Its last resident preacher is long-gone, having used its pulpit to declare Islamic State’s jihad to the wider world. Now, six years after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s notorious appearance at Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque, work is underway to restore both its buildings and its reputation.
The 12th century temple became infamous when Isil’s leader used it for his one and only public appearance, announcing himself as leader of Isil’s so-called “Caliphate”.
When the Iraqi army retook Mosul in 2017, retreating Isil fighters demolished most of the mosque with explosives, including its 900-year-old Al-Hadba minaret.
Today, the only parts that remain are the minaret’s base and the mosque’s green dome, which houses the area where Baghdadi delivered Friday prayers.
The UN heritage body, Unesco, have recently launched a worldwide contest for an architect to design both the complex and the minaret anew.
“In rebuilding the Al Nouri Mosque and the Al Hadba Minaret, we are rebuilding memories and repairing the fissures left behind after the terrorism of Isis,” said Iraq’s culture minister, Hasan Nadhim, whose department is collaborating on the project.
The Telegraph was given a tour round the mosque by Omar Taqa, a young Moslawi graduate who is one of several civil engineers helping the restoration project. He said that already, nearly 6,000 tonnes of rubble had been cleared from the mosque site. Bomb disposal experts had also removed around 20 IEDs – improvised explosive devices – hidden in the mosque’s metre-thick walls.
“They planned to blow up the whole complex but some IEDs did not explode,” he said.
While the raised lectern from which Baghdadi delivered his address has been destroyed, other signs of Isil’s presence remain.
To the left of the mihrab – a semi-circular niche from where he would have led prayers – there is a plastered-over cavity in the wall where an IED was planted.
To the right, meanwhile, graffiti written by an unknown hand says “F*** Isis”. The group’s fighters have also removed all the building’s decorative inscriptions, which included plants and trees.
Built in 1172, the Al-Nuri mosque is one of Mosul’s most famous landmarks, partly because of its 200-foot minaret, which towered over the narrow alleys of the Old City. Over the centuries, the minaret began to bend slightly, earning it the nickname the “Al Hadba”, or “Hunchback”.
Unesco began a previous programme to stabilise the minaret in June 2014 – just a week before Isil captured Mosul and hoisted its black flag to the tower.
It is thought Baghdadi may have chosen the al-Nuri mosque for his address out of admiration for the Muslim leader who is said to have built it, Nuridin al-Zengi. Al-Zengi was known for his ruthlessness against Christian Crusader forces, making him a hero of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Isil’s predecessor movement, al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The renovation work is being funded by the UAE as part of a wider project to renovate Mosul’s Old City, much of which is still in ruins.
“This mosque is part of every Moslawi’s identity – people would come from all over to pray here because it is so old,” said Maher Ismail, 60, of the local Sunni Endowment, a local religious body. “We are very grateful for the help in restoring it.”
An international judging panel, including prominent Iraqi experts, will now review all architectural submissions for redesigns, which will include rebuilding the main prayer, replacing the bullet-holed washing blocks, and adding in areas for school and cultural activities. The winner, who will receive a $50,000 prize, will be announced in April.
Unesco hopes the re-design will promote “social cohesion” after the trauma of Isil’s period of rule, during which time non-Sunni Muslims were regarded as infidels.
One of those watching the renovation project closely is Imad Zeki, 52, the mosque’s former muezzin, who used to lead the calls to prayer, and who still lives next door. When Isil took over, his job was given to one of their supporters, but he was present in the congregation when Baghdadi led Friday prayers.
“First, Isis supporters took all our mobile phones, then they shut all the roads to the mosque and told us to go inside,” he recalled. “Then a TV crew appeared as well, and Baghdadi came all dressed in black. At the time we didn’t know who he was – it was only when he did his speech that we realised.”
Having suffered personally during Isil’s rule – the group killed his son – he now hopes for his old job as muezzin back once the minaret is rebuilt.
“I cried when I saw it destroyed,” he added. “It is a symbol of the city.”