Sulaymaniyah: Iraqi Kurdistan’s cultural capital

I was really unsure what to expect in Iraqi Kurdistan. After crossing the border from Iran, my first destination was Sulaymaniyah, the region’s second largest city. I had heard that Sulaymaniyah was a very modern, almost European-style city… whatever that really means. However, I can see how people would describe it in this way, with high rise buildings for miles and plenty of luxurious hotels and fancy restaurants, it’s probably not what many foreign tourists would expect. It’s certainly a very rich city (thanks to oil and gas reserves controlled by the Kurds) and apparently before the war against ISIS, it was emerging as the Middle East’s most booming city.

Although it certainly had the highest concentration of $100, 000+ cars that I’d ever seen in one place, it wasn’t all glitz and glamour. It’s not called the Kurdish cultural capital for nothing, and if you spend most of your time around the central bazaar (like I did) then you’ll still get to see the traditional side to the city too. 

The name of the city can also be confusing as it seems to be spelt in many different ways, including: Sulaymaniyah, Slemani, Sulaimani or Suleymani. Just know that it’s all the same city.

Sulaymaniyah Grand Mosque
Great Mosque

Bazaar/central area

The bazaar area occupies the central part of the city around the Great Mosque. There are a couple of covered markets as well as open air shopping streets where you can find anything that you could possibly want to buy. It’s busiest in the late afternoon and early evening when fruit vendors also pour into the streets to sell their produce.

For me, this is also the best area to explore the Kurdish culture and meet friendly people. I walked around the same streets multiple times over consecutive days, just to observe everyday life. There are young kids selling water bottles out of boxes, older men sipping chai on small stools on the side walk while playing checkers, women gazing at the windows full of gold jewellery and students stopping for ice cream at one of the many juice stands.

Hall of Mirrors Amna Suraka Museum
Hall of Mirrors, Amna Suraka Museum

Amna Suraka Museum

Perhaps one of the most moving and memorable experiences in Kurdistan is a visit to the Amna Suraka or Red Prison, known by the Kurds as the House of Horrors. From 1979 until 1991, Saddam Hussein’s secret intelligence service, the mukharbarat used the facility as their headquarters and centre for torture and imprisonment during the al-Anfal Campaign, known as the attempted genocide of the Kurdish people.

It was liberated in 1991 by the Peshmerga or Kurdish forces and was turned into a memorial and museum in the early 2000s. It’s free to visit and there are English brochures at the main office, as well as a few staff who speak English who are happy to explain how to explore the complex (as there are no signs indicating which buildings are open).

The first building you’ll be directed into is the Hall of Mirrors which was once the canteen for the Ba’ath party officials and is now covered in 4, 500 light bulbs indicating the number of villages destroyed and 182, 000 pieces of broken glass for every Kurd killed during the al-Anfal Campaign.

Outside, the Iraqi army’s tanks and artillery left from when the Peshmerga liberated the prison are still scattered in the courtyard and you’ll notice that the buildings are still decorated in bullet holes from the conflict in 1991.

Other buildings also house displays such as one dedicated to Kurdish culture and the Peshmerga. The old prison and torture rooms have been mostly left as they were and are a chilling place to walk through, with graffiti and carvings still remaining on the walls done by the prisoners. There is also another building explaining the al-Anfal Campaign, which documents the chemical weapon attacks on Kurdish villages through incredible images and film. Finally, a new museum has also been opened dedicated to the fight against ISIS and the Peshmerga’s role in defeating their advance in Iraq.

After two hours there (some people spend even longer), I was ready to leave with a heavy heart but also a much greater understanding of the Kurdish people and their history.

Prison cell Amna Suraka Museum
Prison cell, Amna Suraka Museum

Cable car and amusement park

Chavi Land is Sulaymaniyah’s amusement park and a huge attraction for families and Iraqi tourists. It’s situated on the hill north of the city centre and you need to purchase a plastic card to enter, pre-loaded with funds to spend on rides, if that is your intention. My main purpose for going there, however, was the cable car that runs up the hill above the city to a beautiful viewpoint with a restaurant and cafe.

It’s a beautiful way to spend an evening and I would highly recommend going at sunset for an incredible view over the city.

Sulaymaniyah city
Sulaymaniyah city view from Chavi Land

Oil economy and politics

Let’s get down to politics (something that dominates every Kurd’s life). The Semi-Autonomous Region of Kurdistan was originally granted autonomy in 1991 after the Kurdish uprising against Saddam. This was followed, however, by intra-Kurdish conflict between the two main parties over control over the profitable oil and trade routes. A cease fire was agreed in 1998 with mediation by the US and the Kurdish region began to flourish while receiving around 13% of Iraq’s oil revenues.

The Kurdistan Regional Government under Masoud Barzani decided to hold a Kurdistan independence referendum in September 2017, which the Iraqi central government rejected. In retaliation, Iraq demanded the Peshmerga leave all contested areas that they had managed to capture during the fight against ISIS. After a tense standoff, the Peshmerga retreated and Iraq took back around 20% of Kurdistan’s territory including the major oil fields of Kirkuk.

As a result, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was left to rely more heavily on a budget given by the Iraqi government and Barzani decided to step down as President of Kurdistan. Perhaps more shameful for the Kurdish people was a pledge forcibly signed by the KRG to never seek independence again; shattering the dream of many Kurds.

Nevertheless, oil still plays a large role in the economy of Iraqi Kurdistan making up 80% of their revenue. This is quite obvious when you begin to spend time there and you notice that living standards are high (for many but not all people) and the cost of living is expensive. The streets are full of expensive cars and I was even explained that certain number plates that are highly sought after can fetch up to $100, 000+ just for the right to the plate. Construction is also booming now that there is more stability in the post-ISIS Iraq and looking at the city from above (at the cable car viewpoint) someone pointed out to me just how much the city had expanded in the last decade alone.

