In the four years since Islamic State was defeated and Mosul liberated, local inhabitants have reckoned with the destruction wrought by the insurgents. The occupation of the city – Iraq’s second largest – lasted from 2014-2017 and saw 800,000 people displaced.
Severe damage was also inflicted on the built environment, with around 35,000 buildings demolished. S.H., a man who lived through the occupation, and whom I interviewed in September 2020, recounted how, in the immediate aftermath of the war, the city was unrecognisable.
Non-governmental organisations, including Unesco and the United Nations Development Programme, have focused on reconstructing iconic landmarks and restoring homes. However, amid political tensions between local authorities and central government, the cost, estimated at $1 billion, of rebuilding the Old Town has largely fallen to the people themselves.
Mosuli historian and journalist Omar Mohammed put it plainly: “After the liberation of Mosul,” he wrote in January 2020, “the city is no longer a priority for the Iraqi government. All reconstruction has mainly been undertaken by the citizens.”
As part of my doctoral research into the ways in which local residents are coming to terms with this recent past, I have interviewed Mosulians, on location in the Old Town and among the Iraqi diaspora online. In particular, I have focused on the shop owners of Mosul’s historical markets, who see their erstwhile trades and crafts as integral to their city’s identity – and reviving them, their duty.
A rich history
The Old Town of Mosul – the city’s beating heart – is seen as the physical embodiment of the rich, cultural diversity that has, for millennia, characterised Iraq. Established on the western bank of the Tigris during the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 612-559 BC, it was submitted by the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to Unesco in 2018 as a potential world heritage site.
According to a 1926 edition of the Journal of the Central Asian Society, Mosul – the name of which referred to the city’s position at the junction of major Middle Eastern trade routes – was home to 166,940 Arabs, 494,000 Kurds, 38,000 Turcomans, 61,330 Christians, 11,890 Jews and 26,000 Yezidis. While some ethnicities had diminished in numbers by 2014, this co-existence remained a defining factor of the Mosulian cultural heritage.
As noted in the Unesco submission, before the Islamic State takeover and the subsequent battle to liberate the city, the Old Town’s built heritage was largely intact and untouched by modernisation. The old city was considered one of the best examples of medieval urban development in the Middle East, housing a plethora of shrines, churches, mosques, madrassas and cemeteries.
These included the 12th-century Al-Nuri Mosque with its leaning minaret, destroyed in the final days of the Battle for Mosul, and the 19th–century Al-Sa’a church which Islamic State began demolishing in 2016. A system of narrow streets and alleyways – locally known as the awjat – connected the town’s historic markets, including the 7th-century Bab al-Saray souq, the 13ts-century al-Sirjkhane souq and the al-Najafi souq from the early 20th century.
Research has identified multiple reasons behind Islamic State’s destruction of historic urban spaces. They fall broadly under the concept of what international relations specialist Martin Coward calls urbicide. This refers to the targeting of historic and cultural spaces as a means of erasing a city’s identity and establishing complete control over its future.
After liberation, reconstructing the souqs, the homes and the awjat became an imperative for local inhabitants. Shop owners have reopened the same businesses, selling the same products in the same spots.
“I worked in this exact place,” a carpenter in Al-Najjarin told me. “We all learned from the same teacher.” Other artisans explained how they had learned their craft – as blacksmiths, goldsmiths, coppersmiths and spice merchants – from their parents and grandparents.
One man told me that re-opening was better than fleeing the city and starting up elsewhere, even if it ultimately cost more to do so. “Shop owners who have been here for a long time feel obligated to reconstruct,” he said. “We owe it to the souq.”
I heard the same sentiment expressed all across Bab al-Saray. People have made huge sacrifices to restore their market. And their efforts are paying off. As Bab al-Saray has been revived, so have the smaller surrounding souqs, including al-Sammajah (the fishmongers’ market) and al-Najjarin (the carpenters’ market).
During the war, the Old Town went from being a place of culture and daily interactions to one of terror. Research on Iraqi reconstruction has emphasised the human aspect of cultural heritage and how crucial a sense of belonging is to the broader healing process. In bringing the market buildings and activities back themselves, these tradesmen and craftsmen have restored to local people precisely that.
Yousif Al-Daffaie does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.