For anyone interested in seeing how a devastated city with a history stretching back several thousand years can rebuild itself, look no further than some of the stories coming out about Mosul, the newly liberated north central Iraqi city.
Even before ISIS took over the place in 2014, Mosul had always been very dangerous and considered quite suspect. Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, had lived there for years and even after they died in a gun battle in 2003, the place was rife with suicide bombers who killed whatever American military they found there plus many hapless Iraqis.
I was in the area in 2004, visiting the Kurdish areas north and east of Mosul and my guides only dared take me to a place within 30 miles of the city. They didn’t want me to risk getting any closer. Which is why I’ve been interested in international efforts to rebuild Mosul after two years of war have made it a ghost town in many places. This recent New York Times piece sets the stage:
BAGHDAD -- The scars of battle remain deeply etched into the geography of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, with thousands of homes, buildings and places of worship destroyed during the nine-month fight to oust the Islamic State.
But now, thanks to a donation of $50 million from the United Arab Emirates, one of the ancient city’s most renowned landmarks will rise from the rubble: Al Nuri Grand Mosque and its storied minaret.
The announcement this week of a five-year plan to rebuild Mosul’s centuries-old religious complex represents the largest cultural restoration project in Iraq, according to United Nations officials overseeing the project.
Mosul is like a cross between Jerusalem and Los Angeles: A welter of religions, temples, biblical sites and culture. Its population includes Arabs, Kurds, Iraqi and Kurdish Jews; Assyrians, Turkmens, Mandeans, Yezidis, Armenians, Shabaks and Romani (who are connected with the gypies of Romania).
Built in 1172, the minaret was approximately 145 feet tall and decorated with ornamental brickwork that was renowned during that period, widely considered a golden age of Islamic architecture and art. Medieval travelers wrote glowing descriptions of Mosul, especially the leaning minaret that local residents nicknamed Al Hudba, or the hunchback.
The leaning tower came to define Mosul much like the arch in St. Louis, Mo. It towered over the skyline and symbolized the city’s reputation as an ancient place of learning and beauty…The minaret was later chosen to adorn Iraq’s 10,000 dinar note, cementing its place as one of the country’s best-known landmarks.
I’ll be interested in seeing if Mosul is re-packaged as a great Islamic center, as it has been for the past millennium and before that, the seat of vast empires that ruled the fertile crescent.
The biblical prophet Jonah –- who ended up in a whale rather than go there to preach -– is buried there; which is ironic in that he truly hated the place even after a successful preaching trip. The Old Testament prophet is buried in Al Qosh, a village north of Mosul and there is a tomb of Seth in Mosul; Seth being Adam and Eve’s third son.
A lot of Mosul’s future depends on who’s coming up with the money to put the place back together. This CNBC story cites a $88.2 billion price tag for rebuilding the city but also adds that the money probably won’t come from the West. Here’s why:
However, officials acknowledge a feeling of fatigue from international donors, especially after the wars in Iraq and Syria sparked the biggest mass migration since World War II…
The U.S. alone spent $60 billion over nine years — some $15 million a day — to rebuild Iraq. Around $25 billion went to Iraq's military, which disintegrated during the lightning 2014 offensive of the Islamic State group, which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq. U.S. government auditors also found massive waste and corruption, fueling suspicions of Western politicians like Trump who want to scale back foreign aid.
So late last month, the United Arab Emirates came up with $50 million to start rebuilding. Naturally they’re more interested in helping rebuild the aforementioned tower and mosque in the hopes of making Mosul a 21st century “Arabian nights” spectacle.
Another article in an Emirates publication also sets out the Islamic backing of Mosul's reconstruction.
One of the strengths of this project is its inclusiveness. Other partners in the project include the Sunni Endowment of Iraq, which owns the mosque, the Iccrom-Athar regional conservation centre in Sharjah, and Organisation of Islamic Conference.
Mosul has a great history. Across the Tigris River are the ruins of Nineveh, one of the greatest cities of all time. What began as a center for the worship of the goddess Ishtar became the capital of Assyria and the largest city in the world around 700 BC. It fell in 612 BC to a coalition of Persians, Medes, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Scythians and more.
Mosul is not only Muslim territory. It was once home to 70,000 Assyrian Christians, many of whom have fled, plus a former Jewish community that left for Israel years ago.
To better understand the place, scan the Washington Post’s summation of Iraqi map history in five easy lessons. It began:
In 1165, Benjamin of Tudela, a medieval Spanish Jewish traveler, approached the city of Mosul on the banks of the Tigris. A visitor, even a thousand years ago, could marvel at its antiquity. "This city, situated on the confines of Persia, is of great extent and very ancient," he wrote in the chronicle of his journey. He gestured to the adjacent ruins of Nineveh, which had been sacked 15 centuries before his arrival.
Mosul, perched in Mesopotamia's fertile river basin, was a walled trade city at the heart of the proverbial cradle of civilizations, linked to caravan routes threading east and other venerable urban centers like Aleppo to the west.
If Iraq can stay out of another war, I’m guessing the country will package itself as a pilgrimage spot for pious Muslims. There’s already two pilgrimage centers in the southern part of the country and Mosul’s religious monuments, if rebuilt, could rival Athens as a cradle of eastern civilization. Since the pilgrimage capitals of Mecca and Medina are closed to non-Muslims, Iraq’s venues are the one place all faiths can go to outside of Jerusalem for the history, if anything else.
Iraq has secular roots and was run as a secular republic during the past century, so I can't see it becoming the new Mecca But the Iraqis, if they are smart, will need to come up with some gimmick to explains the rebuilding of their country, as it's not everyday that $50 million grants arrive at your door. And reporters, if they are astute, will look for the rebranding of Mosul from the violence-prone decades before into something that either weaves the area's Christians, Muslims and many smaller groups together.
Or it could be the new Cairo; a bustling Muslim metropolis. Mosul's rebuilding has great import. Stay tuned to how that turns out.