All that remains is the lonely ghost, what was once a city of beauty, now reduced to rubble. Streets once filled with life, are now empty. This is the impact of war when evil wins. I am not myself walking the barren streets of old Mosul nor would anyone who witness’s this firsthand. But amidst the destruction, there is a palpable sense of determination to regain normalcy and community amongst the people. Many who had fled or survived the Islamic State are beginning to return and enduring the long process of rebuilding. The people who called Mosul home, their stories, their strength, will be what I remember the most. It was a great privilege to have been here and witness the resilience of these people despite great tragedy. Their community still stands, fractured but unmoving. We cannot change the past, the atrocities committed, lives lost, but we can use our words and stories to tell future generations what happened here. Welcome to Mosul, Iraq a land of terror and hope.
Getting to Mosul, Iraq
From Iraq’s Capital City it’s a long, scenic six-hour drive north to Mosul. During this journey, we encountered dozens of militia and government checkpoints. Some of which only required a smile and in return, we received a cheery “Welcome to Iraq”, others not so much. It is essential to have your own wheels for this reason. If we had chosen to take public transport many of these more suspicious checkpoints could have possibly lost our ride and may have ended us being sent back to Baghdad.
With our crew equipped and a 4×4 rented we began our trip to Mosul. Along the way, we stopped in the city of Samarra.
Detour in Samarra, Iraq
This region is controlled by a local militia and the status remains “unstable”. It’s a pilgrimage for those of the Shia faith due to the Haram of Imam Ali al-Hadi shrine. Being here I dove in headfirst, following a sea of black-clad women and men into the belly of the bedazzled heart of the shrine. The devote yell out prayers whilst hundreds push forward in a hypnotizing entrancing way.
Outside the shrine soldiers bearing submachine guns standing next to camouflage tanks attempt to organize the masses only adding to the chaos. The smoke of sizzling kebabs and incense fill the air, merchants yelling out what they have to sell and the sharp look of locals when they notice a foreigner has delved deep into Samarra. Trudging further towards the minaret of the Samarra Great Mosque as if a mirage in the heat and noise we went.
The main sight to see in Samarra, Iraq is the twirling Minerat of the 8th century Malwiya Mosque. Summiting the tower, we could see across the entirety of sacred Samarra. It was here where the Samarra Secret Police stopped us to question us. After exchanging a few smiles and handshakes they decided to bring us to the palace of the Imam a surprise, but typical Iraqi hospitality.
From Samarra, it was another long five-hour drive to Mosul.
What to see in Mosul, Iraq
Great Mosque of Al-Nuri
In July 2014 ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi made his speech here at Mosul’s Great Mosque of Al-Nuri about the new “Caliphate” shortly after taking the city. Now all that remains are parts of the Mosques green dome and a few Islamic facades of the outer walls.
The Great Mosque of al-Nuri was where Mosul’s greatest landmark stood, the leaning Minaret. The Minaret was reduced to rubble as with much of the Mosque when coalition forces bombarded it with airstrikes as this is where the final ISIS soldiers held strong.
Church of Saint Thomas in Mosul
UNESCO has made a lot of progress in rebuilding the Church of Saint Thomas since the pope’s speech and visit here several years back in the Old City of Mosul. Interestingly enough when Coalition destroyed the church with airstrikes the original flooring cracked open revealing unknown ancient burials, archaeologists quickly moved in excavating the site.
The church’s basement was used as a prison for ISIS members and citizens of Mosul during the occupation. We were granted special permission to enter the prison area which has not been reconstructed. In the dark corridors, the walls bore markings telling stories of love towards the caliphate, others mentioning the virgins they look forward to seeing in heaven soon as their lives are about to end. It is a dark place filled with much pain.
Mosul Souq is however a place that was largely spared from the destruction. Today it’s a maze of alleyways filled to the brim with vendors hawking out soaps, spices, freshly slaughtered meat, and hand-hammered copper. It is a trip back in time walking through the Mosul Souq, but more importantly a symbol of the city heading back to what can only be described as “normalcy”.
Just outside the Mosul Souq is the fish market. Here we stopped and sampled what locals in Mosul describe as the best food in the city! We tackled several fried catfish and carp fish before heading back to the Souq.
Mosul’s Ancient City of Nineveh
Nineveh is an exquisite Assyrian city on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq. The date when it was founded is uncertain, but the Mosul area is known as being one of the longest inhabited places on earth, in fact, Nineveh was the world’s largest city until 612 BC. In 2015 much of Nineveh was destroyed by ISIS who used bulldozers to collapse the main gates.
