Irbil, the Iraqi City the US Is Now Defending, Is One of the Oldest Continuously Inhabited Places in the World

Irbil, Iraq, has a long, long, long history

Looking across old town towards The Citadel Jane Sweeney/JAI/Corbis

Yesterday President Obama authorized the use of air strikes in Iraq—if the terror group ISIS moved on the Iraqi city of Irbil. Early this morning, the bombs started falling, “the first offensive action by the US in Iraq since it withdrew ground troops in 2011,” says the Guardian.

This morning two F/A-18 fighter jets bombed ISIS artillery that was advancing on Irbil. The city of 1.6 million, also known as Arbil or Erbil and as Hewlêr in the local Kurdish language, is the regional capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomously governered region in northeastern Iraq.

Just a few months ago Irbil was seen as a safe haven from ISIS' incursions into Iraq, and the city and the surrounding region have been swarmed by refugees. Irbil is also the temporary home to American troops and advisers sent to Iraq to help with the ISIS incursion, and the site of the U.S. consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Yet modern military targets are not the only thing in Irbil worth protecting. Irbil is, according to the United Nations, among “the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements in the world.” The city has been touched by ancient civilizations, says the U.N., “such as the Sumerian, Babylonian, Greek, Islamic and Ottoman.” The massive citadel at the heart of the city was added to the U.N.'s World Heritage list not even two months ago.

Irbil is “a layer cake of civilizations that have come and gone for an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 years,” says the New York Times. The city has seen continuous occupancy since 5,000 B.C., though its history "might go back further,” said an archaeologist to the Times. Archaeological digs within the city have turned up human bones that are 7,000 years old.

For the most part Irbil has been able to stay out of the fray for most of the past seven years. Now, as ISIS continues to expand the territory it controls in the Middle East, it is right in the middle.

It's a sad story for the region. Just a few years ago local leaders were talking about how to drive tourism to the ancient city.

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