BAGHDAD: In the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, surrounded by buildings that were reduced to rubble years ago, the ruins of the Al-Nuri Mosque are starting to come to life again. The iconic structure — and many like it in Mosul’s famed Old City — was damaged by Daesh during the battle that raged here in December 2017.
The “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” project, a UNESCO-led project to rebuild the city’s damaged heritage sites, is bringing hope to Iraqis and foreigners alike that the city’s rich past will once again have the chance to shine.
Famous for its leaning minaret which gave it its nickname of “the hunchback” or “Al-Hadba” in Arabic, Al-Nuri was constructed in the 12th century. In July 2014, Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi stood at the mosque’s pulpit and declared Iraq and Syria as the terrorist group’s “caliphate.”
Three years later, Daesh destroyed the mosque’s beloved minaret, an act that Iraq’s prime minister at the time called “an official acknowledgement of defeat.”
Daesh used the explosion of the structure as propaganda, blaming its destruction on a US-led global coalition airstrike. “Jihadist supporters are using it to blame the West and Americans,” Alberto Fernandez, then-vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, told the USA Today newspaper in 2017.
In 2018, a year after the expulsion of Daesh from the city, the UAE vowed to contribute $50.4 million to fund Mosul’s restoration, a sum that UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay deemed “the largest and (most) unprecedented cooperation to rebuild cultural heritage in Iraq ever.”
The restoration project is one of many efforts launched in recent years spearheaded by local, regional and international entities seeking to restore the many great yet damaged historical sites in Iraq.
“Revive the Spirit of Mosul” will focus on documenting and clearing the site, drawing up plans for its reconstruction, and finally, four years of restoration and faithful reconstruction of the Al-Nuri Mosque minaret and adjacent buildings. There are also plans to restore the city’s historic gardens and build a memorial and site museum.
Long known as the cradle of civilization, Iraq is home to over 10,000 cultural heritage sites, ranging from the 5,500-year-old cities of Sumer (where evidence of the earliest writings in the world are preserved) to archaeological remains of the Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Parthian and Abbasid cultures.
“These periods, especially the Abbasid, which placed great efforts into safeguarding and developing old knowledge from preceding cultures and empires, have shaped our world today,” Lanah Haddad, regional director for Tarii, the Academic Research Institute in Iraq, told Arab News.
“The idea of Iraq as a cradle of civilization does not end with these periods; it continues to the present with its ups and downs.”
Since the defeat of Daesh in Iraq, the country has entered a period of fragile calm following years of war and destruction. While Iraq’s people still await a political class capable of forming a cohesive government to address its socioeconomic issues, the country’s relative stability has given Iraqis and international agencies a chance to begin the process of rebuilding after decades of violence.
According to Jaafar Jotheri, a geo-archaeologist at the University of Al-Qadisiyah in Iraq, there have been five waves of destruction in recent Iraqi history.
The decline and implosion of the Ottoman Empire, the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and the Gulf War in the early 1990s, followed by UN and international sanctions on Iraq until 2003, constitute the first three phases of destruction. During the period of sanctions on Iraq, the smuggling of Iraqi antiquities thrived.
The fourth phase occurred during the US-led invasion and occupation from 2003, during which archaeological sites were destroyed by both military operations and looting.
On May 15 of that momentous year, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani issued a fatwa mandating the protection of Iraqi antiquities — one month after looting had begun following the US invasion.
“It was a game-changer when religious leaders and institutions intervened to urge the stop of the smuggling of artifacts,” said Jotheri. “People began to recognize their importance again.”
Then began what he calls “a period of healing” — the beginning of restoration projects to rebuild the structures of Iraq’s great past. But this was tragically cut short by the fifth stage of destruction, which occurred during Daesh’s rampage.
“After Daesh was defeated, the local and international community, aware of how Daesh used cultural heritage for propaganda, realized how important archaeology was to the identity of a state,” said Jotheri.
Despite growing awareness of the critical importance of protecting Iraq’s history and culture, these efforts are often overlooked or forgotten.
“We as Iraqi researchers alongside the international community are also working to educate the Iraqi people on the importance of heritage. It is not their priority right now — electricity, jobs, and education, putting children in school, these are the priorities now,” Jotheri said.
Despite other issues often taking precedence over historic preservation, the desire to protect Iraq’s archaeological sites has intensified over the last few years.
Since 2020, Community Jameel, a philanthropic and service organization launched by the Saudi Jameel family in 2003, has helped Iraqi communities through a focus on cultural preservation. An international organization, Community Jameel has dedicated itself to using an approach that mixes art, science, data, and technology.
“One of our core mandates is about trying to support systems that curate, preserve, document, and disseminate knowledge, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa and Global South, more generally,” George Richards, Community Jameel’s director, told Arab News.
“With Iraq, a core focus for us is health. In partnership with the World Health Organization, local actors on the ground, and an organization called Culturunners, we have co-created the Iraq Cultural Health Fund, designed to support Iraqi cultural actors of different types using the arts and culture to address health challenges.”
The drive to restore Iraq’s famed heritage sites is not limited to Mosul. The Iraq Cultural Health Fund has supported Iraqi artist Rashad Salim’s “Ark Re-Imagined” project to revive traditional cultural practices in the marshes of Basra in southern Iraq through boat building and engaging various parts of the community.
“We were also interested in how Salim’s project was tackling various health-related challenges among the community in the marshes, from social, mental, and environmental health,” said Richards. “At Community Jameel, we support an innovative approach but make sure they are based on evidence.”
A focus on restoration of cultural heritage has a wide range of benefits, not least among them the environmental gains. The unique wetlands in Basra are greatly affected by climate change, and Salim looked at how reviving cultural practices around boat building was also regenerating the ecosystem in the marshes.
“Re-engaging in traditional practices was restoring a sense of ownership, purpose and dignity among the community that has dealt with war and now also climate change,” Richards told Arab News.
Salim said: “My work is about reviving traditional boatbuilding, architecture and craftsmanship of central, southern and western Iraq in communities that have suffered repeated tragedies, brought close to the brink of extinction by conflict, displacement and trauma.
“I engage artisans across the country to revive and document what remains of traditional practices.”
While over the last decade, numerous international entities have been involved in restoring heritage sites in Iraq, Tarii’s Haddad noted that in recent years, a growing interest among local Iraqis and the Gulf region bodes well for the country’s historical and cultural revival.
“The restoration of Al-Nuri Mosque and the adjoining Clock Church is crucial and, in my opinion, symbolic because it shows how there is another majority Muslim country, the UAE, dedicated to reconstruction, research and excavations in Iraq,” said Haddad, who has carried out archaeological work in Iraq for the past decade.”
She added: “I have seen a great increase in restoration and heritage projects in Iraq among Iraqis and the international community.
“I can see huge development and change on the part of the state and the community, and also in the level of interest of foreign countries working in Iraq, especially after Daesh. Many things changed.”
There has also been an uptick in tourism, with the Iraqi government granting tourist visas to citizens of a dozen countries, including China, the US, the UK, Russia and EU member states since March 2021.
“I can see from the community, from the youth, from business owners that there is a huge hunger to reconnect with their heritage,” Haddad said.
“The youth born after 2003 have neither seen nor lived in the peaceful time. They are fed up with war, conflict, and corruption. The only thing they want is a good life and an identity. They want an identity that is not politicized and not based on sectarianism.
“The best way to do it, as I see from the efforts of this generation, is a connection with Iraq’s rich and diverse heritage.”