Charmed by Koya
by Joe Scarangella
It really is such a shame. Most travellers to the Iraqi Kurdistan region only know the town of Koya as a place to swap taxis along the "safe" road from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah, largely due to somewhat superficial reporting in a certain guide book. But for those who plan to merely transit this town, they are most sorely missing out.
Perhaps a good start would be to put things in perspective. Koya is never going to win a international tourism award for best anything. In general, the town is non-descipt. Generally speaking, it is a ramshackle collection of ordinary houses and shops which are nothing to write home about. But the setting is nice. Pressed up on a jagged hill hillside that gently melts into a vast valley, roughly half way between major centre of Erbil and Suly and only a stone's throw from the largest lake in the region, Lake Dukan. But it is not the town in it's entirety that is the attraction. For those in the know, this town has some awesome hidden gems.
In order to get your bearings, the best place to start in town is the central citadel. Although it clearly pales in comparison to the wonderful Citadel in Erbil, it manages to hold it's own. The one in Koya was never really a place of residence. It was, instead, the true definition of a citadel, a fortress. The heavily fortified walls are fun to ramble along as you make your way from tower to tower offering 4 corners of views over the town, mountains and valley. There aren't any official visiting hours, but there is always a guard on hand. If the gates are locked, try knocking. It worked for me.
There are even a couple shrines in town. the most popular being a Christian shrine just to the north as you pass the city's check-point from Erbil. Heaving with local picnicers in the summer, i was surprised to see people braving the cold to BBQ in November when i visited. But while the citadel is cool and the shrines can be fun, they are nowhere near as magnificent as the towns main attraction.
The old market and adjoining old town are amazing. Although not as big as the one in Suly or as busy as the one in Dohuk, it offers something no other market in Kurdistan does, history. It may sound surprising when i say it's tough to find history in Iraq. But the fact of the matter is, anything old is being thrown to the wayside with preference for the new and shiny. But the market in Koya has been left in it's natural, pure state. Some of the doors and gateways date back to the 13th century and if you're lucky enough to stumble upon the stupendously undiluted central caravansary you are in for a real treat. There are even local artisans working in the decaying building hand-making items like donkey saddles for an absolute bargain basement price. Once outside the market, the ancient old town is a blessing of narrow meandering alleyways where the only traffic will be kids pushing each other around on impromptu 'scooters'. This is the Iraq i wanted to see. I just never expected it to be in Koya.
Koya may not appeal to everyone. No one here speaks English, there is a lot of garbage and hardly anything has been restored. But the rewards of the town astronomically outweigh the petty shortcomings. Best of all, you are guaranteed to be the star attraction as, while there are few tourists in Iraq, there is no one in Koya. One thing's for absolute sure, being only a short shared taxi ride away from Erbil, i'll definitely be going back.
You can read more by Joe here: http://www.joestrippin.blogspot.com/.
More by Joe ScarangellaIraq (Kurdistan Region)
Stumblin' over History
Goin' without Knowin'
Fallin' in Northern Iraq
Doublin' Up on Dohuk
Za-kho, Za-kho, Off to the Bridge I Go
Divine Lunchin' (Mar Mattai)
Shaqlawan Sugar Coatin'
Al Kosh, of Course!
A Day at the Museums (Erbil)
Parkin' it in Erbil
Suly the Sequel (Sulaymaniyah)
Duckin' into Dukan
Crackin' the Citadel (Erbil)
Takin' the High Road (Dohuk - Erbil)
Iraq's B-Side (Amedi)
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