UAE to Fund $50.4M project to reconstruct 850-year-old mosque destroyed by ISIS and help revive a devastated city


he call to prayer from Al Nouri Mosque’s leaning minaret was heard across Mosul five times a day for 850 years until ISIS reduced the building to rubble in 2017 as part of the terror group’s scorched-Earth retreat.

Situated at the spiritual heart of the old city, near the banks of the Tigris river, the mosque had dominated the skyline of Mosul since its construction during the golden age of Islam.

It stood while Genghis Khan expanded the Mongol empire from the far corners of East Asia to Europe, as Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors sailed across the world exploiting and colonising territories, and even as millions of Africans were stolen from their lands and shipped as slaves to the “New World”. But, in just a few moments, it was gone.

ISIS blew up Al Nouri Mosque as government troops moved in to recapture the city from the terror group’s clutches. Its destruction left Mosul’s residents devastated and a long-standing symbol of faith and perseverance was lost.

ISIS’s three-year rule over northern Iraq left thousands of the country’s archaeological sites heavily damaged and pillaged. Thousands of people were displaced, their homes in ruins.

Since the liberation of the city, five years ago, authorities in Mosul have sought to rebuild. They recovered more than 44,000 bricks from the old town that will be used to rebuild the mosque and its leaning Al Hadba minaret.

The reconstruction of Al Nouri Mosque is seen as an act of resilience and a restoration of peace to the war-torn city that was once Iraq’s main trading hub.

Working alongside the Iraqi government and the UN’s Cultural Agency, Unesco, the UAE pledged $50 million (Dh183.6m) to rebuild the mosque and its surrounding complex.

The project is part of the Unesco initiative known as Revive the Spirit of Mosul, launched in 2018, through an agreement between Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi and the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The five-year project aims to restore the urban, cultural and social elements of Mosul’s old town. The plans include rebuilding the mosque and a surrounding 11,050 square metre complex of prayer halls and buildings, as well as Al Tahera Church and Al Saa’a Church.

With most of the clean-up of rubble and demining now completed, the reconstruction project has already begun to provide jobs and training opportunities for local residents, who hope it will bring their city back to life.

Reconstruction work on Al Hadba minaret and the two churches begins in March, with the entire project set for completion in 2023.

Mosul left in ruins

In June 2014, faced with an approaching horde of armed ISIS fighters, Iraqi government troops stationed in Mosul retreated, and the city was taken over by the insurgents.

In the days that followed, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians fled the city, escaping by foot or by car to seek refuge elsewhere. Those who stayed lived under the newly-established caliphate, with its barbaric and repressive laws.

For three years, ISIS laid waste to the city until government forces regained control with the help of Kurdish fighters. The fierce fight between the insurgents and security troops further damaged the city, leaving more than 65 per cent of
it destroyed.

The damage caused during the occupation and liberation of Mosul left behind about 8 million tons of rubble – the equivalent of 40 mega cruise ships – and rebuilding would not be cheap.

Iraq’s government estimated the reconstruction of the Nineveh governorate, the ancient Assyrian city that contains Mosul, would cost about $100 billion – a staggering sum for a country mired in an economic and political crisis.

The estimate exceeds the oil-rich country’s annual budget of almost $90bn in 2021. Tens of thousands of buildings remain in ruins, their facades studded with bullet holes and with their walls crumbling.

For thousands of years, Mosul lived up to its Arabic name, Linking Point, as a commercial and intellectual centre, and a crossroads of cultures.

It is this historic and cultural importance that led Unesco to prioritise Mosul’s restoration, launching a project to revive the city and bring hope to its people.

Paolo Fontani, Unesco’s Iraq director, and his team have been given the challenging task of reconstructing Al Nouri Mosque and its surrounding compound.

“When I was appointed I thought ‘there’s a big challenge in front [of me]’ and I knew it was going to be complicated,” Mr Fontani told The National.

“It’s the largest program Unesco had for a long time and I know the difficulties of working with historic heritage.”

But Mr Fontani has put together a solid team and strong partnerships with the UAE and Iraqi governments have benefited the project immensely.

“We’ve built this partnership of trust two years down the road and that’s where I wanted it to be, it’s safe for me at this moment to arrive at the end of 2021 to say that we can get to our objectives,” he said.

The first phase of the project required clearing the area of rubble and landmines left behind during the conflict. Construction work also had to be carried out to fortify weak structures and the bases of the monuments so it would be safe to build.

The initial work was completed before the coronavirus outbreak, which led to construction delays throughout 2020.

“2020 was difficult because of Covid-19 and 2021 was the year that we started working much harder. It’s also a time to define the project and now it’s really, for me, the turning point,” Mr Fontani said.

Construction is expected to push into high-gear over the next three months, with the aim of completing the project by 2023.

Among the first structures to be rebuilt will be the 45m-high brick Al Hadba minaret – a delicate structure originally built in 1180 that requires special skill.

“We are building the minaret in the same technique that it was [originally] built. All these elements needed a lot of study and attention but I’m happy we are going to start the building,” said Mr Fontani.

A part of Mosul thought to be lost to history will be protected, restored and given back to its people, he said.

He said Unesco was “building heritage and just like any kind of building – we bring them back to where they were and even better than they were.”

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