An ancient culture, beautiful landscapes, a savoury cuisine, and welcoming people – these make Kurdistan an excellent travel destination.
Kurdistan is a home to 8,000 years old history with unique spots like Erbil’s ancient Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site. From places of historical and religious significance to ski resorts and kayaking, Kurdistan is also blessed with some spectacular nature.
Kurdistan is an ideal destination for those seeking unspoiled mountain scenery and ancient archeological sites off the beaten track.
Listed as one of National Geographic’s 20 Best Trips of 2011, the magazine describes the region as “an oasis of peace and stability with ancient cities, snowcapped mountains and bustling bazaars.”
The New York Times travel section also listed Kurdistan as one of their 41 places to visit for 2011, citing “authentic cultural encounters” as one of the primary attractions of the Region.
There are many things to do and see at all times of the year, but the best time to visit Kurdistan is in March when people celebrate Newroz, the Kurdish New Year marked by the spring equinox. People celebrate Newroz by dressing in their finest clothes, having picnics and dancing in the hills and valleys. In October and November the weather is pleasant and warm, making it a perfect time to enjoy sightseeing.
Hillside resorts and lakes
During the Kurdistan Region’s long hot summers, visitors and locals can enjoy the cooler weather of Kurdistan’s hillside resorts.
The town of Shaqlawa, about 50 kilometres from the capital Erbil, lies at the base of Mount Safeen which is nearly 2,000 metres high at its peak. It has several fruit orchards, a food market, restaurants and hotels. Further away and deeper into the mountains and gorges, Gali Ali Beg and Bekhal waterfalls as well as the water source at Jundyan offer beautiful scenery and a place to stop and enjoy a picnic or have lunch or a drink at an outdoor restaurant.
Pank Resort in the small town of Rawandoz sits atop a high plateau with a majestic view of the surrounding peaks and canyons. The resort also boasts of providing scenic cable cars and an excellent German made roller-coaster sledge ride down the side of a cliff.
At Haji Umran, where you will find the Kurdistan Region’s highest mountains, the spa water is renowned locally for treating ailments and the highlands usually remain green through the summer.
About 70 kilometres in opposite directions from Suleimaniah, the picturesque Dokan and Derbendikhan lakes are lined with cabins for visitors to enjoy boating or swimming. The lakes are a result of hydroelectric power dams built decades ago.
At Ahmadawa, east of Suleimaniah, springs form several waterfalls surrounded by walnut, pomegranate and fig trees, attracting visitors to their cool shade throughout the hot summer.
In Duhok province, at Silav resort, open-air restaurants provide a view looking up to the nearby ancient town of Amedi (Amadiya), which sits atop a two-kilometre wide plateau. Muslims and Christians have lived alongside each other for centuries in this small town—in former times, it was also home to a thriving Jewish community. Amadiya also offers a wonderful view of the nearby valleys and gorges that is positively majestic during the winter snowy season.
The majestic town of Akre is perfect for a spring or summer holiday. This ancient town descends from the mountain into the valleys, and its location provides cool breezes throughout the scorching summers. Akre overlooks two wide valleys covered in vegetation, fruit fields, orchards and the beautiful Seepa waterfalls. This elevated town, believed to have been settled around 700 BC, contains carved caves, ancient castles and tombs, offering a glimpse into the ancient history of this Region.
Down the valley, just above a stream, visitors will find the Ruins of Kharusa, also known as the Khenis remains. Mentioned in Assyrian writings, this area was once the home of King Sanhareeb (691 BC). The mountains are filled with carvings of the Assyrian King and gods ranging as high as 10 metres.
Not too far away from Khenis is Lalesh, a famous Yezidi Shrine. This holy place is also the location of the tomb of the Yezidi reformer, Sheikh Adi, and the six Great Angels said to have taken incarnation with Sheikh Adi. Yezidi’s are expected to, at least once in their lifetime, perform a six-day pilgrimage to the area.
The cradle of civilization
The Kurdistan Region rests along a series of mountain ranges and encompasses a significant portion of what has traditionally been called “The land between the rivers” and “The birthplace of civilization.” Home to well over a thousand known archeological sites, the Region’s top historic attractions are the Erbil citadel and Shanidar cave.
The Erbil citadel is widely recognized as one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. The fortress stands atop more than 30 metres of successive settlements dating back to earlier that 6,000 BC. Currently undergoing a comprehensive restoration, including extensive mapping for future archeological excavation, the site is under review to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Throughout its exceptionally long history of inhabitation, the Erbil citadel has survived through the reign of a long list of classical civilizations including: Sumerians, Assyrians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks, and the site is likely to produce a trove of artifacts from these and other eras once excavations begin.
