Mosul is Iraq's third largest city, with approximately 665,000 inhabitants as of 1987. It is situated close to 400 kilometers north of Baghdad on the west bank of Tigris, in the Diar Rabi'a region, close to the ruined Assyrian city of Nineveh. Though the population of Mosul is principally Kurdish, Mosul is home to other minority groups, including Aramaic-speaking Christian Assyrians, and to a lesser extent, Turcomans. The city has been described as 'the pearl of the north.' Once a walled city, remains of the original fortifications still stand along the Bash Tapia castle, on the western bank of the Tigris.
Mosul is the only major city east of Euphrates built primarily of stone and brick. It includes an extensive use of marble, especially in columns, door and window frames. Specialized masonry techniques, like the carving on marble with bitumen filling, were introduced to the city from Damascus during the reign of Nur al-Din. Its buildings and monuments were partially built with re-used elements from Roman temples and early Christian churches.
In approximately 850 BCE, King Assubanipal II of Assyria chose the city of Nimrud to establish his capital, where present day Mosul is located. Around 700 BCE, King Sennacherib made Nineveh the new capital of Assyria. Mosul later succeeded Nineveh as the Tigris bridgehead of the road that linked Syria and Anatolia with Persia. By the eighth century, Mosul had become the principal city of northern Mesopotamia.
The city was an important trade center in the Abbasid era, because of its strategic position on the caravan route between India, Persia and the Mediterranean. In 1127, Mosul became the capital of the Zangid dynasty until 1224, when it was sacked by the newly prominent local Badr al-Din Lu'lu'. During Badr al-Din Lu'lu''s reign, the city reached its apogee, and was widely known for its textile and metalwork.
The city is also recognized for its abundance of shrines, dedicated to religious figures like Jonah, St. Georges, and several Shi'ite Imams. A distinguishing feature of these shrines is the dome, which appears a simple, conical or pyramidal form from the outside, but reveal exquisite muqarnas ornamentation from the inside. These forms spread beyond shrines, and were adopted by many local churches. Several decorative patterns and techniques that formed in Mosul also spread into the greater Muslim world, including brick decoration, and marble mosaic work.
In the thirteenth century, Mosul was nearly destroyed by Mongol invasion. It was not until 1534, when the Ottomans took control over Mosul, that the city was rebuilt, and transformed into the region's commercial and administrative center. Mosul declined after the opening of the Suez Canal, but was revived with the discovery and development of petroleum reserves in the area in the 1920s.
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Mar Tuma, the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, in Mosul, is a Jacobite church predating the Iraqi Zangid dynasty (1127-1222 CE). While the structure has visual continuity with thirteenth century construction, it is believed to have been built several centuries earlier, having been referenced in accounts of the Abbasid caliphate al Mahdi's (b.754/137 AH-d.785/168 AH) travels. The site has long been an object of Christian, and particularly Syriac veneration, as well as a site of international and historical inquiry since the early nineteenth century.
According to a description of the church provided by Claudis James Rich, who visited Mar Tuma on his travels through the Kurdish regions of Iraq in the 1830s, the church was constructed along a three-part plan, comprised of the church's center and two aisles, demarcated by heavy pointed arches and large octagonal piers. The church sanctuary held three painted and canopied altars, and was accessible through a grand marble portal, depicting Christ and the twelve apostles in intricately carved medallions, and surrounded by curling scrolls. Rich also noted a carved stone niche at the forward most end of one of the aisles, which he described as an object of local veneration for its connections to Christian antiquity. Among the carved ornamentation surrounding the niche, he noted bands of Arabic inscription in a variation of Kufic script. These inscriptions, as well as the synthesis of diverse cultural and religious influences in the site's visual vocabulary has led to its comparison with the Muslim shrine of Imam Yahya, built by Sultan Badr al-Din Lu'lu in the thirteenth century.
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Bell, Gertrude Lowthian. Amurath to Amurath. University of California: Dutton. 1911.