Kirkuk: A major centre of Iraqi Turkmen culture
London - Like other ancient cities, Kirkuk’s past is multilayered, moulded by war and modernity but kept alive through the traditions of its mosaic community and architectural riches.
Once a caravan town on the Silk Road, Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, today is fashionably rich owing to its abundant oil wells. What is less considered is the history of the city’s multiple identity groups.
Their voices and claims to the city have faded, as competition between the Kurdish regional and central Iraqi governments vying for control of Kirkuk’s oil wealth occupies centre stage.
Enduring disputes over Kirkuk’s historical identity, unleashed following the great carve-up of the Middle East, were exacerbated by the US-led invasion in 2003 and more recently by the Islamic State (ISIS).
Under Saddam Hussein’s Arabisation policy, Kirkuk became one of Iraq’s most coveted cities. In an effort to homogenise the city, Saddam moved Arabs from the south, displacing its Kurdish and Turkmen inhabitants. A partial reversal of that policy took place in 2003-07, with the return of Kurds to the area.
Many Turkmen, as the head of the Iraqi Turkmen Platform Sundus Abbas said, did not return “as the situation for them did not improve”. They, alongside Arab citizens, accuse Kurdish authorities of demographic manipulation by allowing unrestricted numbers of Kurds to repopulate the city, while barring others from returning.
Fatih Salah, a Manchester-based Turkmen activist, described the threat of Kurdish dominance “as more present than ever before”, citing the description of the city by Kurdish leader and former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani as “the Jerusalem of Kurdistan”.
“Kirkuk is not a material prize to be won,” he ruefully reflected. “It is the historic and cultural capital of our people that remain firmly in the dark, unseen and unheard by the outside world.”
Describing Kirkuk’s importance to Iraqi Turkmen, historian Arbella Bet-Shlimon noted how “to a great extent [Kirkuk] still is the major urban centre of Turkmen oral, written and material culture”, informing an identity that Salah said was at risk of being diluted.
As far back as the rule of Abbasids, Seljuks and Atabegs, Abbas said, Turkmen contributed to and largely dominated political life from the seventh century through the 13th century — a dynamic that no longer reflects the status of the community.
Architectural designs across the city exist as surviving vestiges of Turkmen history. “Qal’aat Kirkuk” — the citadel — “is the oldest settlement in the northern province and a national symbol for Turkmen,” said Arshad Salihi, leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front.
Archaeologists trace the citadel to the third millennium BC. During the 16th century, it was seized by the Ottoman administration, encouraging the expansion of Turkmen residential architecture that exists today.
The cemetery of Musalla occupies an important place in the Turkmen consciousness. The cemetery, where prominent cultural and literary figures are buried, is “literally an archive that documents the city’s Turkmen character” professor of architecture Suphi Saatci wrote in his study of Kirkuk’s unique historic fabric.
The citadel, cemetery, alongside truncated Turkish minarets wrapped in colourful ceramic tiles, traditional baths and Turkish-named neighbourhoods serve as containers of their memory.
Salihi emphasised the resilience of Turkmen self-determination, a community that has fought tirelessly to secure and protect its cultural rights and common heritage. Even under Saddam, Turkmen viewed themselves as an integral part of the Iraqi national polity, despite sharing cultural commonalties and lineages to Turkic populations worldwide.
“The struggle was never over securing political primacy,” Salah said, “it’s always been about representation and preservation of our people and rights.”
The overthrow of Saddam in 2003 brought new, yet unfulfilled, promises for the Turkmen, Abbas said. The euphoria after Saddam’s fall “was short-lived as tragedies of the past were reactivated”, Salah said.
In the decade that followed, Bet- Shlimon said: “Turkmen have had to navigate a complicated political landscape”, stoking feelings of marginalisation and under-representation.
“At times, politically active Turkmen have found themselves on the same side as Arab nationalists in a particular dispute,” she added, “but it has never been a comfortable fit.”
Salihi is one of eight Turkmen members of the Iraqi parliament. However, none occupy high-ranking posts, which, Abbas said, is where one is able to exercise decision-making ability.
Kirkuk fell to Kurdish forces following the Iraqi Army’s failure to defend Mosul in the face of the Islamic State (ISIS) in June 2014. Though peshmerga forces immediately adopted a protectorate role in north Iraq, successfully pushing back against ISIS, the indisputably mixed city remains fraught with discord.
Notwithstanding the heavy presence of military forces from both the central Iraqi and regional Kurdish governments, Abbas said Turkmen pay the heaviest price in the loss of life, material wealth and land. She described a turbulent situation in which Turkmen-inhabited areas face daily attacks.
While the question of to whom does Kirkuk belong is moot, the existence of Turkmen, as well as Arab and Christian minorities, is impossible to refute. Recognising the rich tapestry of multiple cultures, languages and traditions that make Kirkuk what it is can help to tame many enduring disputes between the various identity groups that claim Kirkuk as their Jerusalem.
As Bet-Shlimon warned: “We are easily seduced by the idea of eternal sectarian hatred or greed [and] if Iraq is characterised by a Sunni-Shia-Kurdish conflict. Various forms of minority identity, including Turkmen, become an afterthought.”
This is a major problem and she advised: “It is vital that we understand Iraqis to be as multidimensional and wholly human as every other group of people.”