The region of Mosul, or what is now called the Plain of Nineveh (fig. 1 map) is deeply rooted in the Assyrian heartland. The numerous towns and monasteries there are all situated near archaeological mounds; their names are not Arabic and one of them, Karamles is clearly Assyrian: Kar-Mulissu ‘the fortress of Mulissu’ (consort of the local god Ashur). The inhabitants of that region still speak Aramaic as a mother tongue, as they have since at least the beginning of the first millennium BC. The language of Christianity in Iraq is Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, still used in the liturgies. There is an immense corpus of Christian literature written in this language attested as early as the second century of our era, some still preserved in rare manuscripts. As for church architecture, churches built even as late as the nineteenth century reflect ancient plans attested in archaeological sites in all over Iraq, including Hira (south), Tikrit (centre), and Bazyan (north) (fig. 1).
During the early centuries of Islam Mosul grew into a major city, linking the western regions of Islamic lands with the eastern regions, becoming during the Abbasid period (750-1240) a major centre of an empire. Throughout the centuries Christians remained a sizable minority in Mosul, centered in Christian quarters around their – sometimes as many as four or five – churches. The Plain of Nineveh continued its rural nature since Assyrian times to this day, serving as the breadbasket of the region and of the country, explaining why during fourteen centuries of Arabization Aramaic has remained the mother tongue of the local Christians. Although skirmishes occasionally occurred between Muslims and Christians in Mosul during which the caliphs themselves intervened to settle problems, by and large Christians and Muslims lived in the greatest harmony. Moreover, when the Christians fled Takrit at the end of the fourteenth century during the invasion of Tamerlane, Mosul opened its doors, even allowing them to build new churches, some of which survive to this day. Even more significantly, when the Armenians and Syriac-speaking peoples were massacred en masse in Anatolia during the First World War, Mosul, although for centuries under Ottoman and then Turkish rule, gave sanctuary to thousands of Christian refugees, giving them shelter, clothing, food and jobs. Descendants of these persecuted people became active citizens up until the invasion of the Islamic State.
Perhaps the best example of Moslawi Christian-Muslim symbiosis is found in its religious buildings and art, especially sculpture. Here it is not possible to talk about Muslim or Christian building plans or artistic motifs, but of impressive cultural periods known only in Mosul and its regions, including the Atabeg period (thirteenth century) and the Jalili period (eighteenth century). The buildings that reflect best the art and architecture of these cultural eras are churches and monasteries, and thus, if these are destroyed, the cultural history of Mosul would disappear forever.
The Atabeg Period: Innovation and Fineness
The Abbasid Caliphate ended disastrously during the Mongol invasion in 1258. Before this date, Abbasid political stability had so declined that the caliph’s vast domain was shared with semi-autonomous rulers. In 1234, Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ declared himself ‘King of Mosul’. This ruler proved appreciative of art and architecture. Mosul and its region were filled with monumental churches, mosques, and civil buildings of beautiful architectural and iconographic designs that characterize his time. The building material consisted of local stone called farsh, used by the ancient Assyrians in the construction of their palaces and temples. The architecture includes highly decorated gates with double lintels: the top lintels are merely decorative and the bottom lintels are made on interlaced blocks (fig. 3); the jambs are ornamented with entwined serpents, crouching lions, and a stylized flower motif known in ancient Assyrian art; all is carved in low relief. Inscriptions of masterful calligraphies formed part of the construction programs. The best example of this original architecture is the monastery of Mar Behnam, located in the Plain of Nineveh, and founded in the sixth century as a baptistery. It was rebuilt in the middle of the thirteenth century in the best Atabeg style which turns the church into a true icon of human creation (figure 2).
