Travelling from Erbil to Mosul is a performative act. Every day in the inky dawn light, I emerge from the strangely endearing Classy Hotel in the city’s Christian quarter, wave goodbye to the Kurdish security guards, and join an all-male UNESCO convoy with an armed ‘logistics coordinator’ to help steer us past a series of checkpoints. The peshmerga wave us through, but sometimes the Iranian-backed militias at the Iraqi army checkpoints make us wait while they check our papers (never quite accepting my Canadian passport at face value), a fate shared by hundreds of Iraqi civilians in a queue of vehicles. Just past the first Iraqi government checkpoint, the Assyrian village of Bartella, one of the oldest Christian towns in the world, appears, its new foreign-funded churches existing uneasily with more recent Shiah residents who fled Isis.
Once we are past the historically Christian village, whose inhabitants are slowly returning to reclaim their burned and looted properties, Mosul emerges like a ruin from the Nineveh plain, a flattened monument to man’s inhumanity to man. At a time when loud voices clamour for war, Mosul serves as a sobering testament to its ruinous powers. The Battle of Mosul, fought to reclaim the city from Isis between October 2016 and July 2017 saw between 9,000 and 11,000 people killed and more than 8,400 housing units destroyed or severely damaged. As of July 2019, 300,000 people were still displaced.
Mosul’s old city, known for its distinctive alabaster decorative elements, once bore a translucent glow, before much of it was reduced to rubble. We drive past the skeletal remains of government buildings, power stations and bridges, blown up by Isis, or bombed by the US-led ‘coalition’. The Mosul Hotel, its innards exposed, with wires and infrastructure poking through its concrete frame, bears a strange resemblance to the partially built hotels in Erbil, frozen in mid-assembly since 2014; construction and destruction sharing a similar violence.
On the way to the Al-Nouri Mosque, we drive over the mainly underground ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. Once sacked and burned by a coalition of Medes from northwestern Persia and the Babylonians, in an area now controlled by Iranian-backed militias, its walls and gates were destroyed by Isis. The area with the few remaining visible ruins is now a pasture for sheep, right next to a blown-up bridge that has been hastily put back together.
But on the other side of the Tigris, at the Al-Nouri Mosque, the slow process of reconstruction is taking shape. After months of work, some semblance of order is beginning to appear on site: the clearing of debris, proper arrangements of piles of rubble, separation of stones – some modern, some hundreds of years old. Scaffolding has been erected around the damaged mosque – a mix of 12th century Seljuk-style architecture as well as 20th century interventions – its battle-scarred body marked by graffiti proclaiming ‘Fuck ISIS!’ The architectural jewel of the mosque, its original 12th century leaning Al-Hadba minaret (‘the hunchback’) blown up by Isis in 2017, has its sad but still beautiful stump of a base secured by wire girders. The complex’s large open square that will eventually be re-landscaped, has become a de facto community centre, with workers and visitors sharing chai in the chill of the morning.
Mosul’s Al-Nouri Mosque has already travelled an epic journey. From its 12th century beginnings – built by Turkomen atabeg, Nur ad-Din Zangi, sultan of the Seljuk empire’s Syrian province and famous for his jihad against Christian crusaders – it has survived the Mongol invasion and later Ottoman attacks against its Safavid rulers. Before being blown up by Isis on the eve of liberation in 2017, it even briefly survived the siege of Mosul, when Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi gave his infamous sermon in 2014 and the black Isis flag flew from Al-Hadba. Although the minaret was targeted by Isis, it was saved by a group of concerned local residents, who formed a human chain around it as an act of protection and resistance. So close is the mosque to the hearts of Moslawis that it is still common for locals to name their daughters ‘Noor’ and their sons ‘Hadba’ and the image of the minaret appears on signage everywhere as a symbol of the city.
As its restoration begins in earnest after a $50m donation from the UAE towards UNESCO’s ‘Revive the Spirit of Mosul’ initiative, one thing is clear: the Al-Nouri Mosque does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a living community and its rehabilitation will in turn help revive the surrounding old city.
At least, this is the fervent hope of Ali Aljameel, an architectural historian and professor emeritus at the University of Mosul, who prepared a historical study of the mosque for UNESCO. At the on-site construction trailer, he shows me some early 20th century photographs, taken by the British Army, of the bazaar that once surrounded the mosque complex. ‘We hope that the rehabilitation of the mosque will also help encourage commercial activity here,’ he tells me.
Aljameel is in his late 60s, a product of the old Iraq which once had the best education system in the Arab world. He turns up for our meeting in a neat suit and tie, his mustachioed visage framed by quite serious looking spectacles which barely disguise a deep sadness at what has happened to his city. At the same time he is a determined ambassador, whose life work documenting Mosul’s heritage takes on an almost evangelical tone. ‘The old city was the heart of Mosul,’ he explains, ‘and we hope it will become again.’ But with the ravaged old city in west Mosul – once a popular shopping destination for residents of the new city – still psychologically and physically separated from the east as the city’s bridges await full restoration, this is an ambitious plan.
