It is a pity that you get the chance to talk about certain monuments only after that they are destroyed. Until yesterday, the general public did not know anything about the Mosque of Nur al-Din, and its minaret. ISIS has destroyed, once again, Middle Eastern heritage: the destruction of the Mosque of Nur al-Din has been interpreted by many as a clear sign of ISIS’s defeat in Mosul, as the last act, against the strenuous resistance of Mosul population: ISIS militia bombs the very same mosque where al-Baghdadi gave his notorious speech some 3 years ago, announcing the beginning of his Caliphate.
The mosque and its minaret are then, of course, important for interpreting the current affairs, but for sure, their importance is also linked to the history of Iraq and Mosul, and its medieval heritage. And this is what I want to focus on: what has the world heritage lost in that bombing?
A brief history of the mosque
The Mosque of Nur al-Din, also called al-Nuri, was built by Nur al-Din, the Syrian ruler. From the Damascene historian Abu Shama, we read that he actually had built congregational mosques everywhere in the region, but the one in Mosul ‘is the ultimate in beauty and excellence’. The mosque was built under a strong political pressure: Nur al-Din did not officially rule the city, ‘Umar Malla, who was appointed to supervise the construction, was a pole of opposition to the Christian community of Mosul, and its Christian governor, and his appointment had more to do with an overall message rather than with a real concern for the construction works. When reading its inscriptions, is important to keep these few points in mind.
The mosque was built under a strong political pressure: Nur al-Din did not officially rule the city, ‘Umar Malla, who was appointed to supervise the construction, was a pole of opposition to the Christian community of Mosul, and his appointment had more to do with an overall message rather than with a real concern for the construction works. When reading its inscriptions, is important to keep these few points in mind.
The construction of the mosque began in 566/1170, and was completed apparently in only two years: in 568/1772 Nur al-Din came back to Mosul and performed the Friday prayer in it. According to the first study of the mosque, conducted by Herzfeld, it was maintained that Nur al-Din actually did not build the mosque from scratches, but that he heavily renovated an earlier mosque, built in 1148. That is in fact not the case, as Tabbaa points out.
The mosque that the ISIS blew up was not exactly the one that Nur al-Din built: in the 1940s the Iraqi Department of Antiquities decided to rebuild the mosque, basically destroying it. Indeed, the restoration work consisted of tearing down the mosque and rebuilding it using old and new materials. After this restoration, what remained of the original complex was: the minaret, two mihrabs, a marble slab and some stucco decoration.
Interestingly enough, the inscriptions of the mosque are mainly Qur’anic: this is not uncommon, but it is, in fact, curious that the mosque does not have any historical inscription, also considering the highly political value that Nur al-Din patronage had in Mosul.
The Qur’anic inscriptions were to be found on the capitals of the columns, on the qibla wall and on the mihrab. Tabbaa points out how the inscriptions were striking both in the quantity and accessibility: written in a quite plain thuluth style and black inlaid, it actually seems like they were designed to be read by the worshippers.
The content of the inscription is not uncommon, for the most part. In Tabbaa article, we find the references and the positions of the inscriptions.
The inscriptions of the capitals and walls, according to Tabbaa, originally formed a continuous of Qur’anic verse, but after the 1940s restoration, this feature went lost. The inscriptions featured in this parts are: Q 2:255 (the Throne verse), Q 9:18-19, Q 24:36-38, Q 2:148-150, and Q 3:18. In the majority of these cases, the verses used for the inscriptions are not uncommon for a mosque.
There are two main messages that these verses encompass: the unity of God, and the mosque as a place of worship. Some of the verses used are very common, others, instead are quite unusual, even if they totally fit in the overall message.
For instance, the Throne verse (Q 2:255) is a very popular verse, extolling the majesty of God: it is more uncommon not to find it in a mosque. Q 3:18 contains a basic declaration of faith (shahada): again a quite common verse.