The Christian-Muslim interaction in art and architecture is reflected in the façade of the church of Mar Behnam Monastery and the mihrab of a nearby mosque of Panjah Ali (fig. 3 and 4). On both, the art is abstract with no human depiction, unlike elsewhere in the church. Both buildings have large niches with the top part cut into a beehive design, a motif typical of Atabeg Period art. In the centre of the Christian façade, the back of the niche shows an ornamental cross in relief surrounded by inscriptions (fig. 5); its lower part served as a Gospel depository for the summer liturgy, usually held outside. The niche of the mosque is a mihrab which extends to the ground. On the left and right of both church and mosque niches, two smaller niches are found, inside of which candles used to be placed. A frieze surrounds the niches of both buildings, ascending and descending, filled with inscriptions cut in relief. The Syriac inscription is an admonition on how to pray with a pure heart; the Arabic inscription consists of verses from the Koran. In both cases the calligraphies are masterful. The Syriac inscription is in Estrangela (oldest Syriac script), but the calligraphic hand is unique. It was most probably executed by a monastic scribe from the nearby town of Qaraqosh, who also copied manuscripts in Edessa, and in the Monastery of the Syrians in the Skete Desert in Egypt.
The interior of the church is a museum of lapidary art, epigraphy, and architectural design. The highly ornamental ‘Gate of the Two Baptisms’ (fig. 6 and 7) is decorated on three sides by a frame made of two serpents intertwined in such a manner that twenty-one false niches are formed. These in turn are decorated from the inside by crosses and reliefs of monastic personalities of the past. A two-line inscription tops the whole, while the Creed surrounds the frame of the gate. The rabbet of both right and left jambs of the gate is also inscribed: ‘The martyr Mar Behnam reached full stature through two baptisms. He was immersed in water, but this was not enough for him, so he did more, he was bathed in his own blood. When his body was drenched with the blood of his neck, and the Church saw him and investigated this matter, she began to ask: Who is this with his garments stained with blood?’
To the left of the ‘Gate of the Two Baptisms,’ a small gate leading to the sanctuary is heavily decorated with crouched lions and double lintels with beautiful inscriptions, some in honour of the martyr Mar Behnam, and others drawn from the Syriac liturgy of the Eucharist. The main gate of the sanctuary, the Royal Gate, is monumental. It is as elaborately decorated as the other gates in the church. The Royal Gate leads to the sanctuary where an inscription dates an earlier reconstruction of its structure in the 1164 AD.
Art in stucco abounds in the church dated after the Atabeg period, including two depictions in relief one featuring Mar Behnam (fig. 8) as a knight and another, his sister Sara dressed in local fashion. The shrine of the Virgin Mary has a moulded plaster roof about 13m above the ground (fig. 9). The stellate vault is adorned with ribs and cells. The copula rests on a square base made of geometrical designs, including diamond-shapes and squares. While these are finely decorated, thanks to the smoothness of the plaster, they also bear inscriptions in Syriac and Arabic.
Not far from the monastery is the octagonal Martyrium of Mar Behnam. This structure was built most probably during the sixth century as a Mesopotamian-type baptistery, echoing the Syrian-Byzantine type baptistery as in St. Simeon the Stylite. A half-vault surmounts the grave in the shape of a honeycomb (fig. 10 and 11). This is a common feature in contemporary and earlier buildings usually made of bricks. The frame around the grave is covered with monumental inscriptions, including one in Uighur, the time of renovations being the Mongol Period, c. 1300. To the right of the martyr’s grave, a slab dating to this period shows an Armenian-type cross, khatchkar, bearing two inscriptions: one in Armenian and another in Syriac (fig. 12).
The Jalili Period: Imitation and Transformation
In 1743 the Persian Shah Nadir-Shah Tahmasp invaded northern Mesopotamia as a consequence of tense relations between Persia and the Ottomans. The general attacked Kirkuk, Erbil, and the Plain of Nineveh, destroying everything on his way, centuries old churches, mosques, and habitations. Before laying siege to Mosul, the people of the Plain of Nineveh sought refuge inside it, and thanks to the resistance of people, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Yezidis, and the leadership of the governor Hussein Pasha al-Jalili, the aggressor was defeated but not before destroying most of Mosul with his cannon balls. Rebuilding began soon after by architects, stonecutters, and masons, who followed the Atabeg architectural style but with several modifications, including ornamental windows, double arcades, and geometrical designs in high wall. Here, too, churches and mosques shared the same architecture and building material, the builders being essentially Christians. The church plan however has barely changed since antiquity, especially the solid wall separating the sanctuary, the holy-of-holies, from the nave.
