The Kurds are one of the world’s largest stateless ethnic groups, living at the intersection of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.
Without a nation of their own, the Kurds have been fighting oppression for centuries, all the way to the present day. In fact, Kurdish peshmerga soldiers are key forces right now in the battle against ISIS. But Kurdish history — a story of persecution, war and resilience — is largely untold. A new museum planned in Erbil, in northern Iraq, aims to change that, but the project has hit some roadblocks, like financing — and war.
In 2009, museum architect Daniel Libeskind was approached by a group of bureaucrats from Kurdistan — a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq where Kurds have a degree of self-rule. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani wanted Libeskind’s help building a museum that would tell the Kurdish story.
Libeskind, the son of Holocaust survivors, has made a name for himself designing buildings that help people come to terms with traumatic histories. Like the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which gives form to German Jewish history through scars, voids and passageways. His design for the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco took inspiration from the text of the Hebrew phrase l’chaim — “to life.” And in New York, the new One World Trade Center rises 1,776 feet from Ground Zero — a holdover metaphor from Libeskind’s original designs, which were never executed in full.
In the Kurdistan Museum project, Libeskind saw clear parallels between his own family history and what the Kurds had endured. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s regime confined thousands of Kurds in concentration camps and killed 180,000 people in what’s known as the "Anfal" genocide. The persecution continues in Syria, where Kurds aren’t officially allowed to use their language, and in Turkey, where anti-terrorism laws are used against Kurds who aren’t participating in terrorist activities.
“I flew to Erbil, I met with the president, I met with many people, I met with the victims of the Anfal,” Libeskind says. “It resonated with me. It's similar to my own background. You know, I didn't have to research the Kurds too much. It was in my heart.”
During his first visit to Erbil, Libeskind made a quick drawing from atop the Citadel, an ancient mound in the city’s center. It was a vision of a museum in four sections — the four countries where Kurds are scattered. In the heart of the museum was a courtyard, with a flame symbolizing the resilience of the Kurdish people.
By the spring of 2014, designs for the museum were nearly finished, and construction was set to begin. But the advance of ISIS across Iraq and Syria derailed the project plans. ISIS captured Mosul, just 30 miles from Erbil, and the funding set aside for the museum — $250 million — was quickly funneled to fighting ISIS, and relief efforts for more than 1.5 million refugees. Progress on the museum stalled.
As ISIS devastated the region, militants targeted cultural artifacts as well as people, razing ancient sites like Nimrud, near Erbil, and Palmyra, in Syria. Libeskind, having spent his career designing powerful spaces, knew exactly what the destruction meant.
“It's not coincidental that they've chosen not just to burn people, but to burn buildings, and systematically destroy them, and destroy all the artifacts that have been here for thousands of years,” Libeskind says. “Why are they doing it? Because one of the ways to rule by a totalitarian fiat is destroying memory. And buildings carry that memory, even if we don't have it.”
When the museum project was underway, Libeskind’s firm had abided by the Kurdish government’s request to keep it secret. But with ISIS' destruction of ancient sites and artifacts, Libeskind couldn’t take it anymore. He convinced the Kurdish government to let him go public with the designs, unveiling them at a conference last April.
“You know, the military can respond with bombs, politicians can respond with words,” Libeskind says. “But architects can respond with construction. It's something positive. It's never something negative. It's, you know, creating a place for people to come to — to be together, to show the solidarity in face of violence.”
The plans Libeskind revealed for the Kurdistan Museum are similar to his original sketch from atop the Citadel. The museum will have four irregularly shaped sections, and two pathways, called the Anfal Line and the Liberty Line, will split the museum.
“You'll always be confronted with either a dark, heavy, solid past or a bright, uplifting, open future,” says Michael Ashley, a project architect at Studio Libeskind.
The Anfal path is “very dimly lit inside, bare concrete walls, rough exposure. There's water in there so you get kind of this cool feeling, it's solid from the outside — not a lot of light,” Ashley explains.
But on the other side of the building, the Liberty Line forms a long, ascending terrace. “It's open air, it's bright to the sky, it has amazing panoramic views of the city and the Citadel, planted with gardens — basically a large open viewing platform celebrating the future,” Ashley says. It’s a gathering space, lit by a flame.
The museum’s exhibits will center on video interviews collected by journalist Gwynne Roberts, who has been documenting violence against the Kurds for more than 30 years. Other exhibits will patch in history going back to the 1500s — forming a chronicle that Roberts says, right now, the Kurds don’t have.
“Their schools don't teach their pupils what has actually gone on in recent Kurdish history,” Roberts says. “They don't really know. And the stories that will come out in the museum will give them a very graphic awareness.”
The museum’s other project is to tell the outside world what the Kurds have endured. “It's amazing that a people have lost so many, and that they've not been given independence,” he says.
With the Kurdish regional government occupied in the fight against ISIS, Libeskind and supporters of the Kurdistan Museum hope that other patrons will step in to fund the project. His team is optimistic: On the Studio Libeskind website, the Kurdistan Museum still carries a date of 2020 in its vital stats.
“You cannot be an architect if you are a skeptic, if you're a cynic,” Libeskind says. “As an architect, you have to be truly somebody of great optimism and faith. Because why? Because you are charged with laying a foundation.”
“I mean, it's nothing shallow to dig the ground with, you know, big bulldozers and put concrete blocks into it. You're laying foundations for the future.”
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