Efforts to rebuild Mosul's holy sites gathers pace after high-level meeting in Abu Dhabi
Al Kaabi: Al Nuri mosque restoration honours Iraqi expatriates who helped build the UAE
The UAE’s restoration of Mosul’s famous Al Nuri Grand Mosque honours the countless Iraqis who contributed to the Emirates’ early development.
That’s the message from Noura Al Kaabi, the Minister of Culture.
“We learnt from Iraqi teachers, professors and doctors. We are in debt to such knowledge and to the individuals who helped us,” said Ms Al Kaabi. “It is the least we can do.”
The UAE has donated $50.4 million (Dh185m) to fund the five-year restoration of the 12th century mosque and Al Hadba minaret.
A landmark for centuries, the 45-metre leaning minaret even features on Iraq's 10,000 dinar bank note. Then came war.
The ISIS leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, declared his false caliphate from the mosque in 2014. His fanatics destroyed both the mosque and minaret last year as Iraqi security forces closed in.
But now efforts to rebuild are gathering pace.
Ms Al Kaabi made her comments on the sidelines of a high-level meeting in Abu Dhabi to oversee the restoration of these revered holy sites back to their former glory.
She said an announcement on when reconstruction will start will be made only when the rubble is removed, the site is safe and the team is ready.
“Everyone is eager that it could be sooner,” said Ms Al Kaabi. “But everything is being discussed in good spirit — it’s easy to be idealistic and that things are perfect but the reality is different. Everyone understands that and with such transparency from the beginning, that will help us to facilitate what is next.”
More than a year after Mosul was liberated, the scars of battle can still be seen everywhere in the old city. Houses, buildings and historical sites are ruined with between 50 and 80 per cent of the area destroyed. ISIS deliberately destroyed buildings, while the rest of the destruction occurred during the brutal battle to retake the city. Some have described this as the most intense fight in an urban setting since the second World War.
The UAE’s donation has gone to Unesco, the United Nation’s cultural body, who are directing restoration efforts on the ground.
And the painstaking task was laid bare by Unesco representatives who were also at the meeting in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.
Mosul’s old city is a 2.8 square kilometre area of shops, mosques, churches, historical buildings and also private homes. It was a vibrant old town with a pre-war population of about 120,000 people.
However, only four per cent of people have returned because there are no essential services, water or electricity. The rubble is several metres deep in parts and is mixed with deadly booby traps, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), unexploded ordnance, mines, historical fragments and human bodies that are now spreading disease.
“No one in recent history has faced such a level of contamination in an old city,” said Giovanni Antonelli is senior consultant at Unesco’s Iraq office.
“Mosul is a stone town made of beautiful marble pieces. These should be salvaged and potentially reused,” said Mr Antonelli.
The situation contrasts sharply with the rest of Mosul where life is slowly returning.
“When you cross the Tigris River, it is another universe,” said Louise Haxthausen, director of Unesco’s office for Iraq.
“There is a feeling you are in an immediate post-war situation. It is a unique situation and a dramatic situation in terms of loss of cultural heritage.”
Heritage professionals and experts in explosives are working side by side to clear the debris. Armoured machines will remove the first chunks of rubble, metal detectors scan for bombs and then fragments are examined by hand once it is safe.
“People who do the de-mining are not used to salvaging archaeological or historically objects, while the archaeologists have never seen a mine in their life,” said Mr Antonelli.
Ms Al Kaabi said the committee is also aware the Mosul community wants to know what is happening to the mosque and minaret.
“We are facing a lot of questions from the public such as when is this happening, where will the minaret be built and will it be a leaning one. We don’t have an answer yet but it will be announced.”
It is also hoped the restoration will lead to a wider rejuvenation of old town, with shops reopening, people moving back in and the area returning to its once vibrant and illustrious past.
There will also be job opportunities for young Iraqis, with at least 1,000 openings as part of the five-year plan.
“It’s not just about the mosque — people want to feel that the neighbourhood is alive again,” said Ms Al Kaabi.
“It is also about the spirit of Mosul as a place where you will see churches and mosques in one place. The UAE is the same.”
The meeting of the joint steering committee was also attended by UAE and Iraqi government officials, the European Ambassador to Iraq, as well as representatives from the Sunni Endowment Diwan of Iraq and the Organisation of Islamic Co-Operation among others.
The project is expected to be complete by 2023 but Ms Haxthausen said surveys still have to be undertaken, while a separate technical committee has also been established. And then a clearer picture should emerge.
“At this stage we have a rough plan but this has to be informed by scientific facts where we have made assumptions,” she said.
Last week, the United Nations urged the international community to support reconstruction efforts in Mosul. Unesco is spearheading these efforts by restoring two churches, a Yazidi temple and library. Mosul needs at least $2 billion in reconstruction aid, according to Iraqi government estimates.
The restoration plan was originally unveiled in April. Ms Al Kaabi visited Baghdad to launch the project and said it sent a message to the world about the UAE’s message of tolerance and true meaning of Islam.
“The UAE believes in tolerance and peace and believes in supporting our neighbours,” she said.
“For us to support Iraq and Mosul is a duty because we stand by the same values of making sure that extremism is something we are fighting against.”