There was in fact already a lot of damage done to the historical integrity of the mosque long before the Battle of Mosul, making the destruction of the largely intact 850-year-old minaret even more tragic. The minaret was known for its unique geometric ornamentation and brick work, with zigzag patterning that appears surprisingly modern – like Seljuk-style art deco. As workers sift through the rubble, they are trying to piece together remaining bricks and stones, for future reintegration into the new mosque.
‘I hope the new mosque will return to original Seljuk-inspired style,’ says Aljameel, referring especially to the original double-enveloped, conical dome. There is even talk of asking the Iraqi Museum to return the original 9th century mihrab (the semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction
of Mecca) and reintegrate it into the new design.
The spark in Aljameel’s eyes as he imagines what the restored mosque might become, belies the horror of the photos he shows me: a crushed prayer hall, a cracked dome, and the stump of the 12th century minaret, that stands like an architectural amputee.
The truth is, contends Aljameel, that well before the Battle of Mosul the area ‘suffered from urban blight’, falling into decline. As the east side of Mosul modernised, the old city fell into disrepair, effectively becoming a kind of ghetto that inspired calls for a renewal plan. ‘It was a vulnerable area,’ says Aljameel, ‘and yet the most important historically. We hope that reconstruction will become an economic driver to bring back tourism and trade.’ Meanwhile, the spirit of sultans and the ghosts of invaders whisper through the rubble, as locals fill wheelbarrows laden with stones, bits of marble, and an aching for what they lost.
When Al-Nouri first bought the site in the 12th century, says Aljameel, it was full of shops and was the centre of the souk, an important stop on the Silk Road between China and Europe. ‘Mosul has always been a crossroads,’ he says. The city, whose name means ‘connector’ in Arabic, where he grew up with many Christian neighbours, ‘has always been a place where many cultures, religions and races have lived side by side’. He tells me that the Arabic word for cultural hybridity is hajin (mixed) and that ‘this is the essence of the spirit of Mosul’.
To prove his point, Aljameel shows me some images of old city churches and mosques in close proximity. Among them is the Church of the Clock (Al-Saa’a), its distinctive tower framed by the Al-Safar Mosque, only a few hundred metres away from the Al-Nouri. In October 2019, UNESCO director-general, Audrey Azoulay, and the minister of culture and knowledge development for the UAE, Noura bint Mohammed Al Kaabi, agreed to undertake the rehabilitation of the Syriac Catholic Al-Tahera Church and the Latin Al-Saa’a Church in Mosul, in conjunction with the mosque rehabilitation initiative. This was the first time a Muslim-majority country had funded the restoration of a church in the Middle East. While it will take some time for the traumatised Christian community to return to Mosul, architecture, contends Aljameel, could act as a catalyst.
I ponder Aljameel’s optimism as I look beyond the mosque’s perimeter to a huddle of collapsed Ottoman houses, inhabited only by wild cats. While UNESCO has plans to begin repair of some old city houses, the key to rebuilding Mosul is to revive the bazaars – the old souks that used to draw hundreds of visitors from east Mosul, the surrounding Nineveh Plain and even from Erbil. An inherently non-sectarian space, with Christian, Muslim and Yezidi merchants, the Bab Al-Saray market on the banks of the Tigris was successfully revived in 2017, partly through the efforts of the Al Jalil family, prominent merchants and former rulers of Mosul in Ottoman times. Rather than rely on international aid, the family rebuilt their market stalls themselves and offered long time tenants a year of free rent, encouraging other merchants to follow suit.
Yet, with no real masterplan to rebuild Mosul – only individual, uncoordinated projects – as well as ongoing control by Iranian-backed militias and anti-terror laws preventing the legal transfer of funds outside of the city, a more complete reconstruction will remain elusive.
One of the local construction workers at the mosque site summons his children for an interview. Twelve-year-old Muzaffer tells me what it was like to live under Isis. ‘We were terrified to go outside,’ he recounts, his two younger brothers at his side. ‘We knew they were kidnapping children and forcing them to join their ranks.’ Activities were confined to home, he relates, where he used to write and draw. ‘I would draw houses, Iraqi flags, and schools,’ he says. ‘I was missing my school. I wanted to go to school but I was afraid.’ He was too afraid ‘of the men in beards’ to even go to the local corner store for sweets. Liberation brought hope, but also renewed fear, he says, of being targeted by Isis snipers.
Happily, he now attends school full time and is in the sixth grade. Science is his favourite subject he tells me, and he wants to be a doctor when he grows up – as does his younger brother who also enjoys studying English. His youngest brother, age six, who looks on rather pensively, says he wants to be a policeman. Although Muzaffer says he and his brothers can now play football and basketball in school, they are still scared to play in the old city. ‘We’re afraid of unexploded bombs,’ he says, with eyes that take on a sudden adult weariness. ‘I saw many terrible things. When we tried to run away from our neighbourhood, I remember seeing piles of dead bodies.’ But his childhood returns when I ask him to sing some local songs. He smiles and begins to sing one about Moslawi delicacies such as dolma and kuba, and then another about a beautiful girl with eyes like a gazelle, which makes his younger brothers giggle.