Just south of the Erbil citadel, located in Minaret Park, is another of Erbil’s significant historical sites. The Choli Minaret, also known as the Mudhafaria minaret, was built in 1190 AD during the reign of King Muzaffar al-Din Abu Sa'eed al-Kawkaboori. The Choli minaret stands at 36 metres high and is inscribed with Kufic calligraphy; excavations of the surrounding area have revealed the foundations of a mosque from the same time period.
In addition to the city’s own record, historians believe that the epic Battle of Gaugamela, in which Alexander the Great defeated the Persian King Darius in 331 BC, was fought just 20 miles to the west of Erbil.
While some may find the actual site to be somewhat unremarkable, Shanidar cave has produced Iraq’s only Neanderthal remains, showing evidence of humanoid inhabitation in the Region for more than 60,000 years. The cave was excavated by a Columbia University team from the United States between 1957 and 1961. The site produced nine skeletons dating between 60,000 and 80,000 years old, and one of these along with casts of the others are now on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
A large number of undeveloped archeological sites exist throughout the Kurdistan Region. From partially unearthed remains of Sumerian buildings revealing specimens of their famous cuneiform writing to relatively recent remnants of Ottoman rule, the Region is bursting with historical significance.
Museums, bazaars and parks
Erbil and Suleimaniah each have museums holding collections of antiquities, statues and artifacts from the Region. The Suleimaniah National Museum, the second largest museum in Iraq, holds artifacts dating back to the Hammurabi and Ottoman periods. Erbil’s archeological museum displays a collection of pre-Islamic art while the Traditional Museum of Dohuk displays Kurdistan’s cultural folklore and heritage as well as artifacts from the Babylonian period.
Inside the ancient citadel of Erbil, you will find a beautiful collection of traditional rugs and textiles at the Kurdish Textile Museum. The museum also showcases and preserves textile techniques by traditional tribes and endangered nomads of Kurdistan. The citadel also gives an excellent view of the old city and the bustling bazaar at its base.
Erbil’s Sami Abdul Rahman Park, stretching over many hectares, is the ideal place to enjoy a tranquil afternoon in lush, shady gardens without having to leave the city. Shanadar park near the city centre has a terrace leading to a manmade lake with a variety of restaurants and tea houses for a relaxing meal outside, and if you feel like getting a spectacular sunset view of the city or visiting the 12th century Choli Minaret, Shanadar Park also has a gondola lift connecting it to Minaret park.
Erbil currently boasts of two amusement parks and the beautiful modern Majidi, Family and Tablo Malls for those whose ideal of relaxation is shopping for the latest fashions and appliances at designer stores.
Suleimaniah, Kurdistan's cultural capital, is a mix between old and new. Walking along the alleyways of the old bazaars, visitors are treated with an eclectic selection of goods. From fabrics, textiles and crafts to spices and sweets, shoppers will not leave empty handed.
The museum at the infamous Red Prison presents a striking glimpse into the Region’s recent past. Life-sized statues illustrate torture methods used on the political prisoners of the Ba’ath Regime before the prison was liberated through a popular uprising in 1991. Much of the prison remains just as it was prior to its liberation, and both the bullet holes in its exterior and the photographs of the genocidal Anfal campaign gas attacks are a vivid reminder of the price that has been paid to secure freedom in this Region.
At the large Azadi Park, families can enjoy a nice picnic while the children play around the playground, swimming pool and artificial lakes. The public garden in the city centre features a collection of statues of poets and writers. There are also a number of modern shopping centres, and the city offers an amusement park, cinema and a bowling alley for fun filled nights. If you visit the city in June, you can enjoy the Fête de la Musique, also known as World Music Day, a music festival celebrated worldwide to welcome the summer solstice.
Dohuk is also home to many archeological finds. Overlooking the Dohuk Dam is the Chewar Stone settlement, filled with historic tombs and stone carvings of ancient deities. Recently, a Zoroastrian fire-temple, dedicated to the Zoroastrian deity Anahita, was completely unearthed and is now available for public viewing.
In addition to its historical allure, the Dohuk dam gives a spectacular view of the city nestled between two picturesque mountains and the city has a wide selection of more modern attractions, such as the Dohuk Zoo, Azadi park, Mazi shopping-centre and an amusement park.