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.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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