DUBAI: Government officials and NGOs are taking the initiative to restore vital historical sites across the Middle East after years of destruction by militant groups.
The UN cultural agency UNESCO recently announced that the reconstruction of Al-Nouri Mosque — which was blown up by Daesh in June 2017 — in the Iraqi city of Mosul will start at the beginning of next year.
Launched in 2018, the mosque restoration plan will be the most eye-catching part of a $100 million UNESCO-led heritage reconstruction called “Revive the Spirit of Mosul.”
The timeline of the restoration plan for the 12th-century mosque, famed for its leaning minaret, was finalized during a meeting in Paris between UNESCO and Iraqi government officials.
“What they call the Arab Spring is really the Arab Fall because many historic sites in Iraq, Syria and Libya have been erased,” said Samir Saddi, founder and director of the Beirut-based architecture and design institute ARCADE.
“The destruction is very upsetting because it’s not only about heritage itself as much as it is about these monuments and their meaning in social and religious life.”
Saddi sees restoration in the Middle East as a costly, recurrent endeavor as extremists have repeatedly targeted historical monuments due to their importance to local communities.
“You can kill a person, but here you’re erasing centuries of cultural and religious meaning. It’s very important to restore these buildings,” he said.
“What’s also important is what should be done in terms of educating people and creating awareness on how to maintain these monuments.”
Saddi said the challenge for the Middle East is not only restoration but also how to make sure this kind of destruction does not happen again, and how to preserve monuments and traditional architecture.
“It’s really the biggest subject because you can restore the mosque, but what about the daily destruction of heritage in terms of habitat and nature?” he said.
Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate from Al-Nouri Mosque in the summer of 2014, only for his own fighters to blow it up three years later as Iraqi government forces closed in.
The mosque was not the first victim of Daesh’s cultural nihilism. In January 2017, Daesh fighters destroyed the Roman theater in the Syrian city of Palmyra — a historical landmark dating back to the 2nd century AD — and other monuments in the area.
The Great Umayyad Mosque in Syria’s largest city Aleppo was another target. The 8th-century mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was demolished in April 2013.
“There are many sites across the Middle East and North Africa that are very rich in Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Islamic history,” Saddi said.
“Daesh fighters knew what they were doing. They selected prominent sites and systematically destroyed them because this is how you really make the most damaging impact on people.”
Al-Nouri Mosque is one of Iraq’s many war-devastated historical places. Others include the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, located on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in Mosul, and Nimrud, the first Assyrian capital from over 3,000 years ago.
“Restoring such sites is vital because they’re part of the history, culture and civilization of the area,” said Rashad Bukhash, chair of the Architectural Heritage Society in the UAE.
“Al-Nouri Mosque is very old and went through different stages of restoration. It’s important to keep these sacred buildings as part of Iraq’s culture and part of human history.”
The UAE is providing more than $50 million to finance UNESCO’s “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” project, focusing on the restoration of Al-Nouri Mosque, with the EU providing another $24 million.
In addition, the UNESCO initiative will make funds available for the rebuilding of churches, schools, and a street in Mosul’s Old City that was famous for its bookshops.
Bukhash said what will help in the restoration process is that Al-Nouri Mosque’s complete documentation, drawings and photos have survived.
“People who lived and worked on it will help to rebuild the mosque exactly as it was. As a mosque where people prayed, it’s important to restore it for history on the one hand, and to send a message to terrorists on the other hand that we’re building history back no matter what they do,” he said.
Saddi suggested an alternative to restoring devastated historical sites, such as building a museum nearby to tell their story.
“There is a continuous cycle of violence and reconstruction. The destruction of Al-Nouri Mosque is an act of extreme terror,” he said.
“The mosque is partially destroyed, and we can’t go back in time and pretend it didn’t happen,” he added.
“It should stay as it is today, but there should be a museum project to show what this mosque was, its history and relation to the community, when and why it was destroyed, who did this act of savagery and why, and how to avoid the repetition of these barbaric acts in the future.”
Saddi said a museum for Al-Nouri Mosque as the main “artefact” would represent a much stronger statement than rebuilding it to its original state, which he believes will never match its original form.
“In other words, there is before and after. The Mosul population should remember the destruction by seeing it, but also by learning and gaining knowledge, hence the idea of an Al-Nouri Museum,” he said.
Saddi spoke of the relevance of a project he is working on: A museum for changing times. “What’s happening in the Arab world is a complete change, both social and economic,” he said.
“My project is a museum for architecture in the Arab world — not modern but historical, traditional architecture that has disappeared,” he added.
“When you go to Palmyra, you see an old city but only stones or arches. However, in Syria and Iraq you have entire community settlements that are disappearing, not just because of war but also because of development and because people are moving from rural areas to cities.”
Saddi recommends preserving memories of such architecture, as well as research into their intrinsic value.
“We’re now living in a period where sustainability is the key word. People are emigrating from the Middle East to Europe, leaving behind a lot of knowledge and know-how, so something should be done in that sense,” he said.
“We should have a setup where you can understand how the built environment was done from Iraq to Morocco, the richness of our architecture and how it has been vandalized not only by war but also by modern developments. In other words, what’s the future of our past?”
Mosul’s future could well be riding on UNESCO’s restoration project. Two years after Daesh was ousted, it is a city in ruins, still struggling with basic services such as electricity, water and health care.
The UN is working to restore private houses in the historic Old City, but most of its residents still reside in camps.