Kurdish men in Sulaymaniyah

Guns and cash money

The friendly owner of Dolphin Hotel, Shah, offered to take me and three older Europeans who were also staying at the hotel, for a bit of a drive around the city on his day off. First, we visited Hawari Shar Park, still under construction. It is considered one of the biggest parks in the Middle East and when completed will be vying for recognition as one of the largest urban parks in the world.

More interesting, however, was when he took us to another area of the city I hadn’t been yet. Apparently the Europeans had wanted to see a weapons shop (don’t ask me why?), of which there is only a couple in the city. We walked into the main arms dealing store in the city and we met the owner. He apparently supplies weapons to all Peshmerga soldiers and government security personnel. Now don’t imagine a ragtag, illegal affair, it’s a legitimate business and people in Kurdistan must go through a rigorous application and licensing process before being able to own a gun. Nevertheless, he had all sorts of weaponry on display from countries like Russia, USA and Israel and the Europeans proceeded to get cringe-worthy and perhaps, quite frankly disturbing, photos with some of the guns, as if they were Rambo-wannabes.

I was happy to leave the guns behind. However, on our way back to the car we noticed a man walking out of a building carrying, I’m not kidding, bricks of crisp USD$100 bills. I had noticed before that it really was a cash economy, with very few ATMs around, and people often had a lot of money in hand, but this was A LOT. Shah proceeded to say to us, “Come, I show you,” with a very sly smile and, intrigued, we eagerly followed.

“Welcome to Kurdistan’s Wall Street”. Basically a building with a central atrium where the surrounding edges housed currency exchange booths and a look over the edge to the bottom of the building revealed men standing in tight circles balancing calculators on top of wads of cash seemingly making deals. There was a large screen above our heads with the latest stock market information and ‘runners’ were making trips in and out of the building carrying bags full, and sometimes just arms full, of cash. I had never seen anything like it. Of course, we garnered plenty of attention and a couple of the men proceeded to break from their dealings and come and say hello. They bought us Turkish delights which were being sold by a few boys wandering around and although it didn’t necessarily look like it, they were very rich men. Apparently, with the instability in the region, inflation is high and exchange rates change quickly, meaning that many of them were simply just trading currencies to make money.

It didn’t look at all official but apparently it is the main stock and currency exchange centre in the city. I had never seen so much cash in bundles in my life, at a wild guess I’d say millions of dollars were there in the whole building and yet apparently security is not an issue. Welcome to Kurdistan. (Also, no photos were allowed there, sorry).

Kurdish men in Sulaymaniyah

After almost a week in Sulaymaniyah I decided it was time to move on to Erbil. It had been an incredible introduction to Iraqi Kurdistan and I left feeling so content and happy to have made the decision to leave Iran early and cross the border.

How I got in

I came from Iranian Kurdistan and crossed the border at the Bashmarq/Penjwen crossing, close to Marivan in Iran.

I wrote a whole post on the crossing and you can read it here.

Where I stayed

Without a doubt I highly recommend, Dolphin Hostel/Hotel. It’s owned by Shah, a man who’s travelled to over 60 countries (on an Iraqi passport that’s a significant feat) and he understands tourists and their needs. The place is very clean and although the budget rooms are small, for the price it’s good value (for Iraqi Kurdistan). He has free tea, coffee and water available 24/7 and all his staff are very friendly.

He can provide information and recommendations for travel throughout Kurdistan and he has just started the Facebook group Backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan, which anyone can join. He’s also available on Whatsapp and Messenger and he gave me recommendations even after I’d left Sulaymaniyah.

Where I ate

It soon became apparent to me that if you eat at local restaurants, the menu is basically identical everywhere. They all serve the same thing, perhaps with a slight variation, but it’s very meat and bread or rice based with not much else on offer. Still, the serving portions are quite large and you’ll never go hungry.

In the bazaar area, I would recommend Sara’s Restaurant and Cafeteria. Their sign is not in English, but it’s about a two minute walk from Dolphin Hotel and and is just on the Sara Square intersection near the bazaar. It’s a large place with an outdoor tea drinking area which is always full of men but their indoor restaurant and cafeteria has good food at reasonable prices. Otherwise, there’s plenty of other restaurants around with similar quality and price.

If you’re willing to pay any price, there are fancier, western style restaurants serving anything from Italian to Israeli, but generally these are outside of the bazaar area.

Slemani food

How I got out

From Sulaymaniyah I went to Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital. There are two ways of getting between Sulaymaniyah and Erbil. The quicker option takes the road that goes close to Kirkuk and unfortunately, it is not possible to take this route as a foreigner. Firstly, Kirkuk is still not entirely secure and safe and secondly, it is now under control of the Iraqi government which means you need an Iraq visa to use the road (and yes, there are checkpoints along the way). The other option is to take the Khalkan-Dukan Road, and there is still plenty of transport available. When you arrive at the garaj (bus station) in Sulaymaniyah, make sure that you say Erbil via Dukan, although locals should know that as a foreigner you need to go that way.

Shared taxis and minivans depart from the General Bus Station, sometimes called Baghdad Terminal and a minivan to Erbil via Dukan will cost around 10, 000 dinar (AUD$12) per seat (a shared taxi will be more expensive). The trip took around 4.5 hours with a lunch stop and four military checkpoints where ID is checked along the way.

Amna Suraka Museum
Amna Suraka Museum
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