What has become of Iraq's heritage sites destroyed by ISIS?

Some of the country's most important cultural buildings are now being restored

Among the cherished heritage sites in Iraq destroyed by ISIS were, from left, Imam Awn Al Din, the Green Mosque and Al Nuri Mosque. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Wikimedia Commons; Library of Congress
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At the peak of its powers, ISIS destroyed many significant heritage sites in Iraq.

The group focused mainly on Mosul, where it established a stronghold from 2014 to 2017, and damaged or destroyed several mosques, shrines and churches.

Their motivation to eliminate these cultural and historical sites, some dating back 800 years, was driven by the values of a particular ideology and political agenda. These include the looting and plundering of archaeological sites for financial gain, ethnic and religious cleansing, deliberate erasure, and a means to create a new history and dominance over the region.

While some of Iraq’s most cherished monuments were destroyed by ISIS, there is hope that others can be rebuilt and some are undergoing restoration and are reopening to the public.

Here are some of Iraq’s most important heritage sites that the militant group destroyed and what happened to them in the years hence.

Al Nuri Mosque

The Great Mosque of Al Nuri, in the northern city of Mosul, is known for its characteristic leaning minaret nicknamed Al Hadba, which translates to the humpback.

The famous tower, which is still featured on Iraq's 10,000 dinar note, was 45 metres tall and decorated with ornamental brickwork. Constructed in the second half of the 12th century, the mosque was named after Nur Al Din Mahmoud Zangi, a Turkic ruler of the Syrian province who famously unified Muslim forces against the Crusaders.

The minaret was a prominent landmark of Mosul's old city and is a symbol of its rich history in which the mosque withstood many battles and conquests over the centuries across the region.

However, during the Battle of Mosul in 2017 Iraqi government forces, along with Kurdistan’s Regional Government and international forces, claimed back the city from ISIS. When Iraqi forces advanced on the city, ISIS militants blew up the mosque and minaret.

In 2018, the Revive the Spirit of Mosul initiative was launched to rebuild the cultural heritage of Mosul. Led by Unesco in partnership with the UAE, which donated $50.4 million towards the major reconstruction and recovery project, Al Nuri Mosque became a main priority along with two nearby churches, Al Saa’a and Al Tahera.

As the restoration on the mosque project began, archaeologists made a number of surprising discoveries. These include finding original marble columns constructed on square stone footings, uncovering four connected rooms built of stone under the prayer hall along with artefacts, jars, pieces of carved stone and coins dating back to various periods.

In March this year, The National was told the restoration of Al Nuri, which began in 2018, will be completed and that the mosque is set to reopen by the end of the year. At that time, the structural reconstruction of the mosque's compound was complete but there was still work remaining on the leaning minaret and other finishing touches.

Minaret of Anah

The Minaret of Anah is a free-standing tower in the Iraqi town of Anah, which sits on the bank of the Euphrates river. The minaret, which is 28 metres tall and consists of eight levels, was built during the late Abbasid period. Experts have dated its construction to somewhere between 996 to 1096.

The octagonal structure and unique carved niche designs exemplify the architecture of the Uqaylid Dynasty. As one of the oldest and best-preserved structures from that period, the minaret was a valuable cultural and historical artefact and one that held special significance to the people of Anah and Iraq as a nation.

The Minaret of Anah has been destroyed twice in contemporary times.

The first in 2006 when it was blown up by vandals who targeted a number of Iraqi cultural heritage sites. And despite the minaret being rebuilt by Anbar governorate and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and reopened by 2012, it was destroyed again in 2016 as part of ISIS’s agenda to destroy the cultural heritage of Iraq.

In 2021, the Iraqi Ministry of Culture announced it was planning to rebuild the Minaret of Anah and completed the project last year, with the heritage site reopening in May last year.

The Green Mosque

The historic mosque in central Mosul, facing the riverbank of the Tigris in Iraq, was built in the 12th century. Since its construction, the mosque has had many names, including Al Mujahid Al Din, Al Rabad, the Red Mosque and finally Al Jamaa AlAkhadar, or the Green Mosque.

The most significant part of the mosque’s design is the dome that covers the prayer hall. From the outside the dome was decorated with bricks and is painted in a blue-green colour. Throughout its history, the mosque had gone through phases of refurbishment and restoration.

In 2015, the Green Mosque was destroyed by ISIS. There are no official reports to verify who is restoring the mosque at this point in time.

Al Arba'een Mosque

Dating back to some time in the 5th century, Al Arba'een Mosque in Tikrit was used as an Islamic university in 1262.

The mosque in Tikrit, 140km north-west of Baghdad, is about 47 metres long on each side and is constructed of five domes and a square shape. It's known for its exemplary Islamic architecture and design.

Lore around the mosque is centred on its name Arba’een, which translates to 40. This comes from the belief that 40 people were killed during an Islamic conquest of the city. It is unclear which conquest this was.

While the story of the martyrs isn’t confirmed, there are, however, two shrines in the mosque. One is dedicated to Amr ibn Jundab Al Ghafari, a companion of the Rashidun caliph Umar ibn Al Khattab, and another is believed to be that of the female saint Sitt Nafisa.

In 2014, ISIS attempted to destroy the mosque using explosives. They completely ruined the shrines and damaged the surrounding cemetery, however, the rest of the mosque was left unharmed.

There are no official reports that verify whether Al Arba'een will be restored.

Mausoleum of Imam Awn Al Din

The Mausoleum of Imam Awn Al Din was a historically significant shrine in Mosul.

Built in 1248 by the Turkik ruler Badr Al Din Lu'lu, the mausoleum was constructed in cube shape and topped by a recessed cube, which supported an octagonal base of a 12-sided conical, pyramidal brick dome. The structure was built over the tomb of Imam Awn Al Din, a descendant of Ali ibn Abi Talib an important figure in Islam.

At 30 metres tall, it is one of the tallest mausoleum’s in Iraq and was particularly noted for its unique shape and the ornamentation on the exterior and interior. It included detailed floral motifs and an inscription band revealing the name of Badr Al Din Lu'lu and the date of construction.

In In 2014 the shrine was destroyed by ISIS using explosives. As of now, there are no plans to restore the structure.

Updated: June 07, 2024, 5:23 AM