20 July 2017
The video above, from 11 July, shows the extent of the destruction of Mosul, the largest city in Iraq that ISIS tried to conquer. (video: Radio Free Europe/YouTube)
Editor’s note: this week, we launch a new feature on our blog, “CNEWA Connections” — weekly posts that we hope will provide background and context to some of the stories unfolding in CNEWA’s world.
The Iraq city of Mosul has been in the news quite a bit lately and has been freed from the control of ISIS. It may, however, prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, since much of the city now lays in ruins.
While the world watches in sorrow the stories and images coming out of Mosul, and witnesses the humanitarian nightmare its destruction has created, it’s worth taking a moment to put the place in context. This city, the largest that ISIS tried to conquer, has a long history.
Mosul (Arabic al-Maw?il, “the connection, confluence, depot”) originally on the west bank now lies on both sides of the Tigris River. It is not a very ancient city, although it is close to the ruins of Niniveh, the capital of the very powerful Assyrian Empire which was destroyed by the Chaldeans of Babylon at the close of the 7th century BC. The position of Mosul made it an ideal center for trade between China and India via the Silk Roads to the east, to the Greek and Roman Empires to the west and Arabia and Africa to the south.
In pre-Muslims times, Mosul was a metropolitan see (archdiocese) of the Church of the East and was second to Ctesiphon — and later Baghdad — where the Catholicos/Patriarch resided. It was conquered by Muslim armies in the 7th century AD and later became part of the Abbasid Caliphate. As would be expected for a city on the juncture of several trade routes, Mosul was very cosmopolitan. Originally a Christian city, over the centuries it became increasingly Sunni Muslim. Nevertheless, there was a considerable Christian minority consisting of Christians of the Assyrian tradition (Church of the East and later also Chaldeans) and other Christian churches, Jews, Shi’ites and others. Ethnically, the majority of the population of Mosul was and remains Arab, although there were a good number of Kurds in the city. Many Christians in the region consider themselves Assyrian and not Arab. As might be expected, instances of sectarian conflict in Mosul were recorded over the centuries.
Mosul is the main city of the Nineveh Plain which has been home to a large Christian population spread over several small cities and villages. The Christian population of the Nineveh Plain is an ancient one, tracing its roots back in some instances to the 4th century AD.
Historians recount that Mosul was famous for its textiles and the English word, muslin, a type of fabric, is derived from the name Mosul.
Mosul and its environs were home to several pilgrim sites. Perhaps the most famous of these was the shrine of Nabi Yunas, the prophet Jonah — who, according to the Old Testament, had preached repentance to the Assyrians in nearby Nineveh and was buried at the site.
In this image from 1999, Iraqis visit the shrine of Nabi Yunas, the prophet Jonah.
(photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Originally a Christian shrine, it became a mosque as the Christian population diminished over the centuries.
Iraqis inspect the shrine of Nabi Yunas after ISIS destroyed it in 2014. (photo: CNS/EPA)
The al-Nuri Grand Mosque was built in the 12th century and underwent several renovations over the years. A huge structure, it was famous for its minaret, from which the Muslim call to prayer is broadcast. The minaret leaned at an angle similar to Italy’s famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Under the Ottoman Empire, modern day Iraq, was (wisely) divided into three vilayets or provinces: Bosra for the Arab Shi’ites in the southern third of the country; Baghdad for the Arab Sunnis in the center of the country; and Mosul for the Kurdish Muslims in the northern third of the country. After the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1917, the French and British united all three vilayets to form the new country of Iraq.
After several revolutions, Iraq evolved into one very diverse country held together by a strong man, Saddam Hussein. Kurdish revolts in the north and Shi’ite revolts in the south were common and were met with incredible brutality by the Hussein government.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq began to become unglued. Centrifugal forces surfaced and the old Ottoman vilayets provided the fault lines which continue to divide the country. In that vacuum arose first al-Qaida in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a brutal terrorist. After Zarqawi’s death al-Qaida in Iraq went underground and metastasized to what would become known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and by its Arabic acronym da’ish.
With incredible speed in 2014, ISIS attacked Mosul. The large Iraqi army fled when faced with an almost minuscule ISIS force and Mosul became part of ISIS. In June 2014 in the al-Nuri Grand Mosque in Mosul Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (whose name has changed several times, each time giving him a more noble pedigree) declared himself Caliph. ISIS was now on the world stage with a vengeance. Although Raqqa in Syria was the purported capital of the caliphate, Mosul was in some ways more important. ISIS plundered the many resources which Mosul had to offer — military equipment left behind by the fleeing Iraqi army, many banks whose funds were stolen, and a population estimated at 1.8 million, half of which fled, leaving behind properties, money, etc., which was confiscated by ISIS.
ISIS was driven from Mosul in the spring and summer of 2017 by a coalition of Iraqi troops, Kurdish militias and American advisors. The loss of Mosul was a serious loss for ISIS but perhaps a greater loss for the people of Mosul and the Christians who had fled from the Plain of Nineveh. Arial photographs show the city to be leveled. The retreating ISIS forces used explosives to destroy the Shrine of Jonah and the al-Nuri mosque. Christians who fled to Irbil in Kurdish Iraq wait and wonder if the Niniveh Plain will ever again be safe enough for them to return.
It is a sad irony that for centuries Mosul lay just across the Tigris River from the ruins of ancient Niniveh — ruins which Mosul itself now resembles.