The architects chosen to rebuild the Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul say their proposal is on track despite opposition to its modernist design.
The mosque is one of dozens of religious monuments that were destroyed, along with thousands of houses, in fighting against Islamic State insurgents in 2017. (See a related article, “Two Caliphates Fall: Mosul Survives.”)
The following year, after government forces recaptured Iraq’s second largest city, Audrey Azoulay, director-general of Unesco, launched the initiative “Revive the Spirit of Mosul.”
Its centerpiece is a $50 million project, supported by the United Arab Emirates, to rebuild three iconic landmarks including the 12th-century tilted brick minaret near the mosque. The others are the Al-Tahera Syriac Catholic Church, and the Conventual Church of Our Lady of the Hour, both 19th-century buildings.
In April this year, an entry titled “Courtyards Dialogue” from eight Egyptian architects won Unesco’s international competition for the reconstruction of the mosque complex. But its modernist design stirred outcry among Iraqi architects and many local people.
Some critics attacked the architects’ plans, others complained about the way the competition was organized. Other experts, however, said that, apart from its distinctive minaret, the mosque was of little historical importance.
“The design projects a totally modernist image and a new cubist brick vocabulary.”Ihsan Fethi
Former chairman of the Baghdad School of Architecture and an expert in cultural heritage and conservation
Accusations of ‘Alien’ Concepts
The Iraqi Society of Engineers, whose 200,000 members include 7,000 architects, issued a statement opposing the project, while Ihsan Fethi, a former chairman of the Baghdad School of Architecture and an expert in cultural heritage and conservation, said “the design projects a totally modernist image and a new cubist brick vocabulary.”
It was, he told Al-Fanar Media, “a shock to anyone who is familiar with Mosul’s amazingly rich stone and marble architecture.”
Others complained that the winning design included palm trees, which are not indigenous to Mosul, and used cream-colored brick instead of traditional blue-veined alabaster and limestone.
The Iraqi Architectural Heritage Preservation Society said the design introduced “alien” concepts that would change the site beyond recognition and called on Iraq’s prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, to intervene.
On a visit to Mosul on August 16, Al-Kadhimi praised Unesco and its partners, saying: “The Al-Nuri Mosque will see the light, the sound of the call to prayer will fill all its suburbs, and Al-Hadba’ minaret will rise again.”
Mosul’s Living Icon
The mosque was originally built in A.D. 1172-3 and named after Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, the ruler of Mosul and Aleppo, but was extensively renovated several times, mostly recently in 1942. The only part to escape the latest restoration was the minaret, known locally as Al-Hadba’, or the hunchback, which appears on Iraq’s 10,000 dinar banknote.
“The mosque’s prayer hall was of little historic importance and was never representative of Mosuli architecture,” Hafidh Al-Hajj Rahho, a professor of architectural design at Mosul University, wrote to Al-Fanar Media. “It lost its historical features and originality after it was rebuilt many times.”
The minaret, he added, was “Mosul’s living icon and symbol” thanks to “its authenticity and precise workmanship.”
Fethi agreed that the famous leaning minaret was “the site’s single most important historic feature” but said that “amazingly, it was excluded from the competition!”
“The mosque’s prayer hall was of little historic importance and was never representative of Mosuli architecture. It lost its historical features and originality after it was rebuilt many times.”Hafidh Al-Hajj Rahho
A professor of architectural design at Mosul University
Fethi complained that the jury was biased in favor of modernist architects and that its 11 members included only two Iraqis with no experience in historic restoration. The 123 competition entries included only eight from Iraqis.
A Competition Too Short?
Another critic, Ahmed Al-Mallak, a U.K.-based Iraqi architect and the founding director of the Tamayouz Excellence Award, said: “the competition was too short to get as many good entries as possible.”
“The audience always criticizes the judging panel,” he added, “but we need to keep in mind that many competitions receive many unsuitable schemes, if not the majority of submissions. Their selection is the best of what they received.”
However, Iraq’s Sunni Endowment Office welcomed the design. Crews recovered and cleaned 45,000 bricks to rebuild the minaret to its old design, and cataloged pieces of marble and stone from the mosque to be used in the restoration.
Sherif Farag Ebrahim, an assistant professor of architecture at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Fine Arts and a member of the Egyptian winning team, noted that the mosque and its famed minaret were originally built of brick.
“Mosul’s houses might have used limestone or marble,” he said, but “public facilities tend to use cheaper stuffs.”
Farag said the team was “reviewing all points of view” and might change the design. But he insisted that the finished work would respect local and religious traditions.
Islamic Tradition and Cultural Diversity
“Islam is an Abrahamic religion, but the site will not be used to perform other religious practices,” he said. “The mosque’s courtyard, where people take off their shoes, is well-defined.”
For his part, Al-Hajj Rahho defended the winning design for reflecting Mosul’s cultural diversity. It achieves a “contemporary vision that draws visitors from the project’s outside to its courtyards, creating urban spaces that integrate with the fabric of the old city,” he said.
“The project is basically the seed of reviving the city. Mosul residents form the core of this revival process, which should target them and must be guided by their opinions, desires and aspirations.”Tarek Ali
Member of the winning team
“It also departs from the context of sanctity of religious buildings, and brings us back to the basis of building mosques, which go beyond being ritual worship spaces, to be the beating heart of urban life and an intellectual avenue.”
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Farag said his team was in the process of contracting a local construction company and said: “We are on track and everything is good.” Final detailed sketches should be ready by the end of this year, he added.
Tarek Ali, another member of the winning team, said they were ready to listen to criticism and revise the design because “the project is basically the seed of reviving the city. Mosul residents form the core of this revival process, which should target them and must be guided by their opinions, desires and aspirations.”