The grinding battle to liberate the remaining kilometers in Mosul is all but completed, but the victory has been bittersweet, and the sour taste intensifies the closer we approach the ruins of what was once Mosul’s primordial Old Town. Its unique, leaning minaret was doomed to share the fate of the old neighborhood, but when “al-Hadba‘a” could no longer be seen from the other side of the Tigris, it was as if time had stopped. From now on there would be two eras in Mosul; one with al-Hadba’a and one without it.
The Grand al-Nuri Mosque and its adjoining minaret became unwitting accomplices the day that self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim ascended the pulpit to consecrate what ISIS’s spokesperson had announced days earlier: the resurrection of the Caliphate. Between al-Baghdadi’s first and only public appearance and the mosque’s much-scrutinized history as the inspiration for Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi’s jihadi surge, the Hadba‘a had seemingly lost its primary association with Mosul, a city often described as the “Hunchback” because of the minaret.
One of the earliest legends about al-Nuri Mosque was that the abandoned areas near the Tigris had been haunted. Early settlers had avoided these lands because of a widespread superstition that anyone who attempted to build a home or grow crops would die soon after. The mosque’s presence assuaged the initial misgivings of locals, who established nearby the first neighborhoods of the “Old Town,” a densely populated residential area on Mosul’s west side that resembles a maze. Today, most of it is rubble.
The narrow alleys are but a little more than two meters in width. Along them crowd Levant-style houses in which rooms are arrayed around a central courtyard. After the establishment of Mosul’s east during the first quarter of the 20th century, many families relocated to larger homes in the newly developed east neighborhoods. The Old City gradually lost its vitality and never recovered; despite dating back to the 13th century, it had the lowest real estate values in the area. Both the paternal and maternal branches of my own family tree originated from the same alley opposite the minaret, and kept ownership of those properties even after moving to middle-class neighborhoods.
Mosul is known by two epithets: Umm al-Rabe‘ain, or the City of Two Springs, and al-Hadba‘a, which is the female adjectival form of “hunchback.” There is a consensus that the tilted minaret inspired the name, which has stuck even though the attribute itself is not a pleasant one. With the ruins of the Assyrian Empire still buried under Mosul’s uninhabited east side , and the ancient cities of Hatra and Nimrod on its outskirts, the Hunchback Minaret remained the most prominent piece of Moslawi history to which one generation could introduce the next. Therein lies its importance: It has “always” been there.
A popular legend claims that as the Prophet Mohammed passed through Mosul, the minaret bowed to him, inspiring its unique if unflattering sobriquet. Since the minaret was built at least six centuries after his death, that would have been impossible; but chronology is a mere plaything for the religious imagination and its homily-rich folk narratives.
Beyond this myth, the religious significance of the mosque is nil. The mosque was never as noteworthy as the minaret, which occupied a special place in Mosul’s image of itself that remains hard to understand. One common explanation is that the minaret stood out for not being especially aesthetic, as mosque architecture goes. An unattractive symbol can be, under the right circumstances, a particularly pithy badge of collective honor, as in: It may be a weird, tilted minaret, but it’s our minaret and it always has been. So there.
That sort of thing seems to have appealed to the population of Iraq’s also-ran city, never as famous, never as grand, never a capital as has been Baghdad. And so Iraq’s schoolbooks made no mention of Mosul’s famous minaret even though it graced the cover of almost every notebook printed in Mosul, and can be seen in several versions of Mosul University’s logo. While the ancient Assyrian ruins, Nabi Younis mosque, and even the Old City’s Bash Tapia Castle were staples of local history as ordained by the national authorities, al-Hadba‘a was usually ignored. Schoolchildren often frequented the ancient Christian monasteries of Mar Matti and Rabban Hormizd, but the Hadba‘a was left off the list of popular educational trips, probably because, other than being old and a bit odd, there was nothing particularly educational about it.
The most compelling story about the minaret revolves around a brilliant Christian artisan named Aboodi Tanburchi, who helped patch a hole in its structure that required urgent repair in the early 1930s. The story highlights the ingenuity of Mosul’s manual workers, gained through practice instead of academic discipline. Then there is the famous line uttered by Tanburchi when he refused to be compensated for his work: “I will get my wage from the owner of this home,” he said, referring to God. This story was often used to illustrate generosity and brilliance, not so much to promote coexistence and religious tolerance—which is itself perhaps a comment on Mosul’s character.
As for the Nuri mosque itself, apart from a few historians the population was largely ignorant of its origin. Its founder was the 12th-century Seljuk ruler Nuridin al-Zenki. In Mosul, Nuridin’s name is kept alive by his decedents, known as “House of Nuri,” who are considered nobles. His battles and political disputes, however, were neither a source of pride for Mosul nor relevant to the minaret’s sentimental value. He may have ordered the building of the minaret, but he was not part of its story, at least for my generation and the one before it.
Indeed, the mosque’s fame is not historic at all—it is very recent. In ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss mention that Zenki “destroyed the Frankish forces in southern Turkey and defeated the Christian prince Raymond of Poitiers in Antioch.” Will McCants describes Zenki in The ISIS Apocalypse as the “ruthless medieval ruler of a dominion stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Mosul in Iraq who had driven the crusaders from Syria.” Both books cite Nuridin’s impact not on typical Moslawis but on Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, the founding father of the Islamic State via al-Qaeda in Iraq. Allegedly, Zarqawi was so impressed by Nuridin that some believe he chose Iraq—and specifically Mosul—to be the starting point of his regional jihad to defeat the weak apostate regimes of the Muslim world and establish an Islamic state. Hence, al-Baghdadi’s speech on June 29, 2014 at the Nuri mosque was a huge deal to jihadists, and to the niche academic world concerned with them.
