University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Sic transit gloria mundi

June 18, 2013

The title of this post is a phrase in Latin that means “Thus does the glory of the world pass by”—so fleeting are our worldly creations. It was the first response of a colleague of mine when we saw the construction site pictured below, because this is not just any construction site.

Erbil citadel gate under construction
Erbil citadel gate under construction

What you’re looking at in that photo is a demolished section of the city wall of the Erbil citadel. The second photo shows the citadel mound, with the demolished section of wall in the center.

Citadel mound from below
Citadel mound from below

The citadel is said by some to be the oldest continually-inhabited urban space on the planet. Located up high above the modern city of Erbil, the citadel has been fortified for thousands of years, although the walls as they currently stand date to the Ottoman period. Older iterations, though, saw rulers from a whole succession of empires dating back as far as the Ur III period in the late 3rd millennium BCE.

Under Saddam Hussein, the large Ottoman gate that stood at precisely the location in the picture was torn down. Built in its place was an ersatz structure in a vaguely historicizing mode, harkening back to ancient Babylon.

In the aftermath of the second Iraq war and the growing wealth and independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, the decidedly anti-Saddam Kurdish government began a vast project of restoration and reconstruction on the Erbil citadel, beginning with the dismantlement of the Saddam gate. Today, his creation has been torn down (thus the huge hole in the wall as pictured above), and will soon be replaced by yet another monumental facsimile, this one recreating the Ottoman gate that Saddam removed. This construction project seeks to reclaim the Ottoman past of the site, but also excises the legacy of Saddam with surgical precision, for better or worse.

The scale of the work is overwhelming and it was profound to see the site right in the middle of its transformation, with the raw rebar and concrete of the edges of Saddam’s gate still exposed. It stands now as a vivid example of the messy intersection of past and present, where ‘history’ becomes a powerful tool of legitimization for leaders and politicians of all stripes. But, the gate also stands also as the physical manifestation of that saying sic transit gloria mundi—of the constancy of change.

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