This is about how a symbol rises, tilts, and suddenly falls.
It starts with a man with the epic name of Nur ad-Din Abu al-Qasim Maḥmud ibn ʿImad ad-Din Zengi. He was a member of a Turkish dynasty which ruled over Syria in the 1100’s, and history remembers him for his ferocious defense of his lands against Christian invaders during the Second Crusades. After the wars, he attempted to bring together all the competing factions of Muslims between the Euphrates and the Nile under one powerful sultanate. He built roads and bridges unifying the area, and constructed new mosques in all of his major cities. Unfortunately, he died of a fever in Egypt in 1174, having never realized his dream. But his work and legacy laid the foundations for the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which would rule over the Middle East for most of a millennium.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was the construction of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul. It was designed to be a glorious centerpiece for the city, with a beautiful 150-foot tall minaret made of seven bands of decorative brickwork laid in complex patterns ascending to the top. However, within a few centuries of its construction, folks noticed that the tower was starting to lean. Over time, to explain the tilt, a tradition developed that the tower must have bowed its head in deference when the Prophet Muhammad passed overhead (never mind that the minaret was built 500 years after Muhammad’s death). Eventually, the beloved tower would become known as “the Hunchback” and would serve as a symbol of faith and resilience throughout the Muslim world.
And then the jihadist punks showed up. In 2014, the city of Mosul was shockingly captured by a grotesque monstrosity known as ISIS. They savaged the city, executed thousands of prisoners, and dumped their bodies in an unmarked grave. And on June 29, their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only known public appearance, to announce his new “caliphate”, at the pulpit of al-Nuri Mosque. Since then, the world has watched in horror as ISIS has expanded its reign of terror throughout Syria and Iraq, with the Hunchback tower as their center of operations.
History will show, however, that the abomination of ISIS would prove to be short-lived. In October of 2016, Iraqi and Kurdistan forces, backed by the United States and local militias, began an offensive to retake Mosul. During the first months of 2017, they slowly fought their way, block by block, into the city. By June, it was clear that the complete liberation of Mosul was only days away.
Wednesday, June 21st, was the holiest day of the Muslim calendar. It is known as Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Decree, and celebrates the moment that the Koran was revealed to Muhammad. On this day, in the year 2017, in Mosul, the forces of ISIS had been finally cornered by their enemies.
And in their defeat and desperation, ISIS reportedly laid explosives around the Great Mosque of al-Nuri and its famed Hunchback minaret. Pulled the switch. And blew it up.
One of the greatest symbols of Muslim faith, which had stood stubbornly for 844 years, was gone.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi tried to paint the loss in a positive light, saying, “ISIS’ bombing of the al-Nouri Mosque is a formal declaration of their defeat.”
An anonymous blogger from Mosul had another take on it: “Will the sun ever shine again over Mosul without the Hunchback? Never. My mother, the land I was brought up on, and picked me up every time I fell, is gone. My city that I am fighting to liberate just got assassinated.”