The final designs of the historic Al Nuri Mosque and two churches in the Iraqi city of Mosul will be selected next week with plans to start the reconstruction work by December or January, a senior UN cultural official told The National.
The 12th-century mosque and its famous leaning minaret were destroyed by ISIS in 2017 as government forces closed in on the last fighters of the group that once controlled the city and much of north-west Iraq.
In 2018, under the Reviving the Spirit of Mosul programme that aims to restore the shattered city, UN cultural agency Unesco set out to rebuild the city’s historic landmarks with international funding.
The reconstruction of the mosque, two churches and several other religious sites is being funded by the UAE.
“We are in the final phase before work starts, we plan to start the reconstruction of Al Hadba Minaret, Al Tahera Church and Al Saa'a Monastery by December 2021 or January 2022,” Paolo Fontani, Unesco’s Iraq director, told The National.
“The minaret will be built exactly as it was, but it is the most complex in terms of reconstruction,” Mr Fontani said.
On October 25, officials from Unesco will attend a two-day meeting in Iraq with officials from the Sunni Waqf, Iraq’s ministry of culture, the Egyptian architecture firm that won the competition to redesign Al Nuri Mosque and an Iraqi architecture firm, as well as individuals from the UAE.
“We are holding this meeting so that we can have a frank and open conversation on the final design so everyone feels comfortable,” Mr Fontani said.
The UN official said the agency wants the design to be “as close as possible to what the community wants.”
Works on the mosque are expected to start around March 2022.
“This is due to the architectural contribution, because of the need to rally people around the project, to have more stakeholders involved and participatory meetings,” he said.
“We want to make sure that everybody's onboard,” he said.
In April, a team of eight Egyptian architects won an international competition to provide the design for the reconstruction of the mosque.
It includes rebuilding the mosque's historic prayer hall and the organic integration of the complex, the largest public space in the Old City of Mosul, in its urban surroundings through open spaces with five entry points from surrounding streets, Unesco said.
While the prayer hall will look as it did before its destruction in 2017, it will feature notable improvements in the use of natural light and expanded spaces for women and dignitaries.
Mr Fontani said there were some sensitivities on how the mosque and the garden around it will look and that was why Unesco planned to conduct further meetings so that “everyone is comfortable without missing any details.”
Some critics have said the design looks too modern and that it does not have the Iraqi identity, but the government has supported the UN’s decisions, he said.
The project aims to revive Mosul’s cultural life and diversity. For thousands of years, the city was a commercial and intellectual centre and a crossroads.
Ceremony for the prophet's birthday
On Sunday, the mosque held its first ceremony in four years, during celebrations of the Prophet Mohammed's birthday, with lights illuminating the area.
"There were a lot of people in the historical centre of Mosul, around 1200 people gathered to celebrate," Mr Fontani said.
"It was the biggest gathering probably seen since the liberation of the city," he said.
Local residents told Unesco staff of how pleased they were to see the mosque's compound being rebuilt.
"The reconstruction efforts made by Unesco gives people some reassurances that they will get to see their mosque and religious sites rebuilt again," he said.
The UN agency hopes that by the end of 2023, the historical part of the project would be complete.