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A Bookend to the Destruction of Mosul: The Great Mosque of Nur ad-Din destroyed by ISIS

June 23, 2017

On July 24, 2014 ISIS carried out its first widely publicized destruction of a cultural heritage site in Mosul by blowing up the Shrine of the Prophet Jonah. It was early in ISIS’ campaign of cultural destruction, and the group’s propaganda arm had not yet mastered the slickly produced videos it would later use. Amateur cellphone videos of the demolition quickly spread through social media and news outlets. The Shrine of the Prophet Jonah was far from the first piece of cultural heritage that ISIS destroyed, but it was the first to receive widespread publicity in western media.

Almost three years later, ISIS has lost control over most of Mosul as Iraqi forces steadily advanced through the city despite heavy casualties. The civilian death toll has been even higher. For the past two months, fighting has been confined to the Old City where a few hundred ISIS holdouts are making a last stand in the narrow streets and alleyways, holding the civilian population hostage as a shield from airstrikes.

The minaret of the Great Mosque of Nur ad-Din in Mosul as it appeared in 2013. Photo by Faisal Jeber. (source)

A major focal point of ISIS’ defense has been the Grand Mosque of Nur ad-Din (also known as the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri). It was here that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave his infamous speech declaring the re-establishment of the caliphate in July 2014, making the mosque invested with heavy symbolism for the group and its ambitions.

Iraqi forces first advanced near the mosque in March, advancing into the Old City before being driven out by ISIS counterattacks. Iraqi special police forces launched another offensive in June, advancing to within 50 meters of the mosque by June 21. As the Iraqis closed in, ISIS blew up the mosque. Iraqi forces now occupy the rubble.

A Long History

The Great Mosque stood over Mosul for 845 years. Perhaps foreshadowing its modern history, the Great Mosque was born of war and conquest. Its construction was commissioned by Nur ad-Din, emir of Aleppo and second son to Imad ad-Din Zengi. His father had extinguished the Crusader kingdom of Edessa in 1144, and after his assassination in 1146 the son continued his legacy by attacking Crusader-held Antioch. When the Armenians of Edessa revolted and attempted to rejoin the Crusaders Nur ad-Din massacred the entire Christian population of the city. Strongly opposed to the Crusader presence in the Holy Land, Nur ad-Din sought to unify all Muslim rulers in the Levant against the Crusader states.

In this he was partly successful, ruling over much of the Levant and wielding considerable influence in Egypt. In 1170, his younger brother the emir of Mosul Qutb ad-Din died. He was succeeded by his son Saif ad-Din Ghazi II, but the real power behind the throne was wielded by Qutb’s Christian vizier Fakr ad-Din Abd al-Masih (whose name meant “Pride of the religion, servant of the Messiah”).

Nur ad-Din responded by besieging Mosul. Fakr ad-Din surrendered the city on the condition that Saif be allowed to keep his throne. Fakr ad-Din was permitted to go into exile in Aleppo on the condition that he convert to Islam and change the latter half of his name to Abdallah (“servant of Allah”). Nur ad-Din then set about repressing Christianity in Mosul, where Christians formed a large minority. Whereas earlier rulers had been tolerant Christianity, Nur ad-Din prohibited the construction of new churches and required Christians and Jews to wear distinctive clothing (a belt for Christians, and a red piece of cloth on the shoulder for Jews) and imposed increased jizya tax on non-Muslims.[1]

Nur ad-Din spent only 24 days in Mosul, but in the time he was there he also made plans for building a new mosque. Responsibility for its construction was committed to a Sufi sheikh named Omar al-Malla, to whom Nur ad-Din was said to have entrusted the job because he was a pious man who would not oppress anyone while building the mosque, even though as a result its construction may be less efficient. Nur ad-Din also granted shops and farms to provide the religious center with revenue.[2]

The Mosque of Nur ad-Din prior to its 1942 demolition and reconstruction. (source)

The mosque was completed by 1172 or 1173, shortly before Nur ad-Din’s death in 1174. Some scholars interpret the structure as heralding the end of religious tolerance and the beginning of a new era of Muslim dominance in Mosul.[3] Regardless, Nur ad-Din’s lifelong project had been successful: his conquests paved the way for his nephew Saladin to defeat the combined Crusader armies at Hattin and recapture Jerusalem in 1187.

Its most famous feature was its minaret, towering 60.5 meters (198 feet) over Mosul. Before its destruction it was the tallest minaret in Iraq.[4] Soon after it was built the minaret started to lean to one side, most likely due to the effect of heat from the sun causing mud bricks to expand and contract. It began to lean further to one side after the Iran-Iraq war when Iranian bombs ruptures sewage lines and softened the ground around the tower. By the early 2000s a muezzin no longer dared to climb to the top of the tower to sound the call to prayer.

The leaning minaret gained the nickname al-hadba, “the hunchback,” and legends grew that it gained its bend from bowing to Muhammad, or that the prophet had stepped on it while ascending into heaven.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declares ISIS’ caliphate established from the mihrab of the Great Mosque of Nur ad-Din, July 4, 2014.

The rest of the mosque was demolished in 1942 and rebuilt in a more modern style. Only the hunchbacked minaret and the mihrab (which was itself reused from an earlier mosque in 1170) survived from the mosque of Nur ad-Din. It was this same mihrab which served as the background for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s first public appearance in which he declared that ISIS had re-established the caliphate.

Who Was Responsible?

Oddly, while ISIS has generally had no qualms about publicizing their destruction of antiquities, the group’s Amaq news agency claimed that an American aircraft had destroyed the mosque by dropping a bomb on it. American military spokesmen quickly denied the claim. The Iraqi military quickly released video footage taken from a military drone which shows the moment the mosque was detonated:

The video clearly shows squibbing all along the minaret, indicating that explosive charges were placed inside the structure. The entire mosque and minaret detonate nearly simultaneously, indicating a controlled demolition from the inside timed using detonator cord rather than a collapse from the shockwave of a bomb blast.

All claims that the mosque was destroyed by an airstrike are false and seem to be an attempt to stir public opinion against the United States and the Iraqi government.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the destruction of the mosque by ISIS “a formal declaration of their defeat.” In many ways its destruction serves as a symbolic bookend to ISIS’ three year control of Mosul. An occupation which began with declaring a caliphate ends with the destruction of the site where that caliphate was declared. An occupation which began with destroying one of Mosul’s most visible and famous landmarks ends with destroying the last famous landmark still standing.

Update: ASOR and National Geographic have released satellite photographs of the Great Mosque of Nur ad-Din taken before and after the destruction. The green dome of the mosque and a few sections of the building are still standing, but the rest is rubble.


[1] Yasser Tabbaa, “The Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul 1170-1172,” Annales Islamogiques 36 (2002): 339-341.

[2] Tabbaa, “The Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul,” 339, 342-43.

[3] Tabbaa, “The Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul,” 348-352.

[4] Tabbaa, “The Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul,” 351; “Al-Hadba Minaret,” World Monuments Fund (, accessed June 23, 2017); “Manara Jami’ al-Nuri al-Kabir,” ArcheNet (, accessed June 23, 2017); “Jami’ al-Nuri al-Kabir,” ArcheNet (, accessed June 23, 2017); “Architecture c. 900 – c. 1250,” The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Article © Christopher Jones 2017.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 23, 2017 4:15 PM

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

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