An ancient prayer hall has been discovered beneath Mosul’s iconic Al-Nuri Mosque in Iraq, forcing UNESCO to revise its restoration plan for the monument, which was heavily damaged by Isis.
UNESCO is rebuilding the complex in partnership with the government of the United Arab Emirates government, with the winning design selected from an international design competition.
During the excavations, a team of archaeologists and local worker found gaps in the foundation of the mosque that led to four rooms that are believed to have been used for adulation, or the ritual washing before prayers. The excavation also uncovered several artifacts including jars, pottery fragments, pieces of carved stone, and coins.
“These rooms that go back to the 12th century Atabeg era were completely buried and were not mentioned in the historical sources and books,” Khaireddine Nasser, director of the Department of Antiquities and Heritage in Nineveh, said in a statement.
The restoration of the mosque is part of UNESCO’s “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” initiative, an effort to undo the damage inflicted by Isis extremists during their three-year occupation of the city. Among the religious buildings and cultural landmarks plundered or destroyed were the Mosul Museum, the city library, and the Tomb of Nebi Yunis, believed to hold the remains of the biblical prophet Jonah.
Last April, an international jury selected a team of Egyptian architects “with a notable track record in heritage rehabilitation” to lead the design of the historic Al-Nouri Mosque complex. The winning project, titled “Courtyards Dialogue,” included a series of open public spaces integrated into the contemporary structure, which was built in the 1940s. It also featured climate-conscious architecture such as new shading to mitigate the sun’s glare.
The architecture of the new mosque complex, which comprises an educational facility, an art museum, and community center, drew inspiration from local Ottoman-style homes, which employ alabaster, glass, and perforated brick for a clean design. The main plaza outside the prayer hall, the largest public space in the city, was set to hold foldable white canvas tents, fountains, and native greenery.
However, the team returned to the drawing table to accommodate the discovery of the prayer halls and adulation basins dating to the 12th century, which “amplifies the importance of this historical and archaeological site,” according to Nasser. After lengthy discussions with the Mosul community and the restoration coalition, the architects forwent several elements considered too modern, such as the wide sun shades near the semi-concealed arcade.
Following tradition, the mosque’s new entrance will be situated toward the south. A former car park will now instead be the site of a new gender-segregated school and a revamped Institute of Islamic Art and Architecture. The mosque’s destroyed minaret will be rebuilt with salvaged stones in the original 12-century pattern.
In a statement, UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay said, “The reconstruction of Al-Nouri Mosque complex, a historical site that is part of Mosul’s fabric and history, will be a landmark in the process of advancing the war-torn city’s reconciliation and social cohesion. Heritage sites and historical monuments are powerful catalysts for people’s sense of belonging, of community, and identity.”