ISIS Destroyed Jonah’s Tomb, but Not Its Message

As we saw the first images of Jonah’s Tomb destroyed in Mosul on July 24, 2014, we felt shocked and deeply uneasy. We had been following news from Iraq obsessively over the previous weeks, distressed by the Islamic State’s actions in a country we still thought of as home, even though all three of us now live in North America. Every bit of ISIS destruction had been terrible to witness, but somehow the image of this ruined tomb was uniquely jarring. Three years later, with Mosul liberated, we understand why.

The tomb, one of Iraq’s iconic monuments, was revered by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. It was believed to be the final resting place of the biblical prophet Jonah, who got swallowed by a whale and who warned inhabitants of the Assyrian city of Nineveh (now Mosul) that God would destroy them if they did not repent for their sins. Jonah’s story appears in the Bible as well as the Koran. His tomb is perched on a high mound containing many layers of history: an ancient Assyrian temple and palace, a site of devotion for Jews, a Christian church, and a 12th century mosque. In 1924, a grand minaret was added by a Turkish architect who described the glow of the site as God’s gift to Mosul. Renovated in the 1990s under Saddam Hussein, it was a popular draw for pilgrims.

But the tomb was much more than a tourist destination; it was a constant, potent symbol. Overlooking the city, it reminded all Maslawis of the interconnectedness of Iraq’s diverse religious populations. It was the antithesis of sectarianism. As such, ISIS’s decision to blow it up read as an attempt to erase the shared history of the many religious populations that Mosul housed, and to erase the very notion that such populations can share anything at all. But now that Mosul has been liberated from ISIS, we—three Iraqis from different religious backgrounds—hope all our communities will have a hand in rebuilding the city and its holy sites.

Sara, of Armenian and Arab descent, was born and raised in Mosul. As a child, she was enchanted by the Nabi Yunus mosque, as the site is locally known. Its yellowish stones reflected sunlight as she and her brother chased each other up and down its seemingly endless stairs, climbed onto its zigguratesque terraces, and zigzagged through its palm trees. She grew up hearing that the site houses the tooth of the whale that swallowed Jonah. She was also keenly aware that Mosul’s Yazidi community identified with the area as well, particularly because an ancient shrine is located near Nabi Yunus.

Atoor grew up as part of the indigenous Assyrian Christian community in Iraq. She yearns for many quintessential elements of her childhood skyline, but none is more painfully absent now than Jonah’s Tomb. The Eastern churches commemorate the repentance of the biblical Ninevites with a three-day fast each year, an important tradition for the Assyrian community. Beyond this religious connection to Jonah, and beyond simple nostalgia, what makes the loss of the tomb painful is a principle that was inculcated in her: Assimilating prior cultural traditions and sources of knowledge has always been a source of strength for Near Eastern civilizations, from antiquity to the modern period. The destruction of Jonah’s Tomb signals that this source of strength is under threat.

Sigal was raised in a family of Iraqi Jews, but has never been able to visit Iraq. Desperate to escape the persecution that followed the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, her grandfather fled Iraq, along with almost the entire Jewish population. Despite never having seen Jonah’s Tomb, she felt it was a constitutive part of her history and personal identity. She grew up hearing the Book of Jonah read in synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The tomb was a visible reminder that Jews had flourished in Iraq for centuries: Mosul was once home to many synagogues, although they are now reportedly used as garbage dumps, and to trailblazing luminaries like 17th-century yeshiva director Asnat Barzani, although she is now mostly forgotten.

Jonah’s Tomb is only one example of Iraq’s interfaith cooperation. In the city of Al Qosh, an ancient synagogue’s crumbling walls still bear visible Hebrew inscriptions. Inside is the tomb of Nahum, another Hebrew prophet who predicted the fall of Nineveh. It has been guarded by the same family of Assyrian Christians for generations. “When the last Jewish people in Al Qosh left, they asked my grandfather to watch over the tomb, to keep it safe,” the caretaker explained in 2015. “Nahum is not our prophet, but he is a prophet, so we must respect that.”

Stories like these prompt us to ask: Where would Iraq’s Jews, Christians, and Muslims be without their connection to each other and to their ancient past through sites like the tombs of Jonah and Nahum? What does the story of Iraq amount to without the shared history of its Jews, Christians, and Muslims? And will these questions guide any future efforts to rebuild the tombs?

Earlier this year, archeologists documenting the destruction at Jonah’s Tomb discovered a 2,600-year-old Assyrian palace, which had never before been excavated. After blowing up the mosque, ISIS had dug tunnels deep underneath, likely plundering many artifacts for sale on the black market. They left behind marble cuneiform inscriptions, stone sculptures of a demi-goddess, and carved reliefs. The British Institute for the Study of Iraq and various international teams rushed forward with bids to help professionals on the ground secure the site and study the remaining treasures. At a UNESCO meeting in Paris, foreign experts and Iraqi officials agreed to work together on the restoration.

Amid this flurry of activity, it may be easy to forget that the rebuilding of Jonah’s Tomb is not only a matter of concern for local residents and experts of the Near East, but also for Christians, Muslims, and Jews with a connection to Iraq. These various religious groups, along with Yazidis, have a stake in what happens to the site, and any just decision-making process will include representatives from each.

Today, three years after seeing the image of Jonah’s Tomb destroyed, we recall these words from his story in the Koran—“If only there had been a city that believed and profited by its belief as did the people of Jonah!”—and are hopeful that all people working to rebuild Mosul can muster the strength to believe in the power of its connected cultures and shared history.