trove of archaeological riches buried in this mound, which extends over 10 hectares, is impossible. Archaeologists must find other ways to decipher its mysteries.
Today, buildings at the citadel date mainly from Ottoman times with many in disrepair and at risk of crumbling into ruin. Years of campaigning by preservationists had finally succeeded in galvanizing restoration work when the rise of ISIS in 2014 followed by years of economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic ground everything to a halt.
In recent years, restoration efforts have resumed but the rampant destruction by Isis of ancient heritage across Syria, Iraq and Kurdistan has reinforced the fragility of the region’s historic sites, where looting and unsympathetic renovation over the decades have also left deep scars. In this climate of insecurity, some are exploring alternative methods of preserving places like the Erbil citadel and maintaining its legacy for future generations.
One company believes it has found a way to protect Iraq’s treasures and capture their memory for posterity. iTak Studio produces virtual reality experiences of museums and historic sites, offering a new way to encounter heritage while preserving it in digital form. “The inspiration behind a virtual walkthrough lies in creating an immersive, accessible, and educational experience. It aims to use innovative technologies to tell stories and engage a global audience while preserving cultural heritage and embracing the future of museums,” explains Hasar Abdullah, project manager at iTak Studio.
So far, the team has created digital tours of the Sleimani Museum and the Red Prison in southern Kurdistan. With help from an Ideas Beyond Borders Innovation Hub grant, they are now creating a VR walkthrough of the Erbil Citadel, taking viewers on a step-by-step tour through the secrets of this ancient site. “Experiencing heritage through museums offers an interactive and meaningful way to connect with the past, celebrate cultural diversity, and foster a sense of shared humanity through the lens of history and cultural traditions,” says Abdullah, who hopes the VR walkthrough will help to raise awareness about the Erbil Citadel and inspire younger generations to engage with the heritage it contains.
The platform also opens up access to people outside of Iraq while raising awareness about the treasures that need protecting within. “iTak’s work will perform a vital service by preserving the memory of this site and others against dangers that remain sadly present in this part of the world,” says Faisal Al Mutar, President of ideas Beyond Borders. “It is also a way of sharing and celebrating the citadel, which has welcomed people from different communities across the centuries, serving at various times as an important center for Muslims, Christians, Jews and other groups.”
Ambitious restoration plans now aim to enhance the appeal of the citadel to visitors with new cultural tourism infrastructure, including art galleries, cafes, boutique hotels and restaurants. This includes accommodation that will restore around 20 percent of the citadel to residential use. “After the Covid quarantines, visitor numbers fell,” says Abdullah. With new spaces opening up, and the VR experience offering digital access to the Citadel, he hopes more people will engage with the site and appreciate the importance of investing it its future. “One of the most significant benefits of virtual walkthrough applications is the preservation of cultural heritage. By digitally replicating museums and historical sites, we ensure that their legacy remains intact for future generations,” he says.
All of IBB’s programs are supported by our valued donors. To receive new posts and support our work, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Paid subscriptions go directly towards funding our Innovation Hub.
This article was written by Olivia Cuthbert.