18 Al-Nouri Mosque Complex Reconstruction
For using architecture to help rebuild a community emotionally and economically
After the Iraqi government reclaimed Mosul from ISIS in 2017, it was faced with destroyed and damaged structures throughout the city. As team members began to restore Mosul’s nearly 850-year-old Al-Nouri Mosque complex, they knew they had to think beyond bricks and mortar to address the emotional recovery of residents as well.
“Landmarks are very important in the recovery process, because they embody the values and the identity of the community,” says Maria Rita Acetoso, conservationist and senior project manager at UNESCO, which is guiding the project to restore historical landmarks in Mosul. “For the new generations who grow up in a context of extremism or violence or conflict, there’s often a bit of disconnection with their own identity and with their own history. Restoration projects can foster those reconnections.”
The mosque rebuild is part of a larger initiative launched in 2018 by UNESCO to revive the historical, educational and cultural fabric of Mosul. At the heart of it all is reviving the mosque, a project funded by the United Arab Emirates and guided by UNESCO, with support from the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and Sunni Endowment.
With so much damage—and so much significance at stake—the team broke the Al-Nouri project into parallel pursuits. One team is reconstructing the mosque’s iconic Al-Habda minaret, while another is reimagining the mosque’s sprawling complex.
For the design of the complex, UNESCO launched a global competition, and an independent jury selected the design of a team of Egyptian architects based on a concept inspired by the Quranic verse “…and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” Although the start of the design phase was delayed in June 2021 when one of the lead architects, Salah El Din Hareedy, died from COVID-19, the team remains committed to the goal of restoring the mosque’s aesthetic and spiritual connection with residents.
“It’s not only a matter of the authenticity and integrity of the materials, but it’s also about reconstituting an image that fits with the memory of the community that ultimately will maintain and use that rebuilt historical landmark,” Acetoso says.
The complex will include courtyards, an amphitheater and a new Institute for Islamic Art and Architecture. An expansive public plaza creates a shared space for all the city’s residents, including non-Muslim visitors. By design, the mosque’s main entrance opens onto a street that historically has connected Mosul’s Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities.
Project leaders are focused on collaborating with local stakeholders both to build trust in the renovation and to secure the community’s long-term investment in maintaining the rebuilt mosque, Acetoso says. So after some Iraqi architects publicly rebuked the design for not aligning enough with Islamic architecture, UNESCO met with representatives of the group to consider changes.
“The more we can actually involve them in any step of the process, the more they will feel ownership,” she says.
During the first phase of the project when rubble was being removed, the team asked the Ministry of Culture to deploy archaeologists at the site to collect and salvage historical fragments so they could be reintegrated in the construction process.
UNESCO team members also formed a technical committee that included University of Mosul specialists in engineering, restoration, architecture, landscape and archaeology that has been meeting at least quarterly since the early phases of the project. And project leaders have encouraged active participation by Iraqi workers. For instance, plans call for rebuilding the minaret where it was, on the still-standing bases. So UNESCO deployed Italian structural engineer Stefano De Vito to evaluate materials, then had him train local engineers to perform subsequent tasks.
When the team needed to install a network of sensors on the minaret, Acetoso approved a plan to train local workers to perform the task—even though it added a week to the project.
The benefit? More enthusiasm for the project and a greater sense of ownership among local stakeholders, Acetoso says. “It’s a matter of job creation, of helping people understand that culture can be a source of income, and also of increasing their skills and competencies—which goes back to the sustainability of what we’re doing.”
Listen to UNESCO’s Maria Rita Acetoso explain how project leaders can empower teams.
To be a project leader, especially in this context, you really need to stay with your team, to entrust them, to delegate and to actually never, never get tired of explaining. And also to allow them to try new things. Because even if sometimes this creates some delays in the overall work plan, but it’s still worth it because they will work with more enthusiasm, especially in this context, because for internationals, these contexts are difficult because you are far away from your family, from your friends. The project leader needs to transmit enthusiasm for what we are doing all together.
It’s important to, I think, to transmit that I don’t know more than them. I’m like them, and I’m here to support and I will do whatever I can to empower them, to entrust them and to make sure that they complete this project with the idea that they got something important for them. So be present as much as possible. And also, in this context, since the situation is difficult, it’s always important to enjoy what you are doing and to transmit to your team that even if there are challenges, we are doing something great. Motivation is important.
By processing the rubble to produce quality materials that can be used in reconstruction efforts, creating much needed job opportunities for returnees and cleaning up the urban environment, this initiative practically illustrates how humanitarian needs and sustainable development goals can be addressed in a joint manner.
Iraq's Deputy Environment Minister