In the war-scarred city of Mosul, a scene of hope and determination is unfolding as the UAE-Unesco partnership on Tuesday launched the final reconstruction phase of the city’s the Al Nuri mosque complex, including its Al Hadba minaret.
Once a symbol of the city’s rich history and culture, the landmarks were blown up by ISIS as US-backed government forces approached Mosul’s old city in June 2017, the last urban stronghold for the militants in the more than three years of war that left major cities in ruins.
In early 2018, the UN’s cultural agency launched its flagship “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” initiative, a few months after the declaration of victory over ISIS.
The initiative is aimed at recovering the city’s famous buildings and heritage sites, while also strengthening the educational system by rehabilitating and repairing schools.
The UAE donated $50 million to restore the Al Nuri complex, as well as two nearby churches, Al Saa’a and Al Tahera.
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 the mosque in 2017.
“I was waiting for this moment for a long time, to launch the final stage of Al Hadba minaret”, Ms Azoulay told reporters.
“We know what an important symbol … Al Hadba minaret is for Mosul, for Iraq, for a city which suffered so much over the last years. It’s a symbol of Iraq's rich history and by rebuilding it, we are reviving this symbol.”
In 2014, Mosul became the centre of ISIS’s brutal rule in Iraq.
While the terrorist group occupied large areas of the country, locals say that no other city in the country suffered the full extent of the extremists' control as Mosul did.
“We know that Mosul was, before the occupation, a city of culture, a city of education, a city of diversity and it’s precisely because of that it was targeted so violently by Daesh,” Ms Azoulay said.
She thanked all global partners who have supported the Revive the Spirit of Mosul project, “mainly the UAE, especially for Al Nuri mosque”.
Those partners, she said, “wanted to be at the side of the people of Mosul to support them to rebuild their future”. Ms Azoulay said in her address that the international community stood with all Iraqis.
“Unesco particularly stands with them because there will be no peace and future without heritage, education [and] culture.”
Al Nuri mosque was constructed in the second half of the 12th century and has been known as Mosul’s Great Mosque.
Al Hadba minaret was built in 1172 by the Seljuk ruler Nur Al Din as part of the religious complex. It was 45 metres tall and decorated with ornamental brickwork.
For centuries, Al Nuri Mosque and its leaning minaret, nicknamed “the hunchback”, have been one of the city’s best-known sights.
The minaret is also of great national significance and was printed on the country’s 10,000-dinar banknote.
Earlier, Ms Azoulay toured the old city's labyrinth of alleyways around Al Nuri mosque complex where Unesco has been renovating old houses.
Unesco engineers briefed her on the progress so far.
Some houses have been fully renovated and handed over to their families while others are still being rehabilitated.
When she visited the nearby Al Saa’a church, she restored a familiar sound to a place known for Christian-Muslim co-existence.
Its new set of bells rang out again for the first time since the city was liberated. The three bells — named after the Archangels Gabriel, Michael and Raphael — were cast in Normandy and brought early this year.
The scars of war are still visible in every corner of the old city — from bullet-riddled walls to the charred shells of cars and damaged houses.
Sumaya Taha, 50, a mother of four, emerged from her newly refurbished home to hug and kiss Ms Azoulay.
“Thank you, thank you for all your good work for us. We really appreciate it,” she said.
Ms Taha's home was damaged during the battle to drive ISIS militants out of the Old City.
“If it wasn’t for the international organisations, mainly Unesco, we would not be back in our house again,” she told The National.
“Our neighbourhood became beautiful, even better than before.”
Iraq is home to six Unesco-listed World Heritage Sites, including the ancient city of Babylon, the site of several ancient empires under rulers such as Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar.