“We are Ottomans.”
My grandmother said this in 1996. She came from an old Mosul family that lived in the Bab Lagash neighborhood. I was 10 years old at the time—it was also the year that I got my first Christian calendar, from a very old bookshop on Al-Najafi Street.
She said this in answer to a question my uncle put to her during their discussion of the distribution of the estate that had been left to them by their ancestors in Mosul. My mother’s share was a part of a small house in the Bab al-Beid section in the old city. The house was near Al-Watan school where she completed her primary studies, and she always remembered her Kurdish headmistress, Kawakib Jalmiran.
My grandmother began to reminisce about the Ottoman identity of Mosul in an earlier era. She spoke in the Mosuli dialect, and very quickly, so I wasn’t sure I understood every word.
Years passed, and the subject stuck in my head. I preserved all the documents that proved my mother’s ownership of the house. A few years later, my father asked me to make a photocopy of my grandfather’s Ottoman document, and even then I did not know the meaning of the word “Ottoman.” I knew that there was a state called the Ottoman caliphate and that Mosul had been one of its provinces. From that moment on I wanted to know the history and to understand what my grandmother meant when she said, “We are Ottomans.” At school, everyone around me said we were Mosulis from Iraq!
I was born in 1986, during the Iran-Iraq war, and grew up during the first Gulf War. I still remember the big cellar of the old house in the Old City that belonged to one of my grandparents; they said there was a war and we had to hide in it. My family and all my relatives lived in that cellar; the families were separated from each other by curtains. There were many conversations, and I used to like listening to the talk of the old women. One of them spoke about the ordeal of the Mosul famine of 1917. With every one of these conversations that I heard, my passion to know the history of my city increased.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, on the day coalition forces entered Baghdad—April 9—the principal of our school told us to go home. When I arrived at the house, which is about 20 minutes from my school, my mother and father were sitting in front of the television, watching the crowds that had gathered around the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad. American soldiers tied chains to the statue to pull it down, and we saw people beating pictures of Saddam. My father, my mother and my younger brothers sat in silence. Minutes later I noticed a strange smile on my father’s face: The tyrant had fallen.
So far, everything was going on normally in our neighborhood. I went out into the street with my friend. There were still armed men in uniform on the street: the local Ba’th party leader and youths with medium and light weapons. They were distributing weapons to checkpoints around the neighborhood from a truck filled with weapons, where a long queue of people waited to get guns.
The next day—April 10, a Friday—I was standing with my friends near the mosque. Armed men in civilian clothes and military uniforms came to see what was happening. The preacher began his sermon; it was about the duty to defend Iraq against the American occupation. “God save the herdsman and the herd, and God save the president of the republic!” he said. U.S. forces were not yet in Mosul at that time. A few minutes after the start of the sermon, two vehicles arrived, bringing American soldiers and a sheikh in Arab dress. Later, I learned that the sheikh was Salim Mulla Allo, a tribal leader and a notorious figure in Mosul politics. Within a matter of seconds, the preacher who had been calling for the defense of Iraq was now crying, “Today is the day of freedom! Injustice has fallen and righteousness has triumphed! The tyrannical rule of Saddam and his Ba’thist regime have fallen!” And cries of “God is great!” rang out everywhere.
I began to read about the Ottomans and their presence in Mosul, and started studying history at the University of Mosul. I chose as the subject of my master’s degree thesis the work of the Egyptian historian Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (1753–1825), who chronicled the French campaign in Egypt under Napoleon Bonaparte. I wanted to study what this historian wrote about French soldiers in Cairo to get a better understanding of the American forces in Mosul.
Since 2003 I have watched the jihadist movements and how their ideas came to permeate everyday life. In many cases, they made their principles part of Mosul society’s basics and habits. Their daily vocabulary revolved around “jihad,” “redemption” and “martyrdom.” They rejected terms such as “resistance” that some jihadists used, associating them with the ideas of secularists or nationalists. They made videos of fighting and killing and distributed them on the streets and in the mosques, even selling them outside the University of Mosul and in the Bab al-Toob area, in the heart of the old city. Poets began to write poems praising the jihadists, and even about the cars they used in terrorist operations. One of them described the Opel Vectra (the car most commonly imported into Iraq after 2003 and the preferred vehicle for suicide attacks) as the new war-steed, and its driver as the knight.
At 3 a.m. on June 10, 2014, armed extremists moved into the northwest of Mosul and began firing heavily at police checkpoints. The gunfire continued until 11 in the morning. When it was quiet, I emerged from the room in which my family and I had been hiding. I opened the door of the house and saw bodies lying in the street and a red car filled with explosive barrels. At the end of the street there was an ambulance with the burned body of an Iraqi policeman inside it, surrounded by armed men wearing black Afghan clothing and carrying black flags inscribed with the words “God, Prophet Muhammad,” making a travesty of those names. I knew that flag well and wrote an essay on what a fraud it was
On June 13, 2014, after securing their control of Mosul, Da’esh distributed their “municipal or city charter” and later that month declared their caliphate. From that moment on, I realized that Da’esh wanted to change the history of the city in a dangerous way. They destroyed all Assyrian, Christian and Islamic monuments and everything to do with the history of Mosul, and began to apply their version of history to the city.
For three years, Mosul was under the rule of terror. There were beheadings, whippings, heads broken with stones, bodies thrown from buildings and horrific forms of torture in the prisons. I chronicled the brutality and destruction that took place, and one day I will publish a history of what happened here, in all its horror. I call it “the terrible history of the occupation of Mosul by Da’esh.”
I fled from Mosul to Europe, and began work on my doctoral thesis on the history of Mosul in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I kept the Ottoman question in my mind, but in a different way this time. While searching for sources for my studies, I found manuscripts on the history of Mosul during one of its most dangerous periods, one of them written by a Mosuli historian. I was struck by the similarity between what was written about the Ottomans, and the last phase of their presence in Mosul before the English army entered the city, and what I had written about Da’esh—the way they entered, and the way they left.
The Ottomans also ruled Mosul in the name of a caliphate. A local historian wrote in late 1917 that the Ottomans were cruel to the people and seized their money and their wheat, and the people starved. Similarly, on August 13, 2014, I wrote that “Da’esh seized the houses of Christians and the houses of Muslims who have left the city, as well as the property of merchants who have left” and imposed new taxes to be collected, payable monthly.
When the Ottoman Caliphate fell in 1918 and the English entered Mosul, people breathed a sigh of relief after the injustice that the Turks had inflicted on them. The local historian writing in 1917 told the same story my grandmother had told about how the English distributed food that the Ottomans had confiscated and stockpiled. This reminded me of the battle for Mosul in 2017, when the people were trapped, and Da’esh deprived them of water, food and medicine.
But Mosul always survives. As the medieval geographer Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217) wrote: “The city is a large and ancient one, fortified and imposing, and prepared against the strokes of adversity.”
My grandmother died in 2015, in grief. But I say to her now, No, my grandmother, we are not Ottomans. We are Mosulis.
Omar Mohammed is a historian who created and maintains the blog Mosul Eye.