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Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri Destroyed by ISIS Militants

The 12th-century mosque’s leaning minaret was one of Mosul’s most recognizable landmarks

The ruins of the al-Nuri mosque (U.S. CENTCOM via AP)
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For centuries, a lopsided minaret has been a defining landmark of the city of Mosul, Iraq. Nicknamed Al-Habda, or “the hunchback,” because of its tilted stance, the minaret was situated within the complex of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, an important Islamic site. But according to Martin Chulov and Kareem Shaheen of the Guardian, both the minaret and the mosque have crumbled, reportedly destroyed by ISIS fighters.

The loss of this historic site comes as Iraqi forces and ISIS militants battle for control of Mosul—a deadly conflict that has gripped the city for more than eight months. ISIS claimed that the Great Mosque complex was destroyed by US-led airstrikes. But the Iraqi military has released footage that shows the minaret crumbling to the ground after explosives go off near its base, suggesting that bombs were placed there deliberately.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi calls the destruction of the mosque “a formal declaration” of the militants’ defeat. ISIS seized the Great Mosque in 2014, and it was there that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a new Islamic caliphate.

“They blew it up because they did not want the place they announced the caliphate from to be the place where the Iraqi military announces its victory over them,” Hisham al-Hashimi, a researcher specializing in extremist groups, explains to Chulov and Shaheen.

While these are hopeful signs that ISIS is flailing in Mosul, the bombing of the Great Mosque marks yet another devastating loss of an Iraqi cultural site. The ziggurate of Nimrud, the ornate Imam Dur Mausoleum, and the prized Mosul Museum are just some of the locations that have been ransacked by ISIS militants as they wage a war of destruction on the region’s historical relics.

According to the BBC, the Great Mosque of al-Nuri was built in the 12th century and named after Nur al-Din, a Turkic military ruler known for galvanizing Muslim forces in campaigns against the Crusaders. The Encycolopaedia Britannica writes that by the time of his death, Nur al-Din ruled over parts of Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor and Iraq.

Nur al-Din’s Great Mosque was distinguished by its elaborate minaret, which climbed to a height of 150 feet. According to the World Monuments Fund, seven bands of intricate brickwork snaked around the body of the minaret. By the 14th century, when famed Moroccan traveler Muhammad Ibn Battuta visited Mosul, the minaret had started to lean to one side and had been given its moniker. “[Mosul’s] citadel El-Habda is splendid,” Battuta wrote in an account of his travels. 

Local legend holds that the minaret is tilted because it bowed to the prophet Mohammed as he ascended to heaven. But as the BBC points out, Mohammed died several centuries before the minaret was built, prompting experts to come up with other explanations for the minaret’s incline. Strong winds are one potential culprit. It is also possible that the gypsum mortar holding the bricks together weakened over time.

Whatever the case may be, the Al-Habda’s signature pose was a cause for concern. Experts worried that the minaret was on the verge of collapse, and in June of 2014, Unesco announced that it had started a program to preserve the structural integrity of the site. But by July of that year, ISIS had seized Mosul.

According to Chulov and Shaheen of the Guardian, Iraqi officials had “privately expressed hope” that they would be able to recapture the Great Mosque by June 25, when the Eid al-Fitr festival will mark the end of Ramadan in Iraq. But June 25 is now too late. The historic mosque and its leaning minaret has been reduced to ruins and rubble.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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