Slowly but surely, Akre is getting a new look. Well, not exactly new. Residents are being paid by the local government to renovate their homes with traditional limestone construction to give the city the feel of yesteryear. Officials understand Akre’s rich history is the key to its future wealth.
Since independence in 1991, Iraqi Kurdistan has witnessed a proliferation of cheap and quickly- built houses. This construction addressed an urgent need: Entire villages had been destroyed in the Anfal campaign, and many refugees returned from abroad to resettle in the region. Building materials were expensive and hard to come by in doubly-sanctioned Kurdistan, so people simply made do with what was available.
In 1991, Akre was only 12 square kilometers; now it sprawls over 113 square kilometers. As the city retuned to life after war, the cost of growth became apparent: Improvised concrete eyesores interrupt the dramatic hillside cityscape of the old town. Sprawling and charmless, “New Akre” in the abutting valley replaced orchards, farmland, and forests.
City officials are acutely aware of the problem and are intent upon beautifying the city. Since 2010, $200,000 a year is budgeted for remodeling subsidies, awarded to citizens who voluntarily refurbish their buildings according to the style of the city’s oldest structures.
“We cannot force them to do it,” notes Kamiran Abdulrahman, head of Akre Municipality. “But we have more requests than we can keep up with.”
Abdulrahman looks to Mardin, an ancient Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey, as a model. Mardin has gone to great lengths to preserve its 12-13 century Atruqid Ottoman style, and attracts tourists from all over the world.
One need not look further than Erbil for an example of historically-oriented urban development. In 2007, officials established the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalization, which subsequently signed an agreement with UNESCO to implement a “Conservation Master Plan” for the city’s 7,000-year-old citadel, the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. More than 300 of its houses are being restored according to precise architectural standards, and excavation is underway to dig deeper into the city’s history.
Akre certainly has the potential to be a major tourism hub. Seemingly carved out of three rugged hillsides, Its old city boasts an ancient citadel, waterfalls, a church, Zoroastrian temples, and an eleventh century Sufi shrine where locals claim dervishes still perform miracles. The shrine is already a destination for pilgrims from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey. Officials brag that archeologists have only begun to scratch the surface of Akre’s treasures, promising more cultural tourism in the future.
The city’s Jewish quarter is largely in ruins, but offers fertile ground for excavation and rebuilding in one of the most beautiful parts of the city. According to the census of 1930, over five percent of Akre’s population was Jewish. In 1952, the population fled, following a series of anti-Semitic pogroms across Iraq. Despite this, city residents are proud of its long history of religious tolerance and multi-ethnic identity, pointing to the church of St. Mary perched above the old town.
Akre’s development hasn’t kept up with a dramatic surge in tourism. In 2010, the city had 49,000 tourists; just three years later, it had 178,000 visitors. Thousands of Arab tourists shuttle into town in spring and summer months to cool themselves in the city’s waterfalls, announcing their arrival with trumpets and drums.
Yet, with only 600 beds in three hotels in town, many tourists camp out in water parks, or are forced to bus back to motels in Erbil.
Several new resort developments are underway to accommodate the rising tide of visitors, a result of public and private sector initiatives, consistently good security and more awareness of Kurdistan’s tourism potential, according to Didar Khorshed, director of tourism in Akre. A new, larger building for the Sufi shrine will be built by a Swiss-Lebanese company. There is a plan for a teleferic to lift tourists to Akre’s peaks. Meanwhile, the municipality is planting 3,000-5,000 trees a year to restore the green in Akre’s hills and valleys.
Some residents complain of delays and obstacles in receiving funds for traditional renovations. “Of course we would all do it, if they gave us the money,” one Akrawi native laughs, preferring to remain anonymous.
Yet, even if there aren’t enough funds to go around, there is plenty of building going on in Akre. Much of this conforms to the traditional wood and chiseled limestone construction, at least on the facade. City planners admit residents are free to use whatever techniques they like for interiors.
This often means simply covering existing structures. An imposing cement mosque in the center of town is being encased in stone, a technique applied to many of the newer constructions.
Uncovering Akre’s past has also meant opening up.
City residents have warmed to the idea of tourism after initial apprehension. “You can see an 80 percent change about the idea of tourism in the last four years,” says Khorshed, citing residents’ fears about outsiders drinking and gambling. According to him, these misgivings stemmed from Akre’s decades-long isolation. “In the past, Saddam neglected the tourism sector in Kurdistan. He wanted to keep our economy small and keep the Kurds cut off from the outside world.”
“Since 1991, we have become more open,” he promises. “You will find the people of Akre to be extremely welcoming. Our residents might not let you stay at a hotel — they will invite you into their homes.”