On Mosul, the intellectual heart of the medieval Middle East

A 1932 photograph showing the minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, Mosul. Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

The Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, built nearly a millennium ago and one of Iraq’s most revered religious sites, was destroyed when the Islamic State detonated explosives inside it in June of this year.

Founded in the 12th century by one of Islam’s most famous rulers, Nur al-Din ibn Zangi, in the medieval period the mosque was considered the “ultimate in beauty and excellence.” It was famous for its soaring, 150-foot minaret, the tallest in Iraq and nicknamed “al-Hadba’” or “the Hunchback” because it leaned to one side, like an Islamic Tower of Pisa. Its destruction was a terrible blow to the people of Mosul, and for the rest of the world.

I am a scholar of Islamic art, and my research reveals that such acts of deliberate, ideologically based destruction are unusual in Islamic history. Although today Mosul is famous outside of Iraq primarily as a site of conflict, its rich and diverse history forms an important legacy.

What was lost in Mosul?

Mosul was founded in ancient times, on the outskirts of the older Assyrian city of Nineveh. The precise date of the city’s foundation is unknown, but at least from the medieval era, it was known as “Madinat al-anbiya’” or “City of the Prophets,” with dozens of tombs, shrines, synagogues and churches.

Perhaps the most famous of these was the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah, a figure revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. In the Bible, God causes Jonah to be swallowed by a whale to convince him of his prophetic mission to preach to the people of Nineveh. For Jews, Jonah is venerated as a symbol of repentance on the holiday of Yom Kippur. And in Islam, Jonah evokes the themes of justice, mercy and obedience – seen as exemplary models for human behavior.

There were numerous other sites in Mosul linked to prophetic figures: among them, the Monastery of Elijah or Dar Eliyas, a 1,400-year-old Christian monastery thought to be the oldest in Iraq.

Sadly, none of these monuments survived the destruction of IS.

World trade, intellectual center

Mosul was also an important center for trade as well as scholarly exchange. It sat at a key junction on the Silk Road – a rich network of premodern superhighways – stretching over mountains, deserts and plains across three continents that moved goods from lands that seemed impossibly distant and exotic to those at either end. Mosul itself was known for some of the most luxurious inlaid metalware of the medieval era.

As a centre of such exchange, the city was home to a diverse group of people: Arabs and Kurds, Jews and Christians, Sunnis and Shias, Sufis and dozens of saints holy to many faiths.

It was also home to poets, scholars and philosophers such as the 10th-century philosopher al-Mawsili and the 11th-century astronomer al-Qabisi, one of a line of famous Mosul astronomers who helped formulate a critique of the Earth-centered model of the universe. That model would eventually make its way to Europe to inform Copernicus’ view of the solar system. Mosul also produced one of Islam’s most famous historians, Ibn al-Athir, who completed his magnum opus, a monumental universal chronicle called “The Complete History,” in the city in 1231.

Important works of mathematics, including a commentary on the Greek mathematician Euclid that was later translated into Latin, were written in Mosul. It was also a center for significant medical advances, including an early description of surgery to remove cataracts.

As mosques were traditionally places of knowledge transmission and learning, it is entirely possible that some of these scholars’ ideas were formulated, discussed and refined within the mosque of al-Nuri’s walls.

Mosul’s medieval past informed its contemporary history as well: in modern times, the city was home to some of the most important museums, libraries and universities in Iraq, including a renowned medical school.


The meaning of the mosque in Iraq

Although the mosque of al-Nuri was transformed over the centuries, it remained a beloved symbol of the ancient city and its diverse heritage. In 1942, much of the mosque, with the exception of the minaret, the prayer niche and some of its columns, went through significant renovation. But the mosque did not lose its value for the citizens of Mosul – in fact, it appeared on the Iraqi 10,000 dinar bill.

In June of 2014, when IS originally captured the city and approached the mosque with explosives, residents of the town formed a human chain around it.

Only a few short weeks later, in a complete about-face, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood at the pulpit of that same mosque and declared the creation of his “caliphate.”

Mosul past and future

Over time, Mosul will rebuild its damaged mosque. But for those of us outside Iraq, who today know Mosul largely through newspaper stories of war and intolerance, the loss of the mosque will make it that much harder to imagine the diverse intellectual and religious world that once characterised not only Mosul, but all of the Middle East.

The ConversationAlthough there were conflicts, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in pragmatic cooperation for much of their history. It was the Christians of the city, after all, who said that the minaret leaned because it was bowing toward the tomb of the Virgin Mary.

Stephennie Mulder is associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.