Now, archaeologists are trying to reconstruct what they can of the damage caused by the caliphate. During this massive undertaking, they have also found many new and exciting archaeological sites. I have said it once and I will say it again, archeologists really are the unsung heroes of history.
Stories of Mosul, Iraq
Interview with Saad Sultan Ismail A-Najjar
We were lucky enough to meet up with one of the directors who are assisting UNESCO in photographing the remnants of some of the structures that haven’t been entirely destroyed in the Old City of Mosul. During our visit to the Old City, a man named Saad Sultan Ismail A-Najjar approached us and asked us to visit his house.
Saad’s house was constructed by Ottoman elites during the Ottoman Empire, It was a UNESCO recognized heritage site. Saad remained in Mosul for the entire ISIS occupation, his family as well. He explained that during occupation they would hide and rarely leave the house. When the coalition began their strategic airstrikes, they dropped three airstrikes into Saad’s historic home. Luckily Saad and his family were in the basement of their house, and they miraculously were not harmed.
Now, only several walls and murals remain. Saad continues to return trying to repair what he can, but the government has not offered any assistance, so the majority of his house remains in rubble.
Interview with Mohammed Dhiaa
Mohammed Dhiaa is a local photographer here in Mosul. Mohammed remained in Mosul for almost the entire ISIS occupation and in secret photographed his life during. Mohammed was unfortunately caught by ISIS photographing and was sentenced to execution, but an ISIS leader who grew up with Mohammed convinced the caliphate to spare his life.
Unfortunately, his friend who was also sentenced was publicly executed. Mohammed explained to us, even if you didn’t want to watch the exactions you had to as they were shown throughout the city using projector screens.
Shortly after this Mohammed and his mother escaped the city, telling us that while fleeing snipers killed many in his group.
After the Coalition liberated Mosul, Mohammed and his family returned and now he dedicates his time to photographing what remains in the Old City for UNESCO.
Walking the Destroyed Streets of Mosul
When you get deep into travel you get an itch to test the world’s greatest boundaries. To step into the unknown, destinations where chaos drives you and the virtuous rules of society that convince us we are safe are stripped away. What remains is a purely sensory experience, one that will change you, scar you, and leave you more lost than you were before you came. This is why I traveled to Mosul, Iraq.
The streets of the Old City are quiet, the scars of the past are all that remain. Walking through this valley of death is a stark reminder of all the bad in this world. We clambered through many ruined homes and even snuck into a few high rises that had been riddled into a Swiss cheese-like shape from the fighting that took place in them, but there was one street that shook me to my core.
Atop of the hill in an Armenian section of the west bank of the old city, we found a street that had ISIS markings next to each of the ruined houses’ front doors. This symbol is Arabic for the letter “n” and was used to mark the homes of Christians. This marking was a symbol to ISIS instructing them to steal, convert or kill.
Inside the houses, we found a teddy bear next to a rocket and a diary from a young girl. As we sat in the rubble that was probably once this little girl’s home, my friend read out the words of a girl maybe 7-8 years old mourning the loss of her dead family.
How Can you Help Mosul?
It was a heavy site to witness the destruction in Mosul, the pain of loss still hung in the air and the city was reduced to a shell of what it once was. Despite this, it was still a privilege to have visited, to have met with the locals, and heard their stories. Now I have a connection to this place, Mosul is no longer the name of some tragic city the news used to report on. That disconnected viewpoint has been shattered, now I can see Mosul for what it really is, a vibrant city with a haunting past and a fierce community with only one common goal, rebuild. They just need a little help to get back on their feet. That’s where the rest of us come in.
Those who are capable of donating money can do so through one of the various organizations assisting displaced families, rebuilding the old city, medical aid, etc. If you are not in a financial situation to help, do not worry your words can be just as impactful. Never underestimate the power of awareness. Talk about Mosul, even if you have not been, even if you think no one is listening, talk about it, keep the story in people’s minds and hearts.
I know many of you believe that tourism to a place like this is unsavory, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Mosul was a tourist destination in its time. When we traveled through the city, we were greeted by all of the locals, many of which yelled out “it’s back! The tourists are back”. Tourism might seem strange in a place like this, but to many of the people in Mosul, it is a sign of hope.