Ironically, if Nuridin was little known, his prodigy, Salahudin al-Ayoubi (a.k.a. Saladin, in the West), was a revered figure in Iraq. His name figures in Iraq’s 1981 National Anthem; no one missed the point that Salahudin’s victory over the Crusaders was a metaphor for the Iraqi Republic’s victory over the imperialists. And his Kurdish ethnicity helped reinforce Ba‘athi efforts to create a maximal, trans-Arab identity for Iraq. Could that have played a role in the decision to deprive Nuridin (and the mosque named after him) of public glory? Would his Turkic as opposed to Kurdish or Arab roots undermine the nationalist formula that the Ba‘athis endorsed? National history is often selective, and Iraq’s has been no exception.
On April 13, the head of Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism forces, Abdul Ghani al-Asadi, stated that there were “very few areas still to be liberated [in west Mosul] but the ones that remain will be the hardest.” The remaining few kilometers exhausted more than two months and hundreds of lives. Reporters documented horrible stories of civilian and army casualties in the ruins of west Mosul. Despite announcing the end of battle, some narrow alleys are still contested, with civilians trapped inside the few remaining standing homes, or under the rubble.
Losing the minaret to the fierce fighting was a possibility, and one to which the people of Mosul had become numb. More than twenty significant monuments in or near the city were destroyed, including some dating back a few millennia.
But with the heavy death toll in Mosul’s west, and with hundreds of thousands of people dispersed to refugee camps and other Iraqi provinces, each with a horrifying story to tell and a much-needed recovery to achieve, the emphasis on buildings seems rather vain. The Moslawi reaction to the demolition of the Nuri mosque and Hadba‘a Minaret has varied. Peak lamentation came from Mosul’s older diaspora, some whom had left Iraq in the 1970s. But for today’s residents, the loss of the famous landmark is the least of their current worries.
Besides, the landmark had been hijacked before it was destroyed. The day Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi walked up to the pulpit in the Nuri mosque, he changed its meaning forever. A new wave of Nuri mosque enthusiasts was born, watching on computer screens around the world and energized by the advent of a modern caliphate. These devotees will never believe that the Islamic State blew up the mosque that is tied indelibly to the announcement of its crowning (if temporal) achievement. The damning video evidence does not appear to be enough to quell the conspiracies, and at the core of their arguments lies a logical question: If the mosque and minaret were indeed symbols of great Islamic importance pre-ISIS and for ISIS, why would they blow it up?
Well, unlike the Nabi Younis mosque, al-Nuri did not have a shrine, and therefore would not trigger Salafi condemnation. That eliminates religious ideology as a motive. The argument most analysts and Iraqis agree on is that ISIS simply could not stomach the humiliation of ceding an intact mosque to Iraqi forces, who would most certainly gloat from both the minbar and atop the minaret. Still, this analysis does not convince those who would rather blame the Iraqi government for sectarian reasons, or the United States for general and highly popular reasons.
But, as we know, insult often tags along behind injury. Reading the coverage of the minaret’s collapse left many from Mosul, including myself, very confused. A New Yorker article dated June 23, written by Robin Wright, describes the minaret as a “fabled landmark in the Middle East,” an interesting statement given the lack of concern, let alone enthusiasm, that the mosque and minaret received from the Arab and Muslim world prior to Al-Baghdadi’s speech. Other outlets described the “enormous symbolic importance” of the mosque to ISIS, which is true enough. But no one seemed to care about what the mosque and minaret meant to Moslawis.
Western coverage, suspended as it seems to be between junk history and an unquenchable thirst for the contemporary “angle,” is no surprise to the locals. Since the fall of Saddam’s regime, Mosul has been lumped in with the rest of Sunni Iraq, considered by Westerners to be a monolith. The city’s diversity, complex social dynamics, proximity to the Levant and Turkey, and variety of Islamic practices have all been ignored—since few Western observers ever knew of them in the first place. As for Americans, they have proved repeatedly that you don’t have to know hardly anything about a place in order to invade it. And so now that it has been destroyed, the Hadba‘a Minaret was either a grand monument in the Muslim world or a catalyst for jihadism—as if it the city in which it stood is irrelevant.
Can’t the requiem for al-Hadba‘a be a bit more honest? It was an odd-looking, leaning minaret that quietly symbolized the antiquity of Mosul and the memories of our ancestors, forgotten and otherwise. It stood many tests of time: wars, invasions, and sieges aplenty. But it could not survive the ruthless Islamic State, a metaphor perhaps for the fate of many Sunnis who endured this horrible experiment in (mis)governance.
A better, anecdotal elegy for al-Hadba‘a would compare it to an elderly relative or neighbor, whom we know was wise albeit bent with age, but never felt the need to really engage. He was just always there, and in always being there testified to the possibility of stability if not serenity. When he is suddenly gone, he leaves behind a void, and we regret not having known him better. The Nuri Mosque, with its Hadba‘a Minaret, was like that.
The fact that people can acutely miss something they never really paid that much attention to is an interesting observation about human nature, perhaps. We might give it more thought later on, but for now, there are many thousands of desperate people who need our help.