Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 15 November 2019

History will record who destroyed Mosul’s heritage sites — and who rebuilt them

The UAE is helping the traumatised city recover from ISIS’s rampage

The Great Mosque of Al Nuri in the old city of Mosul, as seen here in April 2018, was destroyed by ISIS but is now under restoration, funded by the UAE. AFP
The Great Mosque of Al Nuri in the old city of Mosul, as seen here in April 2018, was destroyed by ISIS but is now under restoration, funded by the UAE. AFP

There was just one thin wall dividing the room where I wrote the journal that became known to the world as Mosul Eye from the house where a senior ISIS fighter lived. There I sat, documenting the group’s brutality to the world, so close to the militants that I could hear them speak. As a scholar, it was my mission to deconstruct their historical narrative, despite the great danger of doing so. Writing history under such a totalitarian ideology was an act of resistance to the group’s destruction of Mosul’s multicultural identity and heritage.

I come from a city where Jews, Christians, Yazidis and Muslims of different sects once lived together in a unique and peaceful coexistence, in a city that dates back centuries. I was, and am, determined that it should remain and be restored to that status once again.

The revival of Mosul's heritage will reveal much about humanity’s resistance against violence and division. It will reveal that the only way to live together is by believing in diversity as a mosaic, where each distinct piece is integral to the revelation of the whole, where any missing piece will, in the end, rob all of their shared destiny. The protection and promotion of this heritage in contemporary culture will create safe spaces of communication between diverse groups of people. When you feel your identity is protected, you act in a responsible way before the entire community.

I have spoken to many people of different faiths in Mosul, who are pleased Al Nuri Mosque will sit alongside the two churches

As I was writing this piece to explain the importance of Al Nuri Mosque to my city, news came through that the United Arab Emirates’ Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, Noura Al Kaabi, had just signed an agreement to rebuild two historic churches in Old Mosul. ISIS invaded Mosul in June 2014 and began to systematically destroy historical sites in an attempt to fundamentally change the history of the city forever. I tried to document this. On August 15, 2014, the day ISIS destroyed Mosul Museum, I was walking beside Al Tahira Church and told a friend over the phone how the ancient site, thought to date back to the 13th century, had been looted and abandoned. There was, strangely, one olive tree that had survived the rampage. I remember feeling this was a sign that the church would eventually be saved. I would go back to this church and light a candle there on behalf of the Christians who had been deported from the city. In ISIS-occupied Mosul, if this had been discovered, it would surely have led to my execution. This was what I recalled upon hearing the news that Ms Al Kaabi had signed an agreement with Unesco to include Al Tahira and the Latin Church, also known as Our Lady of the Hour Catholic church, as part of their initiative called Revive the Spirit of Mosul. It was as if my prayers in those dark days had been answered.

Now that we are looking ahead to the future and to rebuilding a war-destroyed city, it is natural to ask why it is important to rebuild heritage. To me, culture and heritage are part of the reconstruction effort to build a better and more stable future for the city.

As a historical example, the Latin Church had served as a hub for cultural life in the city since the 18th century. Its printing press was where books were produced and sold at low cost. It was the heart of a cultural revival in Mosul that enabled residents to write, print and read books, which included religious and scientific texts, as well as literary works and cultural histories in French, English, Arabic and Syriac. Muslims who become prominent scholars of the city and are still remembered today studied at its school. More recently, the one-time director of the Latin Church library, Father Najeeb Michael, the current Archbishop of Mosul, is mentioned in countless thesis submissions in Iraq by students and scholars who pored over the library’s manuscripts to complete their research. Reviving this church will give him a place to shelter his wounded heart. At the reopening ceremony, I hope to be able to stand beside Mr Michael and Ms Al Kaabi to celebrate the site’s revival. And I hope that one day, all the manuscripts will be returned to their original home in the church library.

Reconstructing Al Tahira Church will revive its much-loved architectural tradition, which exquisitely reflected elements of the city’s history. Its stained glass windows in turquoise, yellow and white dispersed light throughout the church in a way that seemed to reflect the aesthetic sense of the city itself. This church was a shelter to the poor and a symbol of honour for Muslims who lived nearby and were proud of their residential proximity to this sacrosanct place.

The reconstruction of Al Nuri Mosque between these two churches will begin to revive the city’s spirit of coexistence. People will remember three historical events about these sites: those who built them, those who destroyed them and those who worked hard to restore them. And people will never forget the latter. To support the restoration of Mosul’s diversity is the best response to the extremist narrative ISIS tried to impose on the city. It is thus important for the UAE, as an Arab Muslim country, to produce a counter-narrative through this initiative. I have spoken to many people of different faiths in Mosul, who are pleased Al Nuri Mosque will sit alongside the two churches. This has sparked an intellectual discourse in the city about peaceful cultural spaces that we didn’t expect, given the deep trauma and destruction from which its residents are still recovering. When I spoke to the UAE’s cultural minister herself, her passion for the city shone out and enabled me to assure the community that the history, identity and architectural tradition of these sites will be preserved.

This public discussion around heritage in Mosul will provide the city with a kind of elevated status as issues of culture, society and identity here will become part of the global discourse about the protection of heritage. Taken together and in light of the recently announced Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, which will contain a church, mosque and synagogue, I hope that the UAE will also consider adding the reconstruction of the Jewish synagogue of Mosul to this mission. It is difficult for me to speak about a revival of the city’s diversity without including its Jewish sites. It is my hope that one day, the word “diversity” in Mosul can once again represent all the communities of Mosul — Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Yazidi.

Omar Mohammed is a native historian of Mosul and the founder of Mosul Eye

Updated: October 16, 2019 12:41 PM

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