In Mosul, Iraq, a library rises from the ashes of IS rule

Mosul (Iraq) (AFP) – The historical library of the Iraqi University of Mosul had a million titles before the jihadists of the Islamic State group were unleashed there, overturning shelves and burning ancient texts.

Now, nearly five years after their defeat, the war-battered northern metropolis is trying to rebuild the pride of the city long known as a literary center teeming with countless booksellers and archives holding rare manuscripts.

Mohamed Younes, technical director of the prestigious university library, recalls the carnage he witnessed after Mosul was recaptured from IS in mid-2017 after long and grueling street battles.

“When we came back, we saw…the books taken off the shelves, thrown on the floor and burned,” he said.

Thousands of texts on philosophy and law, science and poetry that somehow contradicted ISIS’s extremist worldview had been burned.

Some of the most valuable securities have been sold on the black market.

“Before, we had over a million titles, some of which couldn’t be found at any other university in Iraq,” Younes said.

When the jihadists were first at the city gates, he said, “we were only able to move rare books and a number of foreign periodicals.”

With the brutal takeover of Mosul by the IS group, 85% of the collection was lost.

Before ISIS, Mosul University was “the mother of all books”, said former student Tarek Attiya, 34, now enrolled at Tikrit University.

“There is a huge difference between what was before and the situation after IS,” he said.

Renovated building

Now there is a revival underway to, with the help of donations, slowly line the library shelves with books again.

The library building, renovated with funding from a United Nations agency, is expected to reopen this month. Four stories tall with a sleek glass exterior, it will initially hold 32,000 pounds.

A librarian chooses a book in Mosul; nearly five years after IS defeat, war-torn city tries to rebuild library Zaid AL-OBEIDIAFP

It will also feature a digital treasure trove of e-books, with a view to eventually replenishing a one-million-person collection.

Prior to opening, the books were housed in the cramped quarters of the university’s engineering faculty where shelves overflow and titles are stacked on every available surface.

Significant donations from Arab and international universities have been received to “enable the rebirth of the library”, the director said.

Renowned figures in Mosul and across Iraq also contributed by “drawing from their personal collections”, he added.

A bookstore in Mosul: the city has long been known as a literary center with countless bookstores and archives holding rare manuscripts
A bookstore in Mosul: the city has long been known as a literary center with countless bookstores and archives holding rare manuscripts Zaid AL-OBEIDIAFP

The northern metropolis of Mosul has always been a hub for merchants and aristocrats, with a rich cultural and intellectual life.

A commercial crossroads of the Middle East, Mosul has managed to preserve thousands of rare and ancient works, in particular religious texts.

The first Iraqi printing press operated in Mosul in the second half of the 19th century.

appetite for reading

Signs of Mosul’s budding cultural revival began to take hold – at least where there was something left to salvage.

The library of the Waqf, the state body that manages Islamic endowments, once contained manuscripts dating back 400 years, said its head, Ahmed Abd Ahmed.

Iraq's Mosul University boasted a million titles before Islamic State jihadists rampaged there
Iraq’s Mosul University boasted a million titles before Islamic State jihadists rampaged there Zaid AL-OBEIDIAFP

But, he added sadly, “they’ve all disappeared.”

Elsewhere in the city, Al-Nujaifi Street, historically lined with booksellers, still bears the scars of the destruction caused by the jihadists.

Many shops are abandoned and mounds of rubble lie beneath old stone arches – but a handful of shopkeepers have reopened after paying for restoration work out of their own pockets.

The Mosul Central Public Library – which was founded a century ago last year and had more than 120,000 titles – reopened in late 2019 after restoration.

“We have lost 2,350 books on literature, sociology or religion,” said its director Jamal al-Abd Rabbo.

But he added that public donations and purchases had enabled him to replenish the collection to up to 132,000 titles.

Old leather-bound books with worn spines and crumpled pages still line the library shelves.

Above all, the public’s appetite for literature remains unbroken, he said, and “some of our visitors come daily, for an hour or two, to read.”

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