IS’ Mo­sul de­struc­tion de­faced a rich legacy

Oblit­er­ated an­tiq­ui­ties evoked city’s past as trade, learn­ing cen­ter.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - INSIGHT - By Stephen­nie Mul­der The Con­ver­sa­tion

The Mosque of al-Nuri in Mo­sul, built nearly a mil­len­nium ago and one of Iraq’s most revered re­li­gious sites, was de­stroyed when the Is­lamic State det­o­nated ex­plo­sives in­side it in June.

Founded in the 12th cen­tury by one of Is­lam’s most fa­mous rulers, Nur al-Din ibn Zangi, in the me­dieval pe­riod the mosque was con­sid­ered the “ul­ti­mate in beauty and ex­cel­lence.”

It was fa­mous for its soar­ing, 150-foot minaret, the tallest in Iraq and nick­named “al-Hadba’,” or “the Hunch­back,” be­cause it leaned to one side, like an Is­lamic Tower of Pisa. Its de­struc­tion was a ter­ri­ble blow to the peo­ple of Mo­sul, and for the rest of the world.

I am a scholar of Is­lamic art, and my re­search re­veals that such acts of de­lib­er­ate, ide­o­log­i­cally based de­struc­tion are un­usual in Is­lamic his­tory. Although to­day Mo­sul is fa­mous out­side of Iraq pri­mar­ily as a site of con­flict, its rich and di­verse his­tory forms an im­por­tant legacy.

Mo­sul was founded in an­cient times, on the out­skirts of the older Assyr­ian city of Nin­eveh. The pre­cise date of the city’s foun­da­tion is un­known, but at least from the me­dieval era, it was known as “Mad­i­nat al-an­biya’,” or “City of the Prophets,” with dozens of tombs, shrines, syn­a­gogues and churches.

Per­haps the most fa­mous of th­ese was the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah, a fig­ure revered by Jews, Chris­tians and Mus­lims alike. In the Bi­ble, God causes Jonah to be swal­lowed by a whale to con­vince him of his prophetic mis­sion to preach to the peo­ple of Nin­eveh. For Jews, Jonah is ven­er­ated as a sym­bol of re­pen­tance on the hol­i­day of Yom Kip­pur. And in Is­lam, Jonah evokes the themes of jus­tice, mercy and obe­di­ence — seen as ex­em­plary mod­els for hu­man be­hav­ior.

There were nu­mer­ous other sites in Mo­sul linked to prophetic fig­ures: among them, the Monastery of Eli­jah or Dar Eliyas, a 1,400-year-old Chris­tian monastery thought to be the old­est in Iraq.

Sadly, none of th­ese mon­u­ments sur­vived the de­struc­tion of Is­lamic State.

Schol­arly achieve­ments

Mo­sul was also an im­por­tant cen­ter for trade as well as schol­arly ex­change. It sat at a key junc­tion on the Silk Road — a rich net-

work of pre­mod­ern su­per­high­ways — stretch­ing over moun­tains, deserts and plains across three con­ti­nents that moved goods from lands that seemed im­pos­si­bly dis­tant and ex­otic to those at ei­ther end. Mo­sul it­self was known for some of the most lux­u­ri­ous in­laid met­al­ware of the me­dieval era.

As a cen­ter of such ex­change, the city was home to a di­verse group of peo­ple: Arabs and Kurds, Jews and Chris­tians, Sun­nis and Shias, Su­fis and dozens of saints holy to many faiths.

It was also home to po­ets, schol­ars and philoso­phers such as the 10th-cen­tury philoso­pher al-Mawsili and the 11th-cen­tury as­tronomer al-Qabisi, one of a line of fa­mous Mo­sul as­tronomers who helped for­mu­late a cri­tique of the Earth-cen­tered model of the uni­verse. That model would even­tu­ally make its way to Europe to in­form Coper­ni­cus’ view of the so­lar sys­tem.

Mo­sul also pro­duced one of Is­lam’s most fa­mous his­to­ri­ans, Ibn al-Athir, who com­pleted his mag­num opus, a mon­u­men­tal uni­ver­sal chron­i­cle called “The Com­plete His­tory,” in the city in 1231.

Im­por­tant works of math­e­mat­ics, in­clud­ing a com­men­tary on the Greek math­e­ma­ti­cian Eu­clid that was later trans­lated into Latin, were writ­ten in Mo­sul.

It was also a cen­ter for sig­nif­i­cant med­i­cal ad­vances, in­clud­ing an early de­scrip­tion of surgery to re­move cataracts.

As mosques were tra­di­tion­ally places of knowl­edge trans­mis­sion and learn­ing, it is en­tirely pos­si­ble that some of th­ese schol­ars’ ideas were for­mu­lated, dis­cussed and re­fined within the mosque of al-Nuri’s walls.

Mo­sul’s me­dieval past in­formed its con­tem­po­rary his­tory as well: in modern times, the city was home to some of the most im­por­tant mu­se­ums, li­braries and uni­ver­si­ties in Iraq, in­clud­ing a

renowned med­i­cal school.

Mosque’s mean­ing

Although the mosque of al-Nuri was trans­formed over the cen­turies, it re­mained a beloved sym­bol of the an­cient city and its di­verse heritage.

In 1942, much of the mosque, with the ex­cep­tion of the minaret, the prayer niche and some of its col­umns, went through sig­nif­i­cant ren­o­va­tion. But the mosque did not lose its value for the cit­i­zens of Mo­sul — in fact, it ap­peared on the Iraqi 10,000-di­nar bill.

In June of 2014, when IS orig­i­nally cap­tured the city and ap­proached the mosque with ex­plo­sives, res­i­dents of the town formed a hu­man chain around it. Only a few short weeks later, in a com­plete about-face, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi stood at the pul­pit of that same mosque and de­clared the cre­ation of his “caliphate.”

Mo­sul past and fu­ture

Over time, Mo­sul will re­build its dam­aged mosque. But for those of us out­side Iraq, who to­day know Mo­sul largely through news­pa­per sto­ries of war and in­tol­er­ance, the loss of the mosque will make it that much harder to imag­ine the di­verse in­tel­lec­tual and re­li­gious world that once char­ac­ter­ized not only Mo­sul, but all of the Mid­dle East.

Although there were con­flicts, Chris­tians, Jews and Mus­lims lived in prag­matic co­op­er­a­tion for much of their his­tory. It was the Chris­tians of the city, after all, who said that the minaret leaned be­cause it was bow­ing to­ward the tomb of the Vir­gin Mary.


Iraqi civil­ians flee past the Mosque of al-Nuri in Mo­sul in July as Iraqi forces con­tin­ued con­fronting Is­lamic State mil­i­tants. The mosque, founded in the 12th cen­tury, was largely de­stroyed by IS.

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