According to UNICEF in Iraq, thousands of children were deprived of formal education because of Isis, and many of them like Muzaffer and his brothers are trying to catch up after missing as much as three years of schooling. Many families in Mosul refused to send their children to Isis-run schools, where the curriculum included weapons training and indoctrination, and where, unlike former public schools, fees were charged. UNESCO is working on a new school project in the Christian quarter of the old city, rebuilt on the bones of a school occupied by and then destroyed by Isis fighters. According to Brendan Cassar, the head of the culture programme at UNESCO’s office in Iraq, supporting a return to education is one of ‘three pillars’ in the strategy to rehabilitate the old city, which also includes ‘rebuilding cultural infrastructure and urban fabric’ and ‘a return to normalcy through promotion of cultural life in the city’.
The new primary school project, near the Al-Tahera Church, is also part of UNESCO’s TVET or Technical Vocational Educational Training programme, and the construction is designed to train and employ local workers, many of whom have children who once attended the school. ‘Students who were originally enrolled in that school’, says Cassar, ‘are now in others, and we hope to be able to bring them back.’ Preliminary designs for the Al-Ekhlass primary school include evaporative cooling, ventilated walls and photovoltaic systems, three storeys of classrooms, an outdoor play area, and extensive landscaping. But drawings for the new school – in a palette of concrete, metal, brick and local stone – belie the post-conflict reality of the site.
On a tour of the old Christian quarter accompanied by an Iraqi army escort, in an area that is still not completely de-mined, I see that the existing building is a skeleton of its former self, with its remaining walls pockmarked by bullet holes. A courtyard punctuated by mangled basketball hoops is filled with rubble, barbed wire and rusted desks and chairs. In one former classroom, plastic roses hang from a crumbling light fixture, and graffiti in Arabic splashed across the wall speaks of Isis’s glory. On a bombed-out windowsill, a crumpled prayer book sits next to a plastic model of the human heart, sliced neatly in half.
A tour of the rest of the former Christian area is equally depressing. We walk by the Dominican Conventual Church of Our Lady of the Hour (Al-Saa’a), known for its clock tower donated by Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III who sent a force to the Levant to help Eastern Christians. Used as a jail by Isis and bombed during the 2006 sectarian wars, its tower is still standing, but its interior has been badly damaged.
In search of the Muslim merchant who has the keys to the church, we walk through what was once a thriving commercial area, still owned by the city’s Christian waqf. Amid the rubble and open sewers, a few shops are opening up – mainly ones that sell glass and construction materials. I speak to one young shop owner who reopened a few months after liberation, who says he enjoys a steady business as the displaced return to repair their homes. But he doesn’t know of any Christians who have returned. Before the 2003 invasion, when Iraq’s Christian population numbered 1.5 million, in contrast to the current 250,000, there were 120,000 Christians in Mosul.
Opposite Our Lady of the Hour, a hostel built on the bones of an old caravanserai has been reduced to rubble. Competing graffities in black (for Isis) and blue (for the Christian waqf) alternate across remaining doors with the phrases ‘This is church land’ and ‘This property belongs to the Islamic State’.
The commercial heart of the old city also enjoyed a kind of mercantile cosmopolitanism, as evidenced by the band of locals who emerge to greet us as we walk by. An elderly woman in a hijab comes out to offer us coffee in her home, which we have to politely decline for security reasons. When I tell her in Arabic that I have Lebanese ancestry she kisses me on both cheeks and says, ‘bless you’. Visitors here are a rare occurrence.
I ask if there are any Christians left in the neighbourhood and a middle aged man who lives nearby takes out his mobile phone and calls a friend – a Christian neighbour who has returned to repair his home. He doesn’t answer, and when we try to ring him later, he seems reluctant to speak about his story, citing ongoing dangers for Christians in the city, where snipers and kidnappings remain part of the post-Isis reality.
Still accompanied by an Iraqi army escort, we walk toward an area that has not been properly de-mined. Down a pathway trodden by soldiers, we weave our way through piles of rubble with bits of old carpets, shoes, clothing, a kitchen sink peeking through – the detritus of lives destroyed. After a hundred metres, we enter a courtyard where the remains of four collapsed churches lie – old witnesses to the excesses of both Isis and coalition bombing. On a remaining wall of the 19th-century Al-Tahera Church, built on top of a 7th century one, graffiti proclaims: ‘Only ISIS is permitted here.’ Near it, an altar to the Virgin stands cracked, burned, and empty of Our Lady. Still, there is a beauty to the churches even in their ruined state that recalls the Beirut I encountered in the early 90s. I never dreamed then that I would one day see bombed-out churches in Iraq.
We cannot linger more than a few minutes. ‘Yalla’ yells our security man. ‘It’s time to go!’ Before we climb into our armoured vehicles, I manage a quick shot of two young men with hipster haircuts roaring by on a rusted scooter. They smile and wave as they drive through the ruined streets.