Unesco ambassador calls for 'visionary leadership' to revive spirit of Mosul

Cultural specialist says wise local management needed to develop rebuilding achievements in war-hit Iraqi city

Unesco director general Audrey Azoulay talks with restoration workers and Catholic priest Father Oliver Poquillon during her visit to Mosul. Ismael Adnan for The National
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Restoring Mosul's historic buildings damaged during the battle against ISIS and maintaining others that escaped destruction are priorities of Unesco in the northern Iraqi city, one of the city's leading cultural experts has said.

Ayoob Thanoon, Unesco’s ambassador of the Revive the Spirit of Mosul initiative, told The National this is a turning point for the ancient city.

The scheme aims to restore the city’s famous buildings and heritage sites and strengthen the education system by repairing schools.

The UAE is a partner in the project, having donated $50 million to restore the Al Nuri Mosque complex — which dates back to the 12th century — and the nearby Al Saa’a Clock Church and Al Tahera Church.

Mr Thanoon told The National that the youth of Mosul are grateful for the international moral and financial support.

He said what is required now is support from local government.

“What we need is wise management and investment of these resources in order for the country to develop but also building a strategic vision for the country,” Mr Thanoon said.

The landmarks were blown up by ISIS as US-backed government forces battled for Mosul’s Old City in June 2017, the last urban stronghold for the extremists in the more than three years of war that left major cities in ruins.

“After ISIS took control of Mosul and started bombing the heritage and archaeological sites, we began mourning the loss of these historical sites, and the battle to liberate Mosul began a starting point for a lot of us, especially the youth,” Mr Thanoon said.

Mosul — which means “the linking point” in Arabic — is historically a place of diversity that was targeted by the extremists.

Few members of its Christian community remain and key symbols of its cultural and architectural heritage, including places of worship, were desecrated by ISIS.

Mosul residents relax next to murals painted on houses by artist Fares Shamou Bibani. Reuters

In early 2018, the UN’s cultural agency launched Revive the Spirit of Mosul initiative, months after the declaration of victory over ISIS.

While efforts have not yet been able to restore completely what Mosul lost, efforts to revive the memories have slowly begun to take shape, Mr Thanoon explained.

“The initiative to revive the spirit of Mosul, which Unesco is working on with the support of the UAE, the European Union and some other donors, was a turning point for the ancient city of Mosul, through the restoration efforts of the Al Nuri Mosque and the Clock Church,” he told The National during a visit to Abu Dhabi.

On Tuesday, in a ceremony held alongside Iraq's Culture Minister Ahmed Al Badrani, Unesco's director general Audrey Azoulay laid a handful of the stones recovered from the ruins of Al Nuri Mosque in 2017.

Tens of thousands of artefacts were stolen from sites around the country during the years of conflict.

Ms Azoulay said Unesco “is very committed to assisting Iraq in the recuperation of the cultural goods and artefacts that have been looted over the last decades”.

“We consider these projects to be one of the most important projects that took place in Mosul, and we are working on it to actually restore the spirit of historical Mosul, which is not only about the physical historical sites, but the social fabric between Christians and Muslims these sites represent,” Mr Thanoon said.

Mr Thanoon is also the founder of Mosul Heritage, a youth-led project concerned with preserving heritage and attracting tourists to learn more about the historical sites of the city, which includes more than 400 archaeological sites.

Part of the recent initiatives includes helping establish the Mosul Heritage house — a destination to many Iraqis and tourists seeking to learn about the city’s history, its civilisation and heritage.

“The house has become a museum for the public, in order to preserve the city’s identity,” Mr Thanoon said.

The house belongs to the Rhayyem family — specifically Dr Ousama Rhayyem, who was determined to renovate it after it had been damaged in the war against ISIS.

“The Mosul Heritage project then rented it to become a museum for the public, hosting cultural and arts activities. One of the goals of this project is to shed light on artworks, especially those related to heritage. For that, we allocated a room and named it Maslawi Creativity,” Mr Thanoon said.

The ruins Mosul's Old City following the battle against ISIS in 2017. AFP

Iraq is home to six Unesco-listed World Heritage Sites, among them the ancient city of Babylon, the site of several ancient empires under rulers such as Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar.

As the security situation has stabilised in Iraq in recent years, the country has seen a resurgence of archaeological excavations and funding for restorations.

“We all know what Iraq has been through over the last decades,” Ms Azoulay told reporters during her visit.

“And we also know what the civilisations of this world owe to Iraq.”

Updated: March 10, 2023, 2:44 PM