On June 21, 2017, Iraqi forces approached the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul. One of the most famous and iconic landmarks in the Iraqi city, the mosque has stood in this part of Mosul – the old city – since Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, a Turkish 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 rich diversity of the city: of the different religions, art, education and culture. The mosque was strategically placed in the heart of the city, surrounded by a network of entangled walkways and medieval streets that converged on the city gates.
In July 2014, it was in this mosque that the head of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, demanded allegiance during his first and only public appearance. A few days earlier, he had declared his caliphate, giving birth to his “Islamic State”.
Three years later, at 9:50 p.m. on this day in June 2017 – a nod in its more than 800 years of history – the mosque was destroyed by the jihadist group, further devastation in a devastated city. Iraqi forces were fighting to take the mosque in what would be a historic victory and reportedly advanced within 50 meters of its walls when explosives were detonated from 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
News channels around the world watched satellite images showing rubble strewn over the plot of land where the mosque once stood. “Daesh’s [Islamic State’s] the bombing of al-Hadba minaret and al-Nuri mosque is a formal declaration of their defeat, ”Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said at the time. But what remained in its place was destruction.
ISIS was forced to leave the city in July 2017 during what ended a period of war known as the Battle of Mosul. Then Mosul’s long recovery began.
The al-Nuri Mosque lay in ruins until December 2019 when the reconstruction campaign was launched, a $ 50.44 million project funded by the United Arab Emirates. The project is part of a larger Unesco initiative known as Revive the Spirit of Mosul. Launched in February 2018 thanks to a partnership between Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and UN Secretary General António Guterres, the project aims to restore the urban, social and cultural fabric of the old city, where the buildings stand side by side. late Ottomans. bustling bazaars and khans (dwellings of traditional merchants). The Grand Mosque of al-Nuri was the spiritual heart of the Old City, a complex of prayer halls and buildings that spanned approximately 11,050 square meters.
In the center of the mosque was the minaret of Al Hadba, a famous tower that overlooked the city. Over the years, the minaret has developed a natural, albeit precarious, tilt to the side. This oddity not only gave the city of Mosul the unofficial nickname of “hunchback,” but its image is inscribed on the 10,000 Iraqi dinar banknote alongside a portrait of Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham, a mathematician born in Basra and a key figure in Islam. Golden age. From the 8th to the 13th century, this revolutionary era of literature, science, medicine and astronomy made today’s Iraq the intellectual center of the world.
One of the heads of the Revive the Spirit of Mosul project is Paolo Fontani, who took on the role of Director and Representative of Unesco Iraq in 2019. “When I was asked to take on this post, I remember thinking how grateful I would be 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 built 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 face a building that is almost 850 years old, and also a building that has fallen into a war zone.
In order for work to begin, it is essential to assess the damage that has been caused. Normally, surveyors would inspect the building and note what needed to be fixed, but there was one problem: the site was far too dangerous for a human to enter. So instead of humans came drones. These drones, explained Maria Rita Acetoso, senior project manager on the al-Nuri mosque project, studied both horizontal surfaces like the roofs of individual buildings and verticals like a minaret. As they did, a number of georeferenced photos were taken and pieced together to create a 3D model. This allowed them to effectively fly through the wreckage to map every fallen ceiling and easily photograph the 45-meter-high minaret in high definition.
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After that, there was the stabilization of the area, which meant approaching the rubble like a trapped site. Hidden in the middle of the wreckage, a vast arsenal of mines and unexploded ordnance litter the area. “There were around 300 or 400 cases of TNT there,” Acetoso said. “There were even IEDs hidden in the walls.”
The securing of the site was overseen by the Iraqi authorities, who disarmed each explosive device individually. For Acetoso, this was the biggest challenge. “The reconstruction of historic monuments is always difficult, but demining came with an unknown threat,” she said. In collaboration with the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and the State Council of Antiquities, a team of eight archaeologists were able to recover works of art and objects from among the rubble that had miraculously survived the explosion. A total of 44,000 bricks and 1,100 marble fragments were recovered from the mosque and its minaret, all cataloged and which will end up decorating the place of worship again.
Considerable time was spent deciding whether the minaret would be rebuilt to its original form – i.e. how it looked 850 years ago, or with a tilt, as it was when it was destroyed. The minaret will keep its finesse, but the task of rebuilding this base is much more difficult than deciding on its aesthetic.
The biggest concern is that the minaret is the most fragile element of the whole construction. When the mosque was destroyed, the explosion caused a partial collapse of the upper base on the east side of the minaret, causing the structure to rotate significantly as it fell.
The starting point for recovering this benchmark is to assess the current strength and stability of what is left, to determine what can be saved and what has been lost. It begins by recovering samples of the existing masonry through an endoscopic survey, where small holes are drilled into the masonry, which are then inspected with a camera. This technique provides information on everything from the physicochemical composition of the original materials used and the strength of the bricks themselves, to the exact building processes used in the 12th century or in past renovation attempts. This, Acetoso says, will allow them to rebuild the mosque to approximate its original form.
The process has been long and arduous. The Covid pandemic has delayed work for most of 2020, and construction will not be fully completed until 2023. Mosul’s reconstruction does not begin or end with Unesco, however. More than 5,000 buildings have been damaged in the Old City alone, while in Mosul, initial government estimates of 2018 at least $ 2 billion in aid are needed for the city to recover. Mosul itself still suffers from a lack of electricity, internet or provisions.
The site was far too dangerous for a human to enter
“Many families have returned to Mosul and have seen their own homes, churches, mosques, libraries and museums destroyed,” said Father Najeeb Michaeel, Chaldean Christian Archbishop of Mosul, who is rebuilding his St. Paul Church on the east side of Mosul, which remains heavily damaged by the war. “This is why we are working hand in hand, shoulder by shoulder to clean up and rebuild Mosul. Not just in stone, but in spirit.
It will be a long and difficult road, but Mosul’s recovery does not come with bricks and mortar alone. It is accomplished in the return of culture to Mosul – of music, arts, education and literature – which is what built the city in the beginning and thus shaped its future.
“They discovered the art of writing and reading here. It’s our life. The origin of humanity, ”said Father Najeeb. “It’s our culture.”
The future of the past is a BBC travel series that explores important cultural heritage sites around the world under threat and the innovations – both human and technological – used to save them.
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