MOSUL, Iraq – Palm trees were the last straw. In a UNESCO competition to restore Mosul’s most famous monuments, they were there, in the winning design. Neither the palm trees nor the Gulf-style design are indigenous to the historic city, Iraqi architects complained.
At stake was not just the award of $ 50,000 and the contract for a final design – which was funded by the United Arab Emirates and went to a team of Egyptian architects – but, apparently, the pride of the second largest city in Iraq, which rose from the rubble of its battle against Islamic State four years ago.
“It’s a fiasco, honestly,” said Ihsan Fethi, one of Iraq’s best-known architects, of the competition for the Nouri Mosque project. “It has all been a terrible tragedy for us. “
Mr Fethi and the Iraqi Architects’ Union complained more about the winning entrance to a new mosque complex than about transplanted trees, including things they saw as anti-Islamic and a lack of parking. They say it betrays the architectural heritage of the historic city.
It is a resentment all the more keen in a country with a proud architectural history that favored Rifat Chadirji, considered the father of modern Iraqi architecture, and design icon Zaha Hadid. In previous decades, architecture was so important to Iraq that he commissioned buildings from Le Corbusier and plans from Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Iraqi Society of Engineers, which oversees the architects union, issued a statement opposing the project. The Iraqi Society for the Preservation of Architectural Heritage dismissed the winning design of the 123-entry competition as gravely flawed. He said the design introduced many “alien” concepts that would change the site beyond recognition and called on the Iraqi prime minister to intervene.
This is not the site of just any mosque. Formerly known as the Great Mosque of Al-Nouri, it was here that in 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then head of ISIS, declared a caliphate after the group’s fighters took over. control of Mosul with nearly a third of Iraq and parts of Syria. Three years later, as US-backed Iraqi forces fought to defeat the terrorist group, ISIS fighters blew up the mosque and an even more iconic minaret upon their retreat.
Airstrikes and explosives razed large parts of the old part of Mosul and killed thousands of civilians as well as hundreds of Iraqi security forces. Reconstruction of the mosque complex is seen as central to the idea that despite its losses, the battered city has overtaken ISIS.
The Al-Nouri Mosque, named after Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, the ruler of Mosul and Aleppo, dates back to the 12th century but was completely rebuilt in the 1940s.
The $ 50 million project will also restore two heavily damaged churches nearby and repair a 12th-century brick minaret near the mosque – a symbol of Mosul so iconic that the tilted minaret is on the 10,000 dinar note. from Iraq.
Announcing the architectural competition, the United Nations cultural agency said the new design was intended to advance the city’s reconciliation and cohesion.
But in many circles he has done anything but, causing an uproar among architects, town planners and some Mosul residents who say he ignores Iraqi heritage. Perhaps in a nod to the UAE, which foots the bill, the winning design features cream-colored bricks and right angles of the kind found in the Gulf – a contrast to the arches, the local alabaster veined of blue and limestone of the Mosul Buildings tradition.
“The local architectural language is not there,” especially given the history of this city, said Ahmed Tohala, professor of architecture at the University of Mosul. “The materials, the colors, the elements, the proportion, the rhythm, the relationship between the elements – that’s another strange language.”
“It looks a lot like the Emirates,” Fathi said.
To be fair, some of the demands were imposed by the Iraqi Sunni Endowment Office, which oversees Sunni mosques in Iraq. On a recent day at the construction site, above the roar of a generator, Maher Ismail, the Sunni Foundation’s project manager, said “a beautiful design”.
The expanded mosque complex will include a public park, a religious high school and a cultural center, while the mosque and minaret will be restored and architecturally unchanged.
Mr Ismail said criticism of the complex design was generated by jealous architectural firms.
“Some of the people who wanted to work on the mosque and had no chance to do so created a lot of problems to stop the works,” he said.
After the outcry, UNESCO held a meeting with the Iraqi Architects’ Union, which argued it should have been consulted from the start. Among the main complaints, besides aesthetics, were the competition requirements which called for an open courtyard next to the mosque open to the general public and a separate section for dignitaries to be built on a balcony of the prayer hall.
“A VIP section is anathema to Islam,” Fathi said. He said the jurors, including the president of the jury, his former student, did not have the necessary knowledge of Islamic architecture to be able to correctly choose a winning project.
There were also practical problems – in a city without a public transport system, there were only 20 parking spaces provided, intended for employees of the complex.
Mr Ismail said that instead of putting a VIP section in the prayer room itself, they had planned a VIP room next to the mosque for visiting officials.
UNESCO also points out that the competition rules were drawn up in coordination with the Iraqi Ministry of Culture. He says winners are expected to produce a more detailed final design that will begin construction this fall.
Paolo Fontani, UNESCO director for Iraq, said changes could be made to the final plans, as is normal in a competition for an initial design. He said UNESCO would consult with local experts and architects.
The winning Egyptian firm’s senior partner, Salah El Din Samir Hareedy, died shortly after the competition’s results were announced. Mr Hareedy died of complications from Covid-19, but petty Iraqis joked on social media that it was the curse of Mosul residents upset with his design that killed him.
On the construction site in the heart of the historic section of Mosul on the west bank of the Tigris, teams removed nearly 6,000 tonnes of rubble from the bombed site, recovering and cleaning 45,000 bricks which will be used to rebuild the minaret. Pieces of marble and stone from the heavily damaged mosque have been cataloged and sorted for restoration.
Local carpenters working under the supervision of an Italian expert restore the damaged woodwork of the mosque.
Opposite the planned complex, a new cafe opened by local activists flanks a row of brightly colored shops meant to help revive the devastated area.
“It’s too modern,” Mobashar Mohammad Wajid said of the intricate design. But Mr Wajid, standing in his small art studio opposite the cafe with his calligraphy designs, said once the complex is completed Mosul residents would likely be happy with it.
“When they see buildings being rebuilt,” he said, “they’re going to be so happy.”