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.
al-Janabi, Tariq Jawad. Studies in Medieval Iraqi Architecture. Baghdad : Ministry of Culture and Information, State Organization of Antiquities and Heritage, 1982.
Ettinghausen, Richard and Oleg Grabar. The Art and Architecture of Islam. New Haven : Yale University Press, 1994.
Architecture of the Islamic World, Edited by George Michell. London : Thames and Hudson, 1978.
Bosworth, Clifford Edmond. The New Islamic Dynasties. New York : Columbia University Press, 1996.
Al-Tabbaa, Yasser Ahmad. The Architectural Patronage of Nur al-Din, (1146-1174). New York : New York University, University Microfilms International, 1982.
The Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul is one of the city's three great mosques and is also known as al-Jami' al-Nuri al-Kabir (The Great Nuri Mosque). Located in the heart of the old city, construction on the mosque began in ca. 1170/566 AH under Nur al-Din Mahmud ibn Zangi (r. 1146-1174/541-569 AH) and included both a prayer hall and a madrasa. The mosque is perhaps most famous for its gently leaning brick minaret, known as "al-Hadba," which is situated on the north side of the complex. The mosque was irrevocably altered during 1942 as part of a renovation project orchestrated by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities. These restoration works consisted of destroying the old mosque and rebuilding it with old and new material according to a new plan. All that remains from the original complex are the minaret, two mihrabs, an inscribed marble slab, and some stucco decoration.
The present-day mosque consists of a rectangular prayer hall with a dome covering the central bay before the mihrab. Adjoining this prayer hall to the north is a large open courtyard with an ablutions fountain. The western part of the courtyard is paved while the eastern part contains greenery.
The original form and decoration of the mosque and its sequence of construction is a matter of some debate. Yasser Tabbaa has argued that the mosque originally took the form of a rectangular, shallow prayer hall, seven bays wide and one and a half deep, with a dome above the central bay in front of the mihrab, not unlike the structure that still existed in the early twentieth century before the 1944 demolition.1The prayer hall would have opened on its north side onto a large open space, perhaps surrounded by a wall. The size of this space was most likely larger than the present courtyard or that of the early twentieth century mosque.2 Ernst Herzfeld, who conducted the only scholarly study of the mosque prior to its demolition, argued for a deeper prayer hall with bays that alternated between smaller and larger rectangles, some vaulted and some domed. His argument for the depth of the prayer hall was tentative, however, and largely based on the remains of columns in the courtyard north of the structure that existed in 1910.3
The original mosque had three main mihrabs, whose history the Mosulite art historian Sa'id Daywahji has clarified as follows.4 At the time of the Mosque's demolition in 1944, the central mihrab under the dome of the prayer hall was a simple construction with a muqarnas hood. It was inscribed with the year 1281 AH (1864-1865 CE) and covered several earlier mihrabs. Two other older and more ornate mihrabs were found in the mosque. The first of these was transferred from the Umayyad Mosque in Mosul and bears the date of 543 AH (1148-1149). It was made of marble and had vegetal arabesques covering the niche and hood, framed by Arabic inscriptions. This mihrab was originally placed in a wing of the prayer hall reserved for Shafi'ites, but after the reconstruction of the mosque in 1944 it was transferred to the center of the qibla wall under the dome, replacing the 1864 mihrab mentioned above. The third important mihrab is a handsome stone piece whose decoration dates it to the period of Nur al-Din Mahmud. In the early twentieth century, it had been moved into the courtyard of the mosque in an area that was used for prayer during the summer. Its original location within the mosque is not known. After reconstruction, this mihrab was transferred to Baghdad.
As far as chronology, it is clear that the mosque underwent several phases of building before its 1940s reconstruction. The most obvious piece of evidence for this are the existence of two types of columns in the prayer hall. Yasser Tabbaa summarizes the argument in his 2002 article on the mosque.5 Herzfeld believed that the two column types represented an initial phase that pre-dated Nur al-Din followed by a renovation by Nur al-Din. This argument was based on the fact that the mosque's stone mihrab bore the date 1148 and that the decoration on one group of columns was comparable.6 The validity of this statement was contested as early as 1949 by Daywahji, who pointed to the fact that the mosque's mihrab, which Herzfeld assumed was original to the mosque, was most probably transferred from the Umayyad Mosque of Mosul (the city's original Great Mosque), to Nur al-Din's Mosque at the time of construction, eliminating the necessity for backdating the column group and construction of the mosque to 1148.7Tabbaa suggests that the installation of the mihrab and its corresponding columns dates to the period of Nur al-Din while the later columns were added as a form of reinforcement at a later date, harvested from local Christian sites that may have fell into disuse.8
It was reported that the mosque and minaret were destroyed on June 21, 2017 in an explosion.9