By Henry Austin
There’s a phrase in the Kurdistan region of Iraq: “Those days when we had no friends but the mountains.”
It speaks to a time when as a people they had nowhere else to seek shelter from oppression, most recently from the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein.
Today they have plenty of friends as they stand on the front line in the battle with the extremist Islamic State rebels in both Syria and Iraq.
From a safe distance away, serious faced news correspondents on hotel roofs deliver updates on their progress from Irbil, the region’s de facto capital.
Others focus on the thousands of mainly Christian refugees who have been forced to flee their homes by the extremist fighters determined to establish and maintain their so-called Islamic Caliphate.
It’s a familiar picture from a region that has been blighted by conflict for more than a decade.
Never shown is the area itself, a part of the World that combines stunning mountain ranges with barren deserts, elements of ancient times alongside modern urban metropolises.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than Irbil itself.
At its heart, the Citadel, which claims to be the oldest continuously, inhabited settlement in the world.
For over 7,000 years people have lived in, built over and added to this astonishing structure that sits atop a large earth mound in the centre of town.
The 19th century brick wall conveys the impression of an impregnable fortress and today it guards a living piece of history. Mosques and public baths built in the 17th century stand on top of far older brick vaults.
Humble mud brick homes stand beside heritage houses, intricately decorated with marble columns, brightly painted wooden doors and coloured glass windows.
While some people still live there, in recent years the Kurdistan regional government has worked closely with UNESCO to preserve and conserve the area, given World Heritage status earlier this year.
From this central point the city fans out in all directions, three main roads running cyclically around the bright bustling community, the rest running into the centre making it look like a spider’s web on the map.
Next door to the Citadel sits an old souk, but this is not a market for tourists, this is a market for money changers, food, toys and anything else you might want to get your hands on.
Fan out a bit further and you reach Ainkawa, the Christian community seen so often recently with crying refugees, forced to flee from their villages by the Islamic State.
They say this community has lived side by side with their Muslim counterparts for thousands of years, which has its perks for both.
For one, it’s the only part of the city that booze is on sale, something that is both tolerated and indulged in by their neighbours.
It is also home to the fabulous Marina restaurant, which despite the baffling name (There is no water anywhere near it) is a must.
The humble surroundings and large walls give way to a fabulous garden restaurant with a band playing live music.
With a menu filled with Syrian and Lebanese food, along with an excellent wine list, the pleasant setting under the stars, makes for a fantastic evening.
Alongside the old however, are plenty of new buildings.
While much of Iraq suffered during the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, the relative autonomy afforded to the Kurdish community allowed them to build a series of western style shopping centres and restaurants.
Row upon row of shiny new apartment blocks also line the outskirts of the city waiting to be filled by the eager locals, even though they complain about extortionate rent.
Without the regular checkpoints, where Kalashnikov wielding guards check your identification, you could be in any modern, thriving metropolis.
It’s a similar story in the pretty city Sulemani, around 150 miles to the southeast, near the Iranian border, travelled to via beautiful mountainous roads.
Within an hour, the stunning countryside changes from dry desert, to luscious green mountains.
Nestled in a valley, the temperature is cooler and whereas sometimes in Irbil dust from the building sites can nestle in the air is cleaner and crisper.
Unlike their more precocious neighbour, this city is not building at a rate of knots, in part because of the surrounding mountains.
It is also home to the notorious Red Prison, where for years Saddam’s forces tortured those who they perceived to be against it.
After locals stormed the prison, freeing those inside they left it as it was, pockmarked with bullet holes, tanks and artillery rusting outside, a permanent reminder of a brutal piece of history.
Today they do tours and permanent memorial of mirrors lights stands to remember those who died behind its walls, less than a generation ago.
For the youth of today, there is an optimism in this city which is home to two universities, one of the American variety and another with a slightly more local flavour.
Cafes and restaurant like Chalak’s Place and Caffe 11 cater to their demands with a mixture of food, from western style pizza to dishes of a more local variety.
It’s a similar story in Duhok, which sits little more than 60 miles north of the Islamic State Iraq stronghold of Mosul.
Less developed than its counterparts, the town that is close to both Turkey and Syria has the hustle and bustle you might expect of a border town.
Home to the Duhok Film Festival every September, the mountainous journey to this thriving community takes you through astonishing countryside.
Those rolling mountains seemingly never ending, the same for the enormous valleys, past Neolithic caves and crevices in the earth similar to the Grand Canyon, the scenery is stunning.
Communities like the one’s in Lalesh, where they practice the 5,000-year-old Yelidism religion also thrive.
For the people here it’s worth fighting for and if necessary dying to protect. Speak to anyone in the region and they dream of an independent Kurdistan, despite objections from Iraq, Iran and Syria.
It’s something they’ve been promised by the British, the Americans and the Russians over the years, only to be reneged on. But the nationalist dream lives on.
Whether the battle with the Islamic State will be enough to secure a nation this time is hard to say.
But they undoubtedly have a beautiful part of the World which is well worth defending.