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Mosul: the Fortress that Charmed Travelers

The golden age of a city beyond compare in the narrative of an Arab writer of the twelfth century

Ibn Jubayr | 15 November 2016
Ibn Jubayr's journey

[Translated from the original Arabic by Chiara Pellegrino]

In 1183, Ibn Jubayr started a long journey. From Ceuta, where he boarded a Genoese ship, after many vicissitudes of fortune, he went to Mecca and, on his way back, to Damascus, Baghdad and Mosul… Fascinated by Mosul architectural beauty, the traveler finely describes its mosques, the covered market, the mausoleum of Saint George, the most popular Christain saint of the Middle East, and the mausoleum of Jonah, a central figure in the Ancien Testament. Here, Ibn Jubayr stopped to pray. These monuments, destroyed by Isis in 2014, were places of piligrimage for both Christians and Muslims.
Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217) was an Arab traveler from al-Andalus. He is a pioneer of travel literature, a literary genre which would spread during the XIV century, especially through Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta’s writings. A year after his trip to Mosul, Ibn Jubayr sailed to Acri on his way back to al-Andalus, again on board of a Genoese ship. During a storm in the Strait of Messina, he was shipwrecked and rescued. He travelled through the Northern coast of Sicily and he boarded a vessel in Trapani, heading toward Granada, where he arrived in 1185. Ibn Jubayr wrote an account of his two-year journey,
Rihlat Ibn Jubayr (“Ibn Jubayr’s journey”). It became a classic of Arabic medieval litterature. The excerpt we translated from Arabic focuses on life in the city of Mosul.

This city is a large and ancient one, fortified and imposing, and prepared against the strokes of adversity. Its towers are aligned so closely together as almost to touch. Inside them are chambers, one above the other, that run round the walls that encompass the whole city. It was possible to open up these chambers because of the thickness of the structure and the width of the foundations. To warriors these chambers are a safe refuge, and they are a useful appurtenance of war. At the highest point of the town is a great fortress, with stones compactly set, and surrounded with ancient walls with lofty towers. Adjacent to it are the houses of the Sultan. Between them and the town is a broad street that stretches from the pot of the town to the bottom. The Tigris flows east of the town, touching its walls whose towers rise from its waters. The town has a large suburb with mosques, baths, khans, and markets.

One of the Emirs of the town, called Mujahid al-Din, constructed on the banks of the Tigris a congregational mosque that which I have never seen a more splendid. It is impossible to describe its architectural ornament and its arrangement. It is covered with reliefs in terra-cotta, and its maqsurah makes one think of those in Paradise. Round it are iron latticed windows, adjoined by benches overlooking the Tigris than which there could be no nobler or more beautiful place to sit in. The description of this mosque would take long, and for brevity we have given but a passing glimpse of it. In front of it stands a finely-built hospital erected by Mujahid al-Din, whom we have mentioned above. He also built, in the market within the town, a qaysariyah for the merchants. This is like a large khan, and is bolted with iron doors and surrounded by shops and houses one over the other. It is decorated throughout in a splendid manner, and of an architectural elegance that has no like, for I have never in any land seen a qaysariyah to compare with it.

The city has two mosques, one new and the other of the time of the ‘Ummayids. In the courtyard of this latter is a dome in which rises a marble pillar whose shaft is encircled by five rings, twisted like bracelets, which are carved from the body of the marble, and at whose top is an octagonal marble basin from which projects a pipe. From this water spurts forth with such energy and strength that it rises into the air, like a straight glass wand, more than a man’s height, and then falls to the foot of the dome. The Friday prayers are said in both these mosques, the old and the news, as well as in the mosque in the suburb. The city has six or more colleges for the pursuit of learning. They are on the Tigris and appear as high castles. It has as well hospitals besides the one we mentioned in the suburb. God has specially endowed this town with the holy earth which holds the tomb of Jirjis [St. George] – may God bless and preserve him. Over it a mosque has been built, and his tomb is in one of its rooms, on the right of him who enters. This mosque stands between the new mosque and the Gate of the Bridge, and will be found on the left of him who goes towards the (new) mosque from the Gate. We were blessed by our visit to this holy tomb and by standing at it. God gave us this advantage.

Amongst the benefits God has specially conferred on this town is that about a mile to the east of it, across the Tigris, is the Hill of Penitence. It is the hill on which stood Yunus Jonah – on whom be (eternal) happiness – with his people, and prayed with them until God relieved them of their distress. Near to this hill, also about a mile away, is the blessed spring named after him. It is said that he enjoined his people to purify themselves in it and to take thought of repentance, and that then they ascended the hill praying. On the hill is a large edifice which acts as an asylum for the needy with many chambers, rooms, and ablution and drinking places, all approached by one door. In the middle of this building is a pavilion over which hangs a curtain, and below this is bolted a blessed door, wholly inlaid. It is related that this is the place where Yunus stood – may God bless and preserve him – and that the mihrab of this pavilion was the chamber in which he worshipped. Around the pavilion are candles, thick as the trunks of palm-trees. Men go out to this asylum every Friday night and there devote themselves to God’s worship. Around the asylum are many villages. Beside them is a great ruin said to have been the city of Ninawa [Nineveh], which was the city of Yunus – on whom be (eternal) happiness. The remains of the wall that surrounded it are still visible, and evident too are the openings of the gates. The piles of its (ruined) towers are very high.

We slept in the blessed asylum the night of Friday the 26th of Safar. In the morning we went to the blessed spring, drank of its water, purified ourselves in it, and prayed in the mosque beside it. God in His grace and favour will advantage us for our aim in that.
The people of Mosul follow a righteous path, doing pious works. You will meet none of them but has a cheerful countenance and a soft word. They are generous to strangers, receiving them kindly, and using justness in all their dealings with them. Four days we abode in the city.

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