On the other hand, on the qibla wall, the frieze contains a Qur’anic quotation which is far less common, but that does still make sense, for its position. Q 2:148-150 is indeed much about the orientation for the prayer:
‘ For each (religious following) is a direction toward which it faces. So race to (all that is) good. Wherever you may be, Allah will bring you forth (for judgment) all together. Indeed, Allah is over all things competent.  So from wherever you go out (for prayer, O Muhammad) turn your face toward al-Masjid al-Haram, and indeed, it is the truth from your Lord. And Allah is not unaware of what you do.  And from wherever you go out (for prayer), turn your face toward al-Masjid al-Haram. And wherever you (believers) may be, turn your faces toward it in order that the people will not have any argument against you, except for those of them who commit wrong; so fear them not but fear Me. And (it is) so I may complete My favor upon you and that you may be guided.’
These verses underline something that for the average Muslim is the normality: when you pray you need to face towards the Masjid al-Haram, that is towards Mecca. These verses, even if making total sense on a qibla wall, are not at all common and sounds like they are intended for an audience of new converts.
Together with these verses, focusing on the prayer, a couple of other Qur’anic quotations focus on the mosque, as a place of worship. Q 24: 36-38 contains a reference both to the mosque as the place of worship, and on the good deeds a Muslim is supposed to perform. Similarly, in Q 9:18, there is a clear reference to the masajid Allah (the mosques of God). This is by far the most used Qur’anic verse in mosques’ inscriptions. What’s unusual about its usage in the Mosque al-Nuri, is its continuation, which is something quite uncommon. Q 9:19 recites ‘Have you made the providing of water for the pilgrim and the maintenance of al-Masjid al-Haram equal to (the deeds of) one who believes in Allah and the Last Day and strives in the cause of Allah ? They are not equal in the sight of Allah . And Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people.’ In this verse, there is a quite clear reference to the ‘striving in the cause of Allah’, with the verb jahada (from which the word jihad). It is then possible that this verse was included in the mosque because of the political situation: the jihad of Nur al-Din against the Crusader, on the one hand, and possibly, the jihad for freeing Mosul from a Christian governor.
The minaret of the Mosque of Nur al-Din has become sadly famous: its leaning, tall silhouette has become the symbol of ISIS destruction. The minaret of the mosque was indeed a striking architectural element, quite sui generis in Iraq. The minaret was built entirely of bricks: it was in a corner of the mosque, but detached from the main building. It was a free-standing, incredibly high, and excessively decorated tower, that was linked more to the Seljuk Iranian tradition of the minarets, rather than the Syrian heritage where its patron came from. The shaft was divided into seven zones, each of these displayed a different decoration, realized in bricks. The minaret of the Mosque al-Nuri can be seen as being more symbolic than functional: it can be seen as a landmark symbolizing Islam over Christianity, but also the unity of the Muslim people (‘umma).
Taking into consideration all this, two conclusions pops up in my mind: the first being of course, a reflection on the lost heritage. Once again, another piece of Iraqi history has been lost, and it is now confined to history books. The second thought is bitter: the history of this mosque is clearly linked to a historical period when Nur al-Din was struggling for power in the region. The mosque itself was a symbol of Islam against Christianity in a sense: with inscriptions confirming the unity of God and the righteous Muslim duties, with a minaret that was a symbol of unity against the Christian ‘occupants’ and possibly against the Holy War of the Crusaders. I’m far from saying that Nur al-Din could have been a champion of ISIS, but it is ironic that ISIS destroyed a monument that incorporated in his history so many of the traits that ISIS fighters claim to be their own. Once again, the despise for the Muslim heritage of the region makes it clearer and clearer the ignorance of the Islamic State and the populism of their actions.
S.S. Blair, Islamic inscriptions, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 1998.
G. Michell (ed.), Architecture of the Islamic World: its History and socila meanins, Thames and Hudson, London, 1978, p. 249.
Y. Tabbaa, “The Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul, 1170-1172”, in Annales Islamologiques, 36 (2002), pp. 339-360. [available online: archnet.org]