University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Eating Ice Cream in Erbil

June 13, 2013

The citadel of Erbil
The citadel of Erbil

The other night, we went out for a walk and I ate my first Iraqi ice cream. My name is Lara Fabian, and I’m a graduate student at Penn studying archaeology. Because of the generous support of the Penn Museum, I am working during the first part of this summer in Iraqi Kurdistan on an archaeological project run by Dr. Glenn Schwartz of Johns Hopkins University.

The team is living in the Ainkawa neighborhood of Erbil, and will be working at a site not far from the city. Erbil, known in Kurdish as Hewler, is the seat of the Kurdish Regional Government that rules the autonomous Kurdish Region of Northern Iraq. Ainkawa is a predominantly Christian area just northwest of the city core. This is the first season of the project, and therefore there is much preparation and administrative business to take care of before work can begin at the site. So, we have some time to explore Erbil. And eat ice cream.

Our street in Erbil
Our street in Erbil

The project’s fantastic translator and trouble-shooter came over on Sunday night after we’d eaten dinner and joined us on a late evening walk through the neighborhood, a place that he knows well from his own childhood. It is hot in Erbil, even at night, so he suggested that we take an ice cream break at a famous shop. This shop, he told us, is part of a chain of ice cream stores that originated in Baghdad, where the stuff is so popular that people stand in line around the block for it. In fact, before this particular store opened in Ainkawa, there was an imposter of the chain located right down the street, but they had to change their name when the real franchise moved in.

So, what does ice cream from Baghdad taste like? We each got a sampler dish—8 small scoops of a random selection of flavors. Bubblegum next to lavender next to lemon. It was intense. The smell
and above all the color of each scoop was just as important as the taste to the whole experience. It was almost like eating perfume, and was unlike any ice cream I’ve had before.

I’ve grown up hearing about Baghdad in the news and have a lot of images of the city in my head, mostly scenes of the wars of recent decades. But I’d never stopped to think about what Baghdadi ice cream tastes like. I’m glad I know now, even if the lemon was a little too strong for me.

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