The Chaldean church of Tahra, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is an exceptional example of the Jalili style. Inside the church, the wall separating the sanctuary from the rest of the building is truly impressive in that it is made of two blind arcades magnificently decorated with arabesques, floral motifs and geometrical designs mingling with Syriac and Garshuni (Arabic written with Syriac script) inscriptions to form a remarkably balanced façade (fig. 13). Equally interesting are two marble screens placed on both sides of the platform before the Royal Gate. These are double-sided and highly decorated with floral and geometrical motifs in relief. The façade of each screen is decorated with star- or cross-like designs perforated to form a longitudinal window, whereas the lateral sides are modestly decorated and have wide openings. The artistic programme in both screens is inspired from the Islamic artistic repertoire (namely the pointed arches so typical in Islamic architecture). The two gates leading to the church have each two lintels, according to the old Atabeg style, filled with Syriac inscriptions the calligraphy of which is reminiscent of Syriac manuscripts (fig. 14). Another aspect of this artistic wealth is a tripartite arcade found inside the sanctuary (fig. 15), dominating the first step leading to the altar. Its liturgical role is described by the Syriac inscription that runs along its borders; it describes the altar as fully engulfed in the sacrificial fire, a theme that fits the sanctuary in which the divine sacrifice is offered: ‘The altar is fire and the Holy of Holies is fire – fire inside fire and fire surrounds it. O priests, beware the burning fire lest you fall in it forever and ever!’ The art and architecture of al-Tahra church are found in two mosques in Mosul, Qadhib al-Ban and Nabi Jarjis (Prophet George), both of which were recently blown up by the Islamic State.
Another equally beautiful church of the Jalili period is the Syriac Orthodox church of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus in Qaraqosh (fig. 16 and 17). This is a museum of funerary inscriptions that also includes an octagonal monolithic baptismal font entirely inscribed in Syriac, the types of which are found in the region of Mosul and date to the fifteenth century. The church building was badly damaged by the invading armies but as soon as the war ended, it was built anew, with inscriptions going along the entire wall of the sanctuary. These are true annals in stone, very much reminiscent of Assyrian annals inscribed on the same local marble at least two thousand years earlier. They talk in great details about the Persian invasion and its destructive consequences, the energy of the Christians in rebuilding their shrines, and the role of one man who played a pivotal role in rebuilding this region of the Assyrian heartland, Bishop Karas, the Abbot of the monastery of Mar Behnam, known almost through every ecclesiastical building in Qaraqosh. Thanks to him, the middle of the eighteenth century became the age of Christian rebirth in literary, architectural and epigraphic senses.
Several other churches were rebuilt or built anew according to the Jalili style in Mosul and its region including two other Syriac Orthodox churches in Mosul, al-Tahira (fig. 18) and St Thomas (fig. 19), and two more in Qaraqosh. All the churches, whether Jalili or more recent owns collections of manuscripts, liturgical vessels and furnishing, and cultural objects often dated much older than them, such as the ceremonial cross owned by the Syriac Catholic church of al-Tahira in Qaraqosh, inscribed with Syriac and Armenian texts dated to 1629/30.
There are of course some churches that were spared the onslaught of the Persian Nadir-shah, including the Chaldean church of St. Barbara located in Karamles (fig. 21 and 21), a town near Qaraqosh. The church is built directly under an Assyrian temple definitely before the thirteenth century, since during recent renovation activities inside the church remains of Christian princes employed by the Mongols (thirteenth century) were uncovered with funerary inscriptions commemorating them.
Since distant past and until recently in Iraq, Christians were master builders of civil, ecclesiastical, and Islamic building projects and the same is true with regard to stones cutters. This explains why Christian, Muslim, and civil buildings share the same artistic repertoire (arabesque, stuccoes, and calligraphy), whether during the Jalili period or at the time of the Atabeg. As for Syriac and Arabic Islamic calligraphies, they both play similar liturgical and decorative roles in Christian and Islamic architectures on account of their abstract natures. There is therefore no reason to talk about Islamic or Christian art and architecture but only about the art and architecture of historical periods.
It is disheartening to know that all these venerable churches and monasteries are exposed to destruction by the ruthless Islamic State. Their destruction means the end of Christianity in Mosul and its region, and at the same time, the obliteration of Mosul’s centuries old Christian-Muslim cultural heritage.
*Professor of Middle Eastern Society, University of Toronto.