Dispatch from Mosul: Reconstruction Signals New Beginnings in Iraq

Six years after ISIS was defeated in Mosul, the city’s churches, mosques and museums are coming alive again

BY Rebecca Anne Proctor in Opinion | 27 SEP 23

The shadow of war hangs over daily life in Mosul, Iraq. The intense fighting that took place for eight months between ISIS and a US-led coalition of Iraqi forces in 2017 may be over, but the physical and emotional scars still run deep in Iraq’s second biggest city, once the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Walking along the streets of Old Mosul, where street vendors and peddlers work amidst rows of bomb-blasted structures, historic buildings with bullet-holed facades and heaps of debris at every turn, it’s hard to imagine how beautiful this city once was.

Destroyed buildings in Mosul. Courtesy: Rebecca Anne Proctor

But while Mosul may never return to its former state, hope glimmers through the damage. Over the past few years dozens of Ottoman-era homes and other historic structures – mosques, churches, synagogues and museums – have been repaired, by both international organizations and dedicated locals eager to rebuild their beloved city. After so much loss and ongoing trauma, this is the only way forward, paying reverence to the city’s principal sites of great beauty. ‘We are still grieving, we are still suffering, but our city is returning to us now,’ an elderly man on a street told me during my visit this summer, also recounting how he lost his son to ISIS on that very street during an air raid.

View of the Al-Nuri Mosque under reconstruction on February 23, 2021 in Mosul, Iraq. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Hawre Khalid

Nearby, work had begun to reconstruct the Great Mosque of al-Nuri and its distinctive ‘hunchback’ or leaning minaret – destroyed in June 2017 during the terrorist group’s final last stand – the result of efforts by a consortium of international organizations, including UNESCO, the World Monuments Fund and the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas, among several others. In another area of the city, the Cultural Museum, Iraq’s second largest encyclopaedic institution after the National Museum in Baghdad, is in the final stages of reconstruction, due to reopen in 2026. Known as the ‘identity of Mosul’, the museum was bombed and looted by ISIS when it took over the city in 2014. Inside, a giant crater remains in its Assyrian Hall where the terrorist group detonated a bomb, deliberately left open as a reminder. To attempt to forget the violence would mean to deny a part of Mosul’s now present identity. Acceptance, as Mosulites told me, is the only way to move forward.

Assyrian Hall at The Cultural Museum. Courtesy: Rebecca Anne Proctor

While many challenges remain – from ramshackle public services to economic difficulties and governmental corruption – signs of new life are springing up all over the city as a semblance of normalcy slowly returns. The University of Mosul’s library, burned to the ground by ISIS, reopened in February 2022 with support from the United Nations Development Program, the Federal Republic of Germany and the Nineveh Governorate of Northern Iraq. The nearby theatre also reopened with a live interfaith orchestra. In 2020, the Mosul branch of the Station, a creative hub that originated in Baghdad, opened with a recording studio, an art gallery and spaces for workshops, concerts and exhibitions. Young Mosulites gather to exchange ideas in the ground floor café.

Café at the Station. Courtesy: Rebecca Anne Proctor

Reconstruction is a challenging task. Inside the Tutunji House, an enchanting Ottoman palace built in the 19th century, destroyed by ISIS and being rebuilt by the University of Pennsylvania and the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), I was immediately transfixed by the intricate carvings and luminous archways of the historical structure. Yet, Mosaab Jaseem, the site manager directing the restoration for SBAH, explained that before work could begin, not just at the house but all over the city, the Iraqi Army and other specialists had to clear active mines still present from the ISIS days.

Artifacts being documented and inventoried, 2022. Courtesy: The Cultural Museum

Indeed, de-mining is taking place all over the city, though not without numerous injuries and deaths being reported, with the victims including several children. The violence of the past continues to haunt the present, and death has become part of the process of reconstruction as Iraqis risk their lives to see their beloved city come back to them. Despite the challenges, however, the project is working. The memory of Mosul as a city crucial to the history of not only Iraq but the whole world, is returning, albeit slowly and painfully, from the ashes of destruction.

Rebecca Anne Proctor is an independent journalist, editor and broadcaster based between Dubai and Rome. She is the former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia.