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.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.