On 21 June 2017, Iraqi forces were nearing the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul. One of the Iraqi city’s most famous and iconic landmarks, the mosque had stood in this part of Mosul – the Old City – since Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, a Turkic ruler of Mosul and Aleppo, oversaw its construction between 1172 and 1173. It was not only a place of worship, but a representation of the city’s rich diversity: of different religions, art, education and culture. The mosque stood strategically placed in the heart of the city, surrounded by a network of tangled walkways and medieval streets that converged towards the city gates.
In July 2014, this mosque was where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi demanded allegiance in his first and only public appearance. Days earlier he’d declared his caliphate, giving birth to his “Islamic State”.
Three years later, at 21:50 on that June 2017 day – a blink of an eye in its more than 800 years of history – the mosque was destroyed by the jihadist group, yet more devastation in a devastated city. Iraqi forces were fighting to take the mosque in what would be a landmark victory and had reportedly advanced to within 50m of its walls when explosives were detonated from the inside.
The challenges of restoring the Great Mosque of al-Nuri – and with it part of Mosul’s identity – are far greater than a typical restoration
Around the world, news stations looked on as satellite imagery showed rubble strewn across the patch of land where the mosque once stood. “Daesh’s [Islamic State’s] bombing of the al-Hadba minaret and the al-Nuri mosque is a formal declaration of their defeat,” said the then-Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi at the time. But what was left in its place was destruction.
The al-Nuri mosque remained in pieces until December 2019 when the campaign to rebuild it was launched, a $50.44m project financed by the United Arab Emirates. The project is one element of a wider Unesco initiative known as Revive the Spirit of Mosul. Launched in February 2018 through a partnership between the Prime Minister of Iraq Mustafa al-Kadhimi and the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the project aims to restore the urban, social and cultural fabric of the Old City, one where late Ottoman buildings stand alongside bustling bazaars and khans (traditional merchants’ dwellings). The Great Mosque of al-Nuri was at the spiritual heart of the Old City, a complex of prayer halls and buildings that spread out over roughly 11,050sq m.
At the mosque’s centre was the al Hadba minaret, a famed tower that looked out across the city. Throughout the years the minaret developed a natural, albeit precarious, lean to one side. This quirk not only gave the city of Mosul the unofficial nickname of “the hunchback” but its image is emblazoned on the 10,000 Iraqi Dinar bank note alongside a portrait of Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham, a Basrah-born mathematician and key figure of the Islamic Golden Age. From the 8th to the 13th Century, this revolutionary era of literature, science, medicine and astronomy made what is modern-day Iraq the intellectual centre of the world.
One of the people heading the Revive the Spirit of Mosul project is Paolo Fontani, who took up the role of Director and Representative of Unesco Iraq in 2019. “When I was asked to take this position, I remember thinking how I would be grateful if one day someone came to help me rebuild my own hometown,” he said. “All the monuments, the places that have marked my existence and constructed who I am. My identity…”
But the challenges of restoring the Great Mosque of al-Nuri – and with it part of Mosul’s identity – are far greater than a typical restoration. Fontani and his team have to contend with a building that is almost 850 years old, and also one that toppled in a warzone.
For work to begin, it was vital to assess what damage had been done. Normally, surveyors would inspect the building and note what needed to be fixed, but there was a problem: the site was far too dangerous for any human to enter. So in the place of humans came drones. These drones, explained Maria Rita Acetoso, senior project officer on the al-Nuri mosque project, surveyed both horizontal surfaces like the roofs of single buildings and vertical ones like a minaret. As they did, a number of geo-referenced photos were taken and pieced together to create a 3D model. This allowed them to effectively fly throughout the wreckage to map every fallen ceiling, and to photograph the 45m-tall minaret in high definition with ease.
After that came stabilising the area, which meant approaching the rubble as a booby-trapped site. Hidden amidst the wreckage, a large arsenal of mines and unexploded devices littered the area. “There were around 300 or 400 cases of TNT under there,” said Acetoso . “There were even IEDs hidden in the walls.”
Securing the site was overseen by the Iraqi authorities, who disarmed each explosive device individually. For Acetoso, this posed the greatest challenge. “The reconstruction of historical landmarks is always challenging, but the de-mining came with an unknown threat,” she said. In collaboration with the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and the State Board of Antiquities, a team of eight archaeologists were able to salvage artworks and artefacts from amongst the rubble that had miraculously survived the blast. In total, 44,000 bricks and 1,100 fragments of marble were recovered from the mosque and its minaret, all of which were catalogued and will eventually decorate the place of worship once again.
Considerable time was spent deciding whether the minaret would be re-erected in its original form – that is, how it looked 850 years ago, or with a tilt, as it was when it was destroyed. The minaret will keep its lean, but the task of rebuilding this plinth is much more difficult than deciding on its aesthetic.
The biggest concern is around the fact that the minaret is the most fragile element of the entire build. When the mosque was destroyed, the explosion caused a partial collapse of the upper base of the minaret’s eastern side, causing the structure to rotate significantly as it fell.
The starting point in salvaging this landmark is by assessing the current strength and stability of what is left, determining what can be saved and what has been lost. This begins by retrieving samples from the existing masonry through endoscopic investigation, where small holes are drilled into the masonry, which are then inspected with a camera. This technique helps inform on everything from the chemical-physical composition of the original materials used and the strength of the bricks themselves, to the exact constructive processes used in the 12th Century or in past renovation attempts. This, says Acetoso, will allow them to rebuild the mosque to near its original form.
The process has been long and arduous. The Covid pandemic has delayed work for most of 2020, and construction won’t fully conclude until 2023. The rebuilding of Mosul doesn’t begin and end with Unesco, however. More than 5,000 buildings were damaged in the Old City alone, while across Mosul, according to original government estimates from 2018, at least $2bn in aid is needed for the city to recover. Mosul itself still suffers with a lack of electricity, internet or provisions.
The site was far too dangerous for any human to enter
“Many families returned to Mosul and saw their own houses, churches, mosques, libraries and museums all destroyed,” said Father Najeeb Michaeel, Christian Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, who is in the process of rebuilding his St Paul’s church on Mosul’s east side, which remains heavily damaged from the war. “That’s why we’re working hand in hand, shoulder by shoulder to clean and rebuild Mosul. Not just in stone, but in spirit.”
The road will be long and difficult, but Mosul’s recovery is not achieved solely through bricks and mortar. It’s achieved in the return of culture to Mosul – of music, arts, education and literature – which is what built the city in the beginning and which is how its future will be drawn.
“They discovered the art of writing and reading here. This is our life. The origin of humanity,” said Father Najeeb. “This is our culture.”
Future of the Past is a BBC Travel series that explores important cultural heritage sites around the world that are under threat, and the innovations – both human and technological – being used to save them.
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