Growing up in Mosul, a visit to the city’s iconic museum, and the tapestry of historic sites around Nineveh on my daily travels, brought to life the stories of my childhood, the noble mythologies and fables passed down from generation to generation in northern Iraq. The antiquities housed in Mosul Museum — the country’s second largest — spanned civilisations and dated back to 5000 BCE.
The museum’s location in the heart of Iraq’s most ethnically and religiously diverse province made the experience all the more powerful for its visitors. It was an illumination of worlds, an opportunity to commune with people from all over the planet with totally different beliefs and ideas than ours.
It took me years to fully understand what this really meant: that the museum’s priceless artefacts and their stories were a window to unfamiliar people and places. This exposure and understanding fuelled my insatiable curiosity about other cultures, and more broadly influenced my empathetic worldview.
A rare trip to the museum through all the security points was one of the few times I was granted the independence I so craved. In its silence and scale, the museum became a sacred place for me where the outside realities of the modern world could not touch the magic that laid within. There, I wandered freely among strangers as we weaved through the halls of ancient civilisations together, each experiencing a different whisper of a bygone age. The mere act of crossing the threshold into a museum seems to transform people into being more trustworthy, tolerant, and considerate as they become part of the myriad of history, myth, and beauty.
I was left to roam unfettered among these many different voices from ancient Mesopotamia — my personal unbridled paradise and, as the cradle of civilization in modern-day Iraq, a source of national pride. Stories of the great Assyrian kings told to me were brought to life in bas reliefs of dramatic and violent royal lion-hunting scenes or images of battle.
Monumental Assyrian winged bulls or Lamassu an earlier version from those guarding the Nergal Gate of Nineveh stood imposingly, watching over the museum’s visitors as they had the subjects of their kingdoms, protecting all citizens despite religion or sect.
Tragically, it was impossible to return this protection. Daesh’s destruction of priceless antiquities in 2015, including the majestic Lamassu, awoke me to the fragility of this magical place. By housing thousands of years of shared human experiences, the museum reminds us that the human condition has persisted despite political, religious, economic, and social strife. Then Daesh came to Mosul, bringing with them cultural terrorism dressed as iconoclasm as they attempted to remake or erase history. Every blow to the hammer made by the sculptor in creating something beautiful and eternal was done almost in reverse by Daesh members to dismantle and destroy it.
Daesh (also known as ISIS) members shown smashing this priceless human history in videos falsely claimed the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) had ordered followers to “take down idols that people used to worship instead of Allah, and destroy them.” Their extremist ideology was not the primary driving force, however: Daesh sold the smaller, more portable idols to pay for guns and finance their lavish lifestyles in the city, which they had occupied less than a year earlier, bringing with them a reign of terror and death.
Antiquities smuggling became a significant source of revenue for Daesh, and was emblematic of the group’s contradictory messages and actions. Daesh propagated a destructive approach that devalued the past, yet obsessively cited historic texts and traditions as evidence of their own legitimacy. They sanitized the museum by turning it into its antithesis: a tax office.
Daesh stripped the museum of national identity, leaving it as a monument to destruction. All that remains in the main area of the institution are piles of rubble, walls blackened from rocket blasts, and pieces of shattered Sumerian Cuneiform tablets (one of the world’s earliest systems of writing) casting shadows in the darkness like tombstones.
The same year that Daesh destroyed the Mosul Museum, I founded a radio station to serve the people of the city. Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) FM provided the city with alternative news and support during the dark years of Daesh’s occupation and media blackout. Daesh had laid siege to communications in an effort to drown out any voice or description of reality that wasn’t their own. Through call-in shows and other programming, Al-Ghad aimed to help Mosul residents take back their voice.
After Iraqi forces liberated Mosul in 2017, Al-Ghad’s coverage shifted to the city’s massive reconstruction and recovery efforts. Although Mosul’s devastating human losses and widespread basic needs were the top priorities, I also recognized the need to rebuild the identity and national pride lost through Daesh’s cultural destruction.
With the kind permission of the Government of Iraq and Municipality of Mosul, Al-Ghad and the Mosul Artists’ Committee have hosted the first event in Mosul Museum since the occupation. The art exhibition, ‘Return to Mosul’ brought together artistic voices from all over Iraq and Mosul to tell the story of the occupation and recovery, providing a vision of a brighter, more tolerant future in Mosul. It was staged in the old museum buildings recently restored by Royal Venue.
Al-Ghad has collaborated with Rekrei and the Economist Media Lab to provide museum visitors with a virtual reality experience. RecoVR Mosul allows them to experience the museum as it once was, with some of the pieces destroyed by Daesh depicted in their rightful places. The same pieces were also 3D printed and formed part of the exhibition’s sculptural installation.
The technology is extraordinary for the recreation of lost antiquities and cultural heritage. The re-creations can never replace the irreplaceable, but they can provide inspiration for today’s artists while memorializing lost heritage. Musab Mohammed Jassim, from the Nineveh Antiquities and Heritage Department currently in charge of the Museum, says: “The technological innovations will support cultural and artistic initiatives that will aid Mosul’s recovery and reaffirm its identity and pride.” He is also hopeful that Al-Ghad’s new partnership will raise international support for the reconstruction of the museum and awareness of the larger importance of cultural heritage and protection in Iraq.
For me, the excitement of bringing the past back to life again in the city is only surpassed by the promise of something the city needs even more. ‘Return to Mosul’ provided a place to bring the many different peoples of Mosul together again to wander, marvel, and think freely and independently about the past, the present, and the future. It was a start in returning the museum back to its rightful place, as a sacred centre of knowledge, history, creativity, and beauty for our beloved